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Book Review: ‘One Nation Under God: How Corporate America Invented Christian America’

Just as Mad Men began wrapping up its final season, and Walmart and NASCAR confronted the governors of two red states over anti-gay “religious freedom” bills, I settled in to read Kevin Kruse’s new history, One Nation Under God: How Corporate America Invented Christian America. As one might guess from the subtitle, Kruse argues that the current state of religion’s entanglement in our politics is not the product of piety, but of corporate lobbying, religious pitchmen, and Hollywood stagecraft. We may be living in a moment in which corporate titans fear the impact of anti-gay discrimination on their bottom lines, but the Christian libertarianism Kruse depicts is still alive and well. Witness, for example, Hobby Lobby.

Kruse, a historian at Princeton, traces the rise of Christian nationalism to opposition to New Deal policies — not, as many conventional histories of the movement have pegged it, to abortion, feminism, secularism, or even communism. As I happen to agree with this interpretation, I cracked the binding enthusiastically, and wasn’t disappointed. In these pages, I found a new, meticulous, and vital historical account that should be read by anyone who still scratches their head over whether the Tea Party is a religious movement, or wonders how the idealized conception of America as a “Christian nation” was constructed.

As Kruse chronicles, religious leaders didn’t act alone in orchestrating a decidedly religious opposition to modern welfare state reforms, or in designing American civic religion. Rather, it was a Chamber of Commerce president who called for an antidote to the “virus of collectivism” in a “revival of American patriotism and religious faith.” It was the advertising powerhouse J. Walter Thompson that came up with the “Seven Steps to a Successful Local Religion in Public Life Program.” The same Ad Council officials who came up with a 1955 campaign, “Religion In American Life,” a year later supported Dwight Eisenhower’s presidential campaign with a billboard, “Faith in God and country. That’s Eisenhower! How about you?” Not incidentally, Kruse notes in one of countless fascinating details, J. Walter Thompson at one time employed the future Richard Nixon chief of staff H.R. Haldeman, who went on to be a central figure not only in the Watergate cover-up, but in orchestrating Nixon’s efforts to “romance” religious leaders.

There are four key players in Kruse’s narrative: James Fifield, a California pastor whose role in shaping Christianity’s role in modern politics has been for too long underappreciated; Abraham Vereide, the anti-union crusader who developed the prayer breakfasts and elite cells of politicians and power brokers documented in Jeff Sharlet’s 2008 book, The Family: The Secret Fundamentalism at the Heart of American Power; Billy Graham, the only one of the three who became and remains a household name; and Dwight Eisenhower who, in Kruse’s telling, presided over an “incredible transformation” in how Americans understood the role of religion (read: Christianity) in public and political life.

For close observers of the 20th-century rise of Christian civil religion as well as the religious right and the Tea Party, Kruse’s treatment of Fifield will be the most delicious and eye-opening part of the book. Historian Kim Phillips-Fein chronicled Fifield’s role in shaping laissez-faire economic policy in her 2010 Invisible Hands: The Businessmen’s Crusade Against the New Deal, a crucial contribution to understanding the backlash against a social safety net that endures, for example, in the Republican Party’s unrelenting hostility to Obamacare. Kruse’s deep dive into Fifield’s organizing methods, though, brings to life this “apostle to millionaires” and his role in a corporate-Christian alliance to portray the New Deal as both un-American and un-Christian — that is, if Jesus’ gospel were one of rugged individualism.

Before Jerry Falwell’s Moral Majority, there was Fifield’s Spiritual Mobilization, a campaign to upend the Social Gospel, used by liberals, including FDR, to bolster support for Progressive Era reforms and the New Deal. Fifield’s “important innovation,” Kruse writes, “was his insistence that Christianity and capitalism were political soulmates, first and foremost.” For Fifield, the “state cast a long and ominous shadow,” shaping his theologically-based antagonism to government interventions to support the poor and middle class. In a 1938 pamphlet sent to 70,000 pastors, Fifield wrote, “If, with Jesus, we believe in the sacredness of individual personalities, then our leadership responsibility is very plain.”

Notably, Fifield was not from a conservative denomination, but a Congregationalist whom Kruse describes as theologically liberal but politically conservative. (I suppose “liberal” is accurate should one read his interpretation of Jesus as a libertarian dogmatist as taking liberties with the text.) At the height of his career, Fifield pastored the 4,000-member First Congregational Church in Los Angeles, which counted among its members and supporters the director Cecil B. DeMille and the actor Charlton Heston. Emblematic of Kruse’s lively, detailed reporting on Fifield is an anecdote about Heston reciting lines from his role as Moses in DeMille’s Ten Commandments to worshippers at First Congregational, and his recounting of DeMille’s own theo-cultural cri de coeur in the film’s trailer: “we are still fighting the same battle that Moses fought.” (If you’ve ever heard a contemporary Tea Party activist rail against the “slavery” or “tyranny” of “big government,” you’ll realize the “battle” to which DeMille alluded.)

Throughout the late 1940s and early 1950s, Fifield, often with DeMille’s help, staged events like “Independence Sunday,” during which thousands of pastors sermonized on the theme “Freedom Under God.” His Committee to Proclaim Liberty enlisted the aid of Hollywood allies, including Walt Disney and Ronald Reagan, as well as corporate leaders including J. Howard Pew, Conrad Hilton, and executives from Chrysler, Kraft Foods, Marshall Field, Eastern Airlines, General Motors, the United States Chamber of Commerce, and the National Association of Manufacturers. Fifield’s tools for recruiting pastors included distributing free copies of Friedrich Hayek’s libertarian classic, The Road to Serfdom. A 1952 issue of Fifield’s Faith and Freedom magazine denounced the social safety net as “tyrannical” and compared the Social Gospel to socialism, a theology that leads to “socialized covetousness, stealing, and the bearing of false witness.”

Kruse argues convincingly that Fifield’s organizing, and in particular his opposition to the New Deal, helped lay the groundwork for a convergence that came to define religion’s entanglement in national political life in the latter half of the 20th century. First, Billy Graham popularized many of Fifield’s ideas to a mass audience, through his popular crusades and revivals. Second, Vereide’s prayer breakfasts for business elites around the country became “an important political rite of passage” that Vereide, who shared Fifield’s anti-New Deal views, sought to replicate “in every conceivable corner of the federal government,” eventually culminating in the annual National Prayer Breakfast. (Conrad Hilton, Kruse tells us, designed a portrait of a piously kneeling Uncle Sam for the first National Prayer Breakfast, and Graham declared the breakfast “could well be a turning point in the history of Western Civilization.”) And finally, Eisenhower’s campaign and presidency—with Graham’s close orchestration and advice—created the contemporary fusion of religion and politics that still pervades today.

By the height of the Cold War, then, “working lock-step to advance Christian libertarianism, these three movements effectively harnessed Cold War anxieties for an already established campaign against the New Deal,” Kruse writes. Eisenhower, though, eventually soured on the stridency of some of his most libertarian supporters, calling them “stupid” and a “splinter group.” He opted instead for a less combative theme of “Government under God,” and with his support, “One Nation Under God” was added to the Pledge of Allegiance” and “In God We Trust” to currency in 1954, a process Kruse recounts in detail.

Both Graham and Nixon, who served as vice president under Eisenhower, had “front-row seats” for the religion-and-politics revolution over which Eisenhower presided. Disappointed by the failure to harness that religious energy for his 1960 campaign, Nixon, with Graham’s close counsel, revitalized it in 1968. In the charged climate not only of the Vietnam War and the sexual revolution, but of widespread conservative anger over the 1962 and 1963 Supreme Court decisions striking down mandatory school prayer and Bible reading in public schools, Nixon’s first inaugural involved, Kruse writes, “an unprecedented display of public prayer and formal worship.” This religiosity persisted through his presidency, after he instituted worship services in the White House’s East Room. Nixon’s special counsel Charles Colson (who, after his own post-Watergate conversion, went on to found Prison Fellowship) was instructed to carry out the “president’s request that you develop a list of rich people with strong religious interest to be invited to the White House church services.”

If I have a quibble with One Nation, I would have liked to see Kruse explore how, even though rejected by Eisenhower, the strident Christian libertarians (the forerunners, I would argue, of the Tea Party) never went away, instead creating an ongoing tension between Eisenhower’s uber-civil civic religion and the clamorous anti-New Deal, anti-communist hard right. Still, it’s essential reading for anyone who wants to understand that uniquely American alliance between God and mammon.

Book Review: ‘American Apocalypse’

Before writing this review, I Googled “Hillary Clinton Antichrist.”  The top hits were news stories about Ryan Zinke, the Republican nominee for Nebraska’s only House seat, who at a campaign stop earlier this year declared the former Secretary of State the devil incarnate. Like other politicians’ apocalyptic pronouncements, this one caused a stir, some chuckles, some shrugs. Labeling American politicians and world leaders the Antichrist, and claiming the end-times are nigh and Jesus will return soon, are staples of our political lexicon. Yet despite their recurrence every election cycle, they are still seen as fringe, serving as easy fodder for ridicule by pundits, comedians, and the denizens of social media.

Zinke’s Antichrist remark stemmed not from a casual effort to discredit the Democrat Republicans most love to hate, and it was not a throwaway barb snatched from the pages of a Left Behind thriller. Matthew Avery Sutton’s American Apocalypse: A History of Modern Evangelicalism shows that Zinke, a former Navy SEAL, was giving expression to an impulse long embedded in the intersection of conservative white evangelicalism and American politics and foreign policy. Sutton, a historian at Washington State University, argues that this form of evangelicalism, a precursor to today’s religious right, did not, as most histories have maintained, isolate itself from political affairs. Instead, Sutton shows how an apocalyptic theology that burgeoned in the late 19th and early 20th century coalesced as a definitive American religious-political movement during and immediately after the First World War, laying the groundwork for an enduring entanglement between white conservative evangelicalism and contemporary politics.

At the heart of Sutton’s argument is a repudiation of the theory of the fundamentalist retreat, which he supports with ample and fascinating evidence. The conventional history of American fundamentalism holds that its adherents, shamed by the outcome of the 1925 Scopes Monkey Trial, and long wary of injecting themselves into the earthly realm, withdrew from public life entirely. Sutton maintains that this version of events misapprehends the history, and, more crucially, obscures the inroads evangelicals made well before the Scopes trial in melding their unique apocalyptic ideas with politics, both at home and abroad.

Sutton, a biographer of trailblazing evangelist Aimee Semple McPherson, draws on his intimate knowledge of the fundamentalist terrain of the period. This is insightful and valuable, but the standout of Sutton’s work is his deep archival dive into a previously unplumbed world of late 19th and early 20th century prophecy conferences, sermons, fundamentalist publications, and letters from citizens and demagogues alike to editors, policymakers, and presidents. The text is peppered with reproductions of pamphlets, photographs, and even apocalyptic cartoons from the period, a thrill for nerdy appreciators of the ephemera of popularized American religion.

In telling this story, Sutton persuasively shows how this early apocalyptic expression in white American evangelicalism formed the basis for what he calls “a different kind of morally infused American politics, one that challenged the long democratic tradition of pragmatic governance by compromise and consensus.” This politics of apocalypse presaged later conflicts over wars, both cold and real, and even today’s congressional obstructionism.  In creating an “absolutist, uncompromising, good-versus-evil faith,” Sutton observes, “evangelicals have transformed the lives of countless of individuals and established a new form of radical politics.”

Several internal and external events merged to bring this about. Apocalyptic-minded white evangelicals were inspired first by William Blackstone’s 1878 publication of Jesus Is Coming, an attempt to read the Bible as a roadmap to current and future events. Blackstone, who later played a prominent role in lobbying for the creation of the state of Israel, drew on writings from across the pond, notably those of Irish evangelist John Nelson Darby, who brought his dispensationalist theory of the end-times on a tour of the United States in the 1860s and 70s.

At the time, pre-millennialism — which holds that the world is careening toward a period of tribulation with the Antichrist at the helm of a one-world order, only to be vanquished by the returning Jesus at Armageddon, followed by a one-thousand year reign of Christ over the Earth — had fallen out of favor. Darby, and in turn Blackstone and other American evangelical promoters, revitalized it. Pre-millennialism “gave the fundamentalist movement its most definitive shape and character,” Sutton writes. Fundamentalist preacher and editor J. Frank Norris considered it “the most vital doctrine of all,” as it served as a litmus test for theological orthodoxy.

But nothing, Sutton writes, has equaled the impact of the 1909 Scofield Reference Bible, an annotated text by evangelist Cyrus Scofield, which “has been guiding Christians through the intricacies of pre-millennialism — whether they realize it or not — ever since.”

While Blackstone and Scofield had immeasurable impact on the masses, white male elites, Sutton argues, shared and reinforced pre-millennialist theology through publications and conferences, which have also left an indelible print on a cottage industry of prophecy that still exists today. These white male elites purposefully injected themselves into affairs of state, currying favor with politicians and presidents. Several decades after the publication of Jesus Is Coming, Blackstone — far from withdrawing from politics — sent President Woodrow Wilson prophecy-laced missives, warning that the Rapture was imminent, and praying that “God will provide a fit Successor to guide our nation through the Tribulation Period.”

World War I was a pivot point, Sutton writes, as it thrilled pre-millennialists into believing that God’s plan for Jesus’ return was being set into motion. The early pre-millennialists, certain that World War I would result in the Biblically prophesied end-times, did not initially fuse their religion with patriotism. Yet their disappointment when prophesied events did not come to pass did not cause them to retreat, but rather to regroup.

After the war, conservatives faced off against liberal theologians in an ongoing battle against modernity. In reaction to the rise of communism and the moral crusades of the time, including Prohibition, these evangelicals began to wrap themselves in the flag and present themselves as the true arbiters of the American way. The term fundamentalism — which Sutton maintains was imprecisely coined after the Scopes trial by the acerbic journalist H.L. Mencken — “came to define the interdenominational network of radical evangelical apocalypticists who joined together to publicly and aggressively herald the imminent second coming while challenging trends in liberal theology and in the broader American culture.”

Here Sutton finds evidence that the culture wars have dogged us far longer than since the 1960s. Refuting well-worn arguments that evangelicals were supportive of abortion rights, or at least indifferent to that defining culture war issue until a marriage of convenience with anti-choice Catholics in the 1970s, Sutton documents a fundamentalist opposition to abortion in the 1920s. (Notably, too, he documents the more familiar anti-Catholicism running through much of the fundamentalist rhetoric of the time.) The evangelist Billy Sunday denounced “the murder of unborn babies,” saying abortion would be “the curse and damnation of America.” A letter from a supporter to the pastor and moralist John Roach Straton described abortion as “the shedding of innocent blood, the sin of blood-guiltiness, the unpardonable sin, the MURDER OF THE UNBORN,” showing that abortion was an issue for grassroots fundamentalists as well. Years later, the evangelist Dan Gilbert said World War II was God’s judgment on America for abortion, which was “more appalling” than “the violence practiced by the Japs and Nazis against helpless prisoners.” For every three American women who become mothers, Gilbert said, “one American woman became a murderess!”

Fundamentalists raged against homosexuality, sex education, contraception, interracial marriage, women’s suffrage, and even women’s hairstyles (especially the bob). These culture wars carried on into opposition to the New Deal, to unionization, and efforts to nationalize health care. World War II offered new opportunities for prophecy, each more absurd than the last. Some fundamentalists wondered whether Italian fascist Benito Mussolini was the Antichrist; another said the Book of Revelation “was the first religious magazine… to discuss Mein Kampf.”

As Sutton takes us to the present, he traverses more familiar territory, particularly the creation of the National Association of Evangelicals, Christian anti-communism demagoguery during the Cold War, the evangelist Billy Graham’s forays into national politics, fundamentalist opposition to integration and the civil rights movement, the publication of Hal Lindsey’s The Late Great Planet Earth, Ronald Reagan’s interest in the end-times, and the blockbuster Left Behind series. Even for those familiar with that more recent history, though, will find much to inform them here, particularly the ways in which Sutton meticulously details how apocalyptic ideas — far from being a fringe — have been entwined with our politics for over a century.

Non-evangelicals have long mocked the apocalyptic strain in American Christianity and often dismiss the possibility that rational adults can take it seriously. American Apocalypse is essential for understanding just how deeply this religious strain is entrenched in our history and politics.

Sarah Posner is a contributing writer to Religion Dispatches and has covered religion and politics for Al Jazeera America, The American Prospect, The Nation, Mother Jones, and many other publications. Her website is http://sarahposner.com.

In Tea Party Senate Candidate’s Dissertation, A Nostalgia For A Populist Christian Nation

The following is reprinted with permission from Religion Dispatches. Follow RD on Facebook or Twitter for daily updates.

Ben Sasse, winner of last week’s Republican Senate primary in Nebraska and likely the next senator from that state, is a Tea Party hero with an unusual credential: a PhD in history from Yale.

Sasse — a proud anti-choice activist, homeschooler, and opponent of Obamacare and its “entire failed worldview” — bills himself as an outsider to politics, with an expertise in “business turnaround projects” for such powerhouses as Boston Consulting Group and McKinsey and Company.

Even before winning the primary, Sasse had been the subject of favorable profiles in both the National Review (“Obamacare’s Cornhusker Nemesis”) and the Weekly Standard (“A Virtuoso Pol from Nebraska?”). In a reverential interview, Glenn Beck told the candidate, “I can hear the Constitution running through your veins.”

If the Constitution could actually flow through the human circulatory system, there’s one part I might imagine Sasse omitting: the Establishment Clause, or at least the Establishment Clause as interpreted by the Warren Court, whose church-state decisions of the early 1960s form the lynchpin of Sasse’s 2004 doctoral dissertation.

It’s that dissertation, not the right’s adulation of their Ivy-educated everyman, that offers the greatest insight into Sasse’s political orientation, one in which religion — and, more critically, “elite” dismissal of it — takes center stage in the story of America and the rise of the modern conservative movement.

In 2004’s “The Anti-Madalyn Majority: Secular Left, Religious Right, and the Rise of Reagan’s America,” Sasse argues that journalists and historians have misapprehended, and indeed misreported, the story of the rise of the modern religious right. His historical marker is not placed — as many histories of the movement have placed it — at the 1980 election of Ronald Reagan, whose candidacy was supported by Jerry Falwell’s Moral Majority and the coalition of religious leaders Reagan notoriously embraced.

Rather, he argues, not unpersuasively, that the roots of the modern religious right lie in the 1962 and 1963 Supreme Court decisions striking down mandatory public school prayer and Bible reading. Those decisions, Sasse maintains, touched a nerve among what he calls the “masses,” by which he means Americans horrified by rapid cultural changes, a reaction that “elites” dismissed as the backwater views of an unrepresentative, anti-modernist minority.

By failing to recognize what Sasse characterizes as a spontaneous, grassroots reaction to “judicial tyranny” (yes, Sasse documents the use of that term in the Cold War era), intellectual and journalistic elites, along with the entire Democratic Party, failed to grasp the true motivation of religious conservatives, or the political turns they would force the country to take.

Madalyn Murray O’Hair is the odd ghost hovering over Sasse’s project. It’s almost as though the exhibitionist atheist is, for Sasse, a persistent bogeyman in American culture, despite O’Hair’s death a decade earlier and the rising prominence of dozens of more staid advocates of atheism and secularism. Indeed, Sasse admits, in spite of the title of his prize-winning thesis and the many pixels he devoted to O’Hair herself (whom Sasse repeatedly calls “Madalyn” much like conservatives refer to a Clinton as “Hillary”), that she was merely a “symbol” and “never really the substance of the threat.” Yet, he maintains, “she was an important catalyst in the formation of a particular incarnation of a worldview, with a long pedigree in American history, that godless elites were stealing the nation from godly masses.”

That worldview, as becomes evident, is one with which Sasse is deeply sympathetic. As a historical matter, Sasse is correct that much of the reaction to the Court’s Establishment Clause cases was rooted in Christian anti-communist movements (which I fully agree formed an underappreciated foundation for the modern religious right). But even though the historical record is rife with demagogues who stirred up anti-communist (and then, anti-secularist) passions, in his thesis Sasse claims instead that this grassroots reaction was sua sponte.

Only later in the dissertation — after documenting, in fascinating detail, congressional hearings on a proposed Constitutional amendment to permit school prayer — does Sasse concede that reporters “did uncover some other unseemly conservative allies, such as the John Birch Society, Billy Hargis, and Gerald L.K. Smith,” founder of the anti-Semitic Christian Nationalist Crusade.

But before that concession, Sasse spends considerable time with the records of the House Judiciary Committee, and the mail it received from what Sasse portrays as the country’s salt and light citizens opposing “activist judges” on the Supreme Court.

At the center of this episode was a Republican congressman from New York, Frank Becker, a Catholic, who first proposed the school prayer amendment in the wake of the 1962 Supreme Court decision in Engel v. Vitale. Throughout, Sasse portrays Becker as a true believer, not a calculating politician, whose tenacious focus derived less from a studied assessment of his audience than from his heartfelt conviction that the hope of America lay in its special relationship with the Almighty, and in the nation’s resolve to doggedly oppose the most formidable system of atheistic imperialism the world had ever known.

Becker, depicted here as a David to a Democratic Goliath, was stymied by the chairman of the House Judiciary Committee, Emanuel Celler (who Sasse repeatedly reminds us was Jewish), who refused to hold hearings on Becker’s proposal. But Becker was so committed to defending God and country, Sasse writes, that he then devoted his energies to educating the public about the mechanics of a discharge petition to force the chairman’s hand. “There was something almost Shakespearean,” Sasse notes, “about a man claiming to represent the great majority in defense of the great tradition now having to depend on an arcane legislative procedure.”

Sasse insists that the public outcry for a school prayer amendment was a “genuinely ‘bottom-up’ movement,” citing letters and other documents in the Judiciary Committee trove. A high-school student in Wyoming, for example, “implored all faithful countrymen ‘to remember that when Adolf Hitler came to power in Germany, his first move toward world conquest was the expulsion of religion from the schools.”

Becker’s machinations have been largely lost to history, since historians of the period, to Sasse’s dismay, have focused more on the Vietnam War and civil rights movement than on religion. But as Sasse’s narrative proceeds, it becomes clear that despite failing to amend the Constitution to permit mandatory school prayer (an effort Newt Gingrich half-heartedly resurrected in the 1990s), Becker emerges as the courageous, if unsophisticated, defender of Sasse’s pious, patriotic multitudes.

Becker repeatedly referred to his adversaries as a “fraternity of secularists” in the Democratic Party. But as Sasse documents in compelling detail, Becker was ultimately outsmarted and crushingly humiliated by Celler and his mainline Protestant allies, who dissected, undermined, and rebutted Becker’s arguments for the amendment. (The mainline Protestants, through the National Council of Churches, often attacked by the right as a communist tool, were united in opposition to the amendment. Evangelicals, in contrast, lacked a unified position.)

Despite Becker’s humiliation, he rises from the ashes as a roughed-up hero in Sasse’s telling. Sasse likens him to William Jennings Bryan, embarrassed by Clarence Darrow in the Scopes monkey trial. To Sasse, however, Becker should not be a source of shame for conservatives, but a source of pride, a true believer representing the authentic American masses. “His dreadful performance as lead witness,” Sasse writes, “ultimately resulted less from an arrogant commitment to grandstanding than from a genuine naiveté about this thicket.”

Despite Becker’s loss, Sasse argues that a conservative push for the entanglement of religion and politics prevailed. “Americans did not want a privatization of faith,” he maintains, adding,

Democrats faced a major obstacle in equaling the fervor of the Republicans in the prayer crusade because of the visibility of the alliance between the Democratic Party and the liberal Jewish groups so closely identified with the legal secularization movement.

For Sasse, the Nixon era was not defined by his notorious efforts to drum up fear of “acid, amnesty, and abortion,” but by his and Spiro Agnew’s savvy sympathies for the “bottom-up” masses’ existing religious fears. Nixon and his “silent majority,” Sasse writes, “spoke effectively to and for the small-town values still prized by most of the country.” Most historians’ telling of the conservative resurgence of the 1960s and 70s, he goes on, has neglected the central role of conservative reaction to secularization. “Indeed angst about secularization, more than any other complaint,” he writes, “provided a lens through which Americans could see all other social problems as sharing a common root, a liberal root.”

Other historians, notably Randall Balmer, have documented conservative backlash to school desegregation and the 1976 revocation of Bob Jones University’s tax-exempt status for its interracial dating ban as motivating forces for the religious right. Sasse conceded “nativist passions and racist status anxiety surely comprise part of the story, but not the whole of it.”

Instead, he argues, the religious right “is better understood first as a consequence of fears about top-down communism — and about the evaporation of a religious understanding of the nation — than as simply a product of resistance to the sexual revolution or desegregation.”

Sasse’s nostalgia for grassroots impulses lead him to pinpoint the religious right’s rise before Reagan. It was Nixon, not Reagan, Sasse argues, who brought political vitality to the religious right as a grassroots movement, emphasizing a “cleavage” between the religious and the irreligious, and leaning on the support of the evangelist Billy Graham to burnish his credentials. The GOP didn’t win over working-class white voters by opposing civil rights and abortion, according to Sasse, but by highlighting a clash between religion and secularism. It wasn’t Reagan who turned the tide of white evangelicals to the Republican Party, but Nixon. Evangelicals didn’t become more prominent in the public square because of Reagan’s presidency, and their storied role in his election, but in the rise of “entrepreneurial” evangelicalism and the explosion of para-church structures, which “remade the experience of lived religion for countless lay Protestants.”

Sasse’s reflections on the Moral Majority period are shot through with skepticism for evangelical political leadership, with its “willingness to run out in front of the masses claiming to be their leaders.” Throughout, his nostalgia for the supposedly grassroots promoters of a true American religious ethic seems to trump the role of any of the religious leaders organizing around Reagan’s candidacy.

Sasse’s dissertation was written during the presidency of George W. Bush (in whose administration Sasse later served). As a candidate 10 years later, Sasse has reprised themes about elites (the Obama administration) imposing something terrible (the contraception coverage benefit) on religious objectors. Ultimately that issue will be decided by a Court that has eroded the Warren Court’s Establishment Clause jurisprudence and embraced legislative prayer, at least, in a decision that has alarmed secularists. But should the Court’s “activist judges” rule in the Obama administration’s favor, you can count on conservative leaders stoking the fears of Ben Sasse’s religious “grassroots.”

Sarah Posner, author of God’s Profits: Faith, Fraud, and the Republican Crusade for Values Voters, covers politics and religion. Her work has appeared in The Washington Post, The Guardian, The Atlantic, The American Prospect, The Nation, Salon, and other publications. Follow her on Twitter.

GOP Urged To ‘Put Some Salsa Sauce’ On The Conservative Movement At ‘Road To Majority’ Conference

At Ralph Reed’s Faith and Freedom Coalition “Road to Majority” conference in Washington this week, conservative activists and Republican lawmakers are straining to portray themselves as compassionate Christians, particularly with regard to the heated immigration debate. But the compassion they say they have for immigrants — or “illegal aliens,” as Rep. Michele Bachmann (R-MN) repeatedly referred to them in her speech — comes with a number of caveats.

On Thursday, activists were dispatched to Capitol Hill with talking points on immigration, same-sex marriage, and the Internal Revenue Service. Immigration got top billing, and the lead argument was religious: “The Bible instructs God’s people to show compassion and love for the foreigner and the immigrant.” These activists say they take the Bible literally, but their compassion isn’t unconditional. The goal of immigration should be to “strengthen, not undermine, loving and intact families,” the talking points go on, yet “we vehemently oppose amnesty and guaranteed paths to citizenship for illegal immigrants currently residing in the country.”

Speakers have been at loggerheads about what the Bible says about immigrants, and about compassion. At the kickoff lunch, Senator Marco Rubio (R-FL), who has proven himself capable of talking out of both sides of his mouth on the immigration bill he co-sponsored, described the immigration debate as “very divisive and conflicted.” He tried to appeal to his base’s religious instincts, saying the “essence of immigration policy is compassion,” reading from Matthew 5, prevailing on the audience to heed Jesus’ command to be the salt of the earth.

But Colleen Holcomb, executive director of the anti-immigrant Eagle Forum, insisted there is “no Biblical mandate for amnesty.” She noted that Leviticus 19:33 contains a mandate to treat the sojourner and stranger kindly — a mandate she argued applies to individuals, not the government. “As a person of faith,” she said, “I get profoundly offended when faith leaders imply that there is some sort of Biblical mandate” to pass immigration reform.

Senator John Cornyn (R-TX), the sponsor of a border security “poison pill” amendment to the Gang of Eight bill currently being debated in the Senate, avoided discussing immigration altogether. He focused, as many lawmakers addressing the group have, on the “threat” of “big, intrusive, all-encompassing government.” While the government is voraciously destroying America, only the family — or rather, a certain kind of family — can save the nation and its “exceptional” role in God’s plan and the world.

Jeb Bush, who urged his party to adopt a “hopeful” and “optimistic” message, argued that the right kind of immigrants — “fertile” ones — could make up for a demographic decline that he said undermines the conservative vision of the role of the family. Bush highlighted not compassion, but how immigration could help “rebuild the demographic pyramid.”

Fertility rates in the U.S., said Bush, “are below break-even.” But, he added, “Immigrants are more fertile, and they love families, they have more intact families.” Immigrants, he said, can be an “engine of economic prosperity.” Immigrants should “learn English, play by our rules, embrace our values, pursue their dreams in our country with a vengeance and create more opportunities for all of us.”

The Rev. Samuel Rodriguez, president of the pro-reform National Hispanic Christian Leadership Conference, spoke with a preacher’s flair that drew far more enthusiasm than any of the politicians, or even conservative icons like Gary Bauer and Eagle Forum founder Phyllis Schlafly. “Don’t drink the Kool-Aid,” he told the audience, that making 11 million undocumented immigrants citizens “will automatically” mean there will be 11 million new Democratic voters. Latino evangelicals, he argued, are committed to the conservative values of “life, family, and religious liberty” and do not want to be “perpetually enslaved to entitlements from government.”

“Broaden your optics,” he added, “we need to put some salsa sauce on top of the conservative movement.”

But Steve Montenegro, a Republican state legislator from Arizona and the only Latino to vote for that state’s draconian immigration bill, insisted that most Latinos do not make immigration reform a priority. “We want to reach out to the Hispanic community, the issue is compassion,” he said. “But we have to be careful not to be seen as pandering.”

Schlafly, a long-time and vociferous opponent of immigration reform, had a warning for elected officials. “If you think your senator is going to vote wrong on this Gang of Eight amnesty bill,” she said, “call him and tell him you will support a primary opponent.”

Sen. Marco Rubio, R-FL, center, greets attendees as he is followed by Ralph Reed, founder of the Faith and Freedom Coalition, left, after he spoke at the “Road to Majority” conference in Washington, Thursday, June 13, 2013. AP Photo/Charles Dharapak

Evangelical Groups Claim IRS Practicing ‘Viewpoint Discrimination’

Even before the ink was dry on the Treasury Department Inspector General’s report on the IRS, Franklin Graham, son of evangelical icon Billy Graham, wrote a letter to President Obama, demanding that the president “take some immediate action to reassure Americans we are not in a new chapter of America’s history—repressive government rule.”

Graham contended he was in possession of proof of this dire scenario: Last year, he says, the IRS conducted an audit of two tax-exempt organizations he runs, Samaritan’s Purse and The Billy Graham Evangelistic Association. To Graham, this is no coincidence. “[P]rofiling by the IRS,” he lectured the president, “was not limited to conservative organizations; indeed, it extended to religious charities—Jewish and Christian—as well.”

Since Graham’s letter hit the pages of Politico on Tuesday, a number of religious right organizations and individuals have claimed that the IRS targeted them for audits, held up their tax-exempt applications, or subjected them to intrusive questioning, all of which they claim amounts to orchestrated anti-Christian bias.

In Graham’s case, though, the IRS was doing exactly what it is supposed to do. His ministries, both 501(c)(3) tax-exempt organizations, are barred from attempting to influence the outcome of elections, the precise activity for which Graham admits the agency audited them.

Graham’s situation is “quite a different kettle of fish” than the IRS review of the Tea Party 501(c)(4) applications, said Rob Boston, Senior Policy Analyst at Americans United for the Separation of Church and State. Unlike 501(c)(4) organizations, which are allowed to devote less than 50% of their activities to influencing political campaigns, there is an absolute ban on electoral campaign activity by 501(c)(3) organizations.

The Billy Graham Evangelistic Association, for example, has advised its followers to support only “candidates who base their decisions on biblical principles and support the nation of Israel.” That, along with the elder Graham’s promise to Mitt Romney to “do all I can to help you,” were attempts to influence the outcome of the election, said Boston.

Boston said he was actually “surprised” to read Graham’s claim that the IRS had audited his ministries “because we have reported a number of houses of worship for clearer cases of politicking,” with no apparent action by the IRS.

If a 501(c)(3) organization engages in politicking, said Marge Baker, Executive Vice President for Policy and Program at People for the American Way, “it is incumbent upon the IRS to do these investigations.” It has to “ask these questions,” but it “can’t single out a particular group because of their political views, ideology, or religious beliefs.” Any audit of the Graham group alone “doesn’t prove anything” about IRS bias against conservative groups, said Baker.

Observers on both sides of church-state separation issues say such investigations stalled after a 2009 federal court ruling ordering the agency to promulgate regulations under a statute that requires audits of churches be authorized by an “appropriate high-level Treasury official.” The IRS reportedly suspended all church audits until the adoption of rules to comply with the court ruling.

Opponents of the rule against church electioneering hope to provoke the IRS into conducting audits in order to generate a case to mount a Constitutional challenge to the rule.

Greg Scott, Senior Director of Media Relations at the Alliance Defending Freedom, the religious-right group that organizes Pulpit Freedom Sunday, during which pastors flaunt the rule in their pulpits, said that one church, Warroad Community Church in Warroad, Minnesota, “was investigated briefly, but [the] file was closed due to what the IRS called a ‘procedural issue.’”

“Otherwise,” Scott said, “crickets.”

That would suggest that, contrary to claims that the IRS is “targeting” Christian groups, it has been hamstrung from investigating cases due to a bureaucratic failure to promulgate a rule required by the court ruling.

Graham, said Boston, seems to be “deliberately trying to confuse the issue to get play in the media.”

A number of religious-right organizations have jumped on the Graham bandwagon, claiming anti-Christian repression. James Dobson, the founder of Focus on the Family who, after his retirement, launched a new radio program, maintains that the IRS asked inappropriate questions of his Family Talk Action as it applied for 501(c)(4) status. In a statement, Dobson claimed that an IRS employee told his lawyer she didn’t think the exemption would be granted because the group is “not educational”; it presented only one view, sounded like a “partisan right-wing group,” and was “political” because it “criticized President Obama, who was a candidate.” Dobson claims this is “viewpoint discrimination.”

Dobson, whose organization was eventually granted (c)(4) status, complained, “The American people deserve better treatment from its government than this. Christian ministries and others supporting the family must not be silenced or intimidated by the IRS or other branches of the government.”

Richard Schmalbeck, professor of law at Duke University and an expert on tax-exempt organizations, said that while “it is always dangerous to reach firm conclusions as to ultimate outcomes based on only partial statements of fact received from only one party to a dispute,” the Dobson situation appeared to be a result of bureaucratic confusion. The questions Dobson’s organization received might have been “irrelevant” to a 501(c)(4) determination, but relevant to a 501(c)(3) inquiry. Perhaps, Schmalbeck said, “the agent mistakenly thought that was the case, or mistakenly applied (c)(3) tests to a (c)(4) application.”

Mat Staver, dean of Liberty University School of Law and chairman of the religious-right legal firm Liberty Counsel, also claimed the IRS “targeted” his group, the Freedom Federation. He said that in the (c)(4) application process, the IRS asked the Freedom Federation to provide copies of original content it publishes on its website; to describe its meetings and provide copies of materials distributed at them; and to provide copies of all materials distributed at an event, “including but not limited to event agendas and itineraries, promotional materials, newsletters, educational materials, flyers, and other materials.”

“What business does the IRS have asking these questions?” Staver demanded, adding, “An investigation of the IRS is necessary to stop this agency from pushing a political agenda.”

But Schmalbeck said these questions appeared designed to determine whether the organization’s activities were “primarily aimed at influencing the outcome of elections,” and therefore appeared to be appropriate.

Other religious-right organizations and individuals are offering stories that are mysteriously undetailed. Glenn Beck’s website The Blaze reported that Anne Hendershott, a conservative Catholic professor, was audited by the IRS, and asserted it was because she had been critical of left-leaning Catholic groups and of President Obama. The anti-gay National Organization for Marriage claims the fact that the pro-LGBT Human Rights Campaign obtained a copy of its confidential tax returns “suggests that problems at the IRS are potentially far more serious than even these latest revelations reveal,” and hinted the Obama re-election campaign had played a role. Pharmacists for Life International says two of its officers and board members were “harassed” by the IRS—but would not identify the employees or the specific nature of the alleged harassment.

Anti-choice groups are also making claims of harassment—some of which were echoed by Republican lawmakers in the House Ways and Means Committee hearing Friday.

Christian Voices for Life, an anti-choice group whose application for 501(c)(3) status was eventually approved, claims the “IRS has sought to know whether the group does ‘education on both sides of the issues,’” and “whether members of the group “try to block people to [sic] enter a … medical clinic.”

Rep. Aaron Schock, an Illinois Republican on the Ways and Means Committee, entered a 150-page exhibit from Christian Voices for Life’s legal counsel, the Thomas More Society, about its and two other Thomas More clients’ treatment by the IRS. Schock maintained the documents showed “horrible instances of IRS abuse of power, political and religious bias, and repression of their Constitutional rights.”

After the hearing, the Thomas More Society issued a statement, “Congress Receives Irrefutable Evidence of IRS Harassment of Pro-Life Organizations.”

With regard to Christian Voices for Life, Schmalbeck said that if the group had applied for tax-exempt status as an educational organization, the agent’s queries about balanced views would have been appropriate, but not if it had applied as a religious organization. One of the letters sent by its lawyers to the IRS maintained the group’s focus “is on educational activities designed to promote respect for life.”

The questions about the activity outside clinics, however, appear to be aimed at a legitimate concern. “[O]rganizations that practice civil disobedience are denied exempt status,” said Schmalbeck. IRS questions about blocking access to clinics, then, were probably “aimed at making that determination, and that would be appropriate,” he said.

The current uproar over the Tea Party 501(c)(4) applications appears to feed a previously existing grievance among conservatives that the IRS is biased against them. When Christian Voices for Life obtained its tax-exempt status in 2011, the Thomas More Society’s executive director, Peter Breen, claimed, “This is not the first time that Internal Revenue Service personnel have attempted to place unconstitutional restrictions on pro-life organizations.”

This area of the law, said Schmalbeck, “is quite complicated, and even IRS agents can make mistakes that do not necessarily reflect political animus.  Still, it would be nice if they were well enough trained that they got these questions right in almost all cases.”

Photo: The Billy Graham Evangelistic Association