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S3:E22 The Pledge of Allegiance

S3:E22 The Pledge of Allegiance

The Weird History of How a Christian Socialist Wrote the Pledge of Allegiance

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Who wrote the Pledge of Allegiance for the United States? On this episode of Truce, we examine the conditions under which the Pledge was written and Francis Bellamy, the man responsible for our famous creed.

Along the way we learn about Bellamy’s belief in Christian Socialism, the Social Gospel, and Charles Sheldon’s book “In His Steps”. Even though it is one of the most popular works of fiction in history, it’s filled with controversial stuff.

Our guest this episode is Professor Charles Dorn of Bowdoin College. His books are Patriotic Education in a Global Age and For the Common Good: A New History of Higher Education in America.

Helpful Links:

  • Additional voice over work done by Cale Nelson and his family. He’s the host of the Modern Christian Men Podcast
  • Helpful article by Charles Dorn
  • Complete text of “In His Steps” by Charles Sheldon
  • Britannica article about Social Gospel
  • Gospel Coalition critique of “In His Steps”
  • Christianity Today article about pre-millenialism

Subjects covered:

  • Is patriotic education okay in public schools?
  • When did US flags first appear in schools?
  • Who wrote the Pledge of Allegiance?
  • When was the Pledge of Allegiance written?
  • When did they add “under God” into the Pledge of Allegiance?
  • What is Christian socialism?
  • Where does the phrase WWJD (What Would Jesus Do?) come from?


CS: Chris Staron (host)

The Weird History of the Pledge of Allegiance
In His Steps by Charles Sheldon and the Social Gospel

CS: Hi everybody. This episode can stand on its own, but when you’re done go ahead and start back at the beginning of season three.

Pastor Maxwell liked to preach. He thought he was quite good at it, and enjoyed his job. The message that day was from 1 Peter 2:21

MAXWELL: “For hereunto were ye called; because Christ also suffered for you, leaving you an example that ye should follow his footsteps.”

CS: A simple passage. Easy to understand… in a different translation. Basically, since Jesus suffered for you, you should follow (and here are the important words) in… his…steps. Maxwell delivered it with the passion and flair his congregation expected. This was the church to attend. He was good at his job. They had a great choir. This church had a lot going for it.

Just as Maxwell sat down and the choir started singing, they were interrupted by the voice of a man from the back of the room.

DRIFTER: (excuse me!)

CS: He was a drifter, on his way through town looking for work. The pastor had shrugged him off a few days earlier. Now he was back.

He told everybody that he’d lost his job as a printer. Maybe the church had grown tired of so many men looking for jobs. Whatever it was, he wasn’t given an opportunity. Or shelter. If these people were supposed to walk as Jesus, in His steps, as the sermon’s Bible reading said, why was he ignored? Perhaps the trouble in our world wouldn’t exist if the people in the pews simply lived as Jesus did.

The man stopped, stumbled, and fell to the ground. Only to die a short while later.

Pastor Maxwell was haunted by the man’s words. So much so, that he devised a plan. A challenge for his congregation. Only a few days after the vagabond’s death, he delivered a new sermon.

MAXWELL: “I want volunteers from the First Church who will pledge themselves, earnestly and honestly for an entire year, not to do anything without first asking the question, ‘What would Jesus do?’ And after asking that question, each one will follow Jesus as exactly as he knows how, no matter what the result may be.”

This story is from a work of fiction called In His Steps by Charles Sheldon1, first published in 1896. Estimates vary, but the book has sold between 30 and 50 million copies worldwide2. For sixty years after it’s publication it was the number one book in the US after the Bible3. It’s most famous for coining the phrase, “What Would Jesus Do?”

In His Steps, while popular, is also controversial. Though it didn’t start the movement, it was important in spreading what’s known as the Social Gospel. A movement that concerned itself with issues of labor and public welfare. While it promoted social action in Christian circles, it also frightened many Christians. Sounding a lot like socialism. Think about it. If people just acted a certain way, then all of mankind’s troubles would be over? In an era of collectivization, labor strikes, and impending world war… ideas like this were suspicious. The battle to nail down what was truly American was in overdrive. The struggle for a just society and an open market would come together under one flag.

You’re listening to the show that uses journalistic tools to look inside the Christian Church. We press pause on the culture wars in order to explore how we got here and how we can do better. I’m Chris Staron. This is Truce.


Reconstruction: Life After the Civil War

The American Civil War ended in 1865. Family fought family. State against state. When the dust settled, there were a lot of moving pieces. How would the country, bloodied and disjointed, move forward? There were a lot of questions to settle as the nation rebuilt itself.

To help tell that story, we’ve got a special guest : Professor Charles Dorn.

Charles Dorn: I’m Charles Dorn. I’m a professor of education at Bowdoin College in Brunswick, Maine. And the author of Education and Democracy in the Second World War and my most recent book which I co-authored with my colleague Randy Curran at the University of Rochester is Patriotic Education in the Global Age.

CS: This was the era of Reconstruction. Where the nation put itself back together again.

Charles Dorn: This is a period of a significant divide in the nation’s history. It’s not as if the Civil War ends and American unifies and everyone’s happy again. It’s decades, decades worth of conflict and tension. There’s an impeachment mixed in there. There’s a northern army of occupation in the southern states. This is a time of real discord in the country.

CS: This is a fascinating era with lots of moving pieces. Northern troops withdrew from the South.Freed black slaves headed north.

Charles Dorn: Urbanization. The rise of the cities in the US.

CS: The temperance and suffrage movements. The introduction of a national currency. The settling of the West. Immigration.

Charles Dorn: Really when we’re in the post Civil War period stretching into the early 20th century, that is the period of largest immigration into the United States.

CS: Up until that point anyway. Immigrants from Eastern and southern regions of Europe were coming here in large number. Whereas before it had been from the north and western part of Europe. This was also a new age of empire where countries, including the US, claimed more and more land for themselves.

Charles Dorn:And all of this creates a tremendous amount of disruption in American society.

CS: We were looking very different as a country than we ever did before. With new immigrants who did not look like us or identify with the US the way that other Americans might. We were not a unified people.

Charles Dorn: And even before the Civil War in the United States, most people would not have identified themselves as Americans first. They would have identified themselves as citizens of their state, right? And that would have been true in the north as well.

CS: That kind of regionalism is dangerous because it pits us against ourselves. That’s a significant part of the Civil War: disunity. States vs big government. With the war over and new immigrants pouring in, how would we unify? Well, there were lots of ideas…

Charles Dorn: But one is to use public schools, really for the first time in American history, to use the public schools to foster a sense of national unity or identity.

CS: Public schools. When you’re trying bond all of the disparate people together as one a common base of knowledge and beliefs is important. But… which beliefs would we agree on? Even if we could decide on one set of beliefs for all schools to adopt… there is one teeny tiny little problem…

Charles Dorn: Even following the Civil War, for the states that do have, let’s say, state-level departments of education… the staff in those departments is usually one or two people. Public schooling occurs on a local basis in the US well into the 20th century.

CS: Ours was not a nationally organized education system. So how do you get people without a unified curriculum on the same page? It had to be simple. Schools were run by just a few people so you couldn’t create a lot of extra work. What to do, what to do? How about a symbol? A specific object or graphic that represents everyone?

Hey, it’s a basic part of humanity… we love symbolism. Roman emperors had their symbols on coins. Napoleon rallied the French around the image of bees, as do Mormons. Christians have the fish and the cross, and WWJD bracelets. We love symbols. What could the nation rally around?

How about the ol’ stars and stripes?

The Weird History of How American Flags Came Into Public Schools

Charles Dorn: This, I find this myself to be quite interesting. If you think about the public schools in your community or the public schools, if you went to public schools, flags were just ubiquitous. They’re right there in every classroom. And oftentimes they’re also flying from a flag pole that is right in the middle of the front of the school.

CS: We’re used to seeing them everywhere now. In every classroom. But if you went back in time to the 1850’s and walked around a school… mostly likely you would have seen no flags.

Charles Dorn: It’s the symbol war veterans groups, the women’s auxiliary group to the grand army of the republic plays a central role here and… and they basically work to have flags put into the classrooms and they’re very successful.

CS: Creating a big market for flags that… somebody had to fulfill.

Charles Dorn: And there is a magazine called The Youths Companion which is a well-subscribed magazine. One of the first magazines that is designed and marketed towards both adults and children. That magazine gets the idea that they can increase subscriptions by getting on board with the flag movement and encouraging people to purchase flags and they begin selling flags. And indeed their subscription rates go up but slowly over time the sort of flag market begins to saturate and flag sales are no longer increasing.

The Pledge of Allegiance Was Written By a Christian Socialist

CS: Some would say that sales were… flagging… uh… not my best.. The Youth’s Companion magazine needed to jumpstart sales. So they turned to a former Baptist minister…

Charles Dorn: A man by the name of Francis Bellamy.

CS: Francis Bellamy, to be in charge of their marketing campaign. He and a colleague came up with a big idea.

Charles Dorn: What they come up with is to tie the work that the Youth’s Companion has been doing, to tie that to the 400th celebration of Columbus’ voyage.

CS: In 1492, Columbus sailed the ocean blue… plus 400 years…the celebration would take place in 1892. The country was already planning the Worlds Fair, the Columbian Exposition, in Chicago. The place where the world would be introduced to things like the Ferris Wheel. With all the excitement already in place… why not piggyback on that event?

Charles Dorn: It’s an interesting sort of thing that this effort to create a program that would unify the nation was tied up with marketing flags, right? It’s a very American story, I think.

CS: Patriotism by way of capitalism. Celebrating not only the end of the Civil War, but also the spreading of the US across a big chunk of North America (I’m looking at you, Manifest Destiny) and out into the oceans. Like Columbus.

Charles Dorn: Bellamy encourages that communities celebrate Columbus Day in a particular way and it’s going to be gatherings at the schools, bringing students together and families and communities together, and holding a sort of series of events on that day.

CS: Kind of like how people celebrate the 4th of July today. Some ceremonies, speeches. And what do you need at a patriotic celebration? Flags.

They wanted these events to be easy for people to produce on their own. So they created a kit that laid out the various stages of these celebrations. Patriotism by numbers.

Charles Dorn: And as a part of that, Bellamy writes a pledge of allegiance to the United States.

CS: A now famous pledge that would be said at the event. Yeah, this is the origin of the Pledge of Allegiance. Part of a kit celebration used to sell flags. But… the pledge we say now is not quite the pledge they said in 1892. The original went something like this:

CHILD’S VOICE: I pledge allegiance to my flag, and to the republic for which it stands, one nation, indivisible with liberty and justice for all.

CS: You may notice some things are missing there. First of all, it doesn’t say which flag they are pledging to. And, of course, there is no mention of God. Kind of interesting considering it was written by a former minister.

Bellamy didn’t include the God stuff in his original version of the pledge. That’s worth noting. It would be decades, decades before that changed. This is one of those things people scrap about. With Christian Americans pointing to this mention of God in the national pledge as proof that the US is a Christian nation. Well… it did sneak into the pledge until the 1950s. 60 odd years after the pledge was originally written.

Also, just to make the story stranger… this guy Bellamy, the guy who got the capitalist urge to use the Columbia Exposition to sell flags… was a Christian socialist.

Charles Dorn: He is a part of what was called the Social Gospel movement in the United States. And this is a predominantly Protestant movement that develops in the United States. One way to describe this is that over the course of the 19th century, as the country begins to become a bit more secular and some distance from it’s Calvinist roots, the idea is that the nation is going to be able to find perfection of the Kingdom of God on earth.

CS: This may sound crazy, right? Bringing the kingdom of God to earth? But the 1800s were a time of massive change in Christianity. This is when preaching to the individual became the thing to do, encouraging a personal commitment to Christ. An individualistic approach to the gospel. We also saw the rise of utopian cults like the Oneida community. Spiritualism was on the rise. You know spiritualism, right? Consulting sprits. It’s the stuff Rasputin toyed within Russia. It started here in the United States in this era.

Was Pre-Millenialsim Always Popular With American Christians?

Pre-millennialism, the idea that God would snatch his people up to heaven before the end times tribulation, while not a new idea, was not nearly then as widespread as it is now. It’s maybe the most popular end-times idea in American Christianity today. But it wasn’t then. A lot of people believed heaven could exist here on earth. People like Bellamy.

Charles Dorn:And that Christians need to be acting in ways that will actually bring about that Kingdom of God on earth. And one of the impulses during this period in the US towards social, political, and economic reform is, in fact, this Christian motivation to perfect American society.

CS: Part of the Social Gospel’s aim was to bring about heaven on earth. To focus on the actions that individuals could do to make this world better. Though he didn’t invent the Social Gospel, Charles Sheldon’s book “In His Steps” from the top of the show, helped to popularize it. He imagined a small town where people went around asking themselves, “What Would Jesus Do?”.

In doing so, the book targeted other hot-button issues of the time. Like the local grocer in the story who rethinks the products that he’s selling. He’s been hawking tainted flour and meat. This was before there were laws about food safety in the US. At that time some people who sold dairy in the US thinned out milk with water that was colored with chalk or plaster dust. Food safety was a big deal. And Sheldon sneaked it into his book. Sheldon’s book addressed those plagues of his society. Sounds like good stuff, right?

Well, the Social Gospel has a lot of theological hurdles we can’t fully squeeze into in this episode. Essentially the argument against it is this: The Social Gospel is about “What Would Jesus Do?”. Whereas traditionally accepted, orthodox Christianity is more about what Jesus has already done.

Many Christians, myself included, believe what the Bible says, that we can’t earn our salvation.

What I need is for someone to pay my debt for me. That’s where Jesus comes in. His death on the cross takes away the punishment I deserve and could never work away. Critics of the Social Gospel say that the movement takes that onus off of Jesus and puts it back onto us.

Not that its necessarily wrong to ask “What Would Jesus Do?”. Morality is a good thing. But it’s not the final answer. Like so many things in this world, it’s about not throwing out the baby with the bathwater.

Remember this sentiment from the dying man at the beginning of the show? “Perhaps the trouble in our world wouldn’t exist if the people in the pews simply lived as Jesus did.” To some folks that sounds kind of like Karl Marx. You know, people being able to solve the world’s problems in one fell swoop, creating a utopia on earth. And if something even sort of sounds like Marx, it’s easy for some of us to dismiss it.

Okay… back to Professor Dorn talking about Bellamy, the guy who wrote the Pledge of Allegiance.

Charles Dorn: He has a cousin who writes a remarkably popular novel at the time called “Looking Backward” and its a utopian novel. The idea is that we actually can create the Kingdom of Heaven on earth and this is what it would look like if we do these things.

CS: Of course one way to create a better society was to take all of these disparate people from lots of backgrounds, former slaves, former slave owners, immigrants, pioneers in the west, city dwellers in the east… and get them on the same team. We needed to assimilate. To find some commonality.

Charles Dorn: And there are all sorts of different ways that we can do that, but one is to teach their kids to be good American citizens.

CS: Kids learn by repetition. Through things like the Pledge of Allegiance. Which was a big hit after the Columbus celebrations. It spread organically at first with schools adopting it here and there.

Charles Dorn: New York State is the first state to legislate the recitation of the Pledge of Allegiance and it’s essentially in response to the Spanish-American War.

CS: The day after we declared war on Spain, NY legislated the first mandatory pledge in schools. We covered the Spanish American War a few weeks ago. Early adopters of the pledge did not salute the flag the way we do, with our hands over our hearts. No, they extended their right arms out and up. Like… well, like the Nazi salute. I’ll give you one guess as to when we changed it to hand over the heart.

It wouldn’t become the official Pledge of the nation until 1942. The Pledge itself did quite a bit of shape shifting along the way.

Charles Dorn: Again, the original pledge says “I pledge allegiance to my flag and the republic for which it stands…” and in the early 20th century some of the promoters of Americanism become nervous that immigrant kids could be standing in class reciting the Pledge of Allegiance and when they say, “I pledge allegiance to my flag” they could be thinking of the flag of their homeland and not the US.

CS: This whole thing was supposed to bring unity. We couldn’t have students pledging to Italy and Austria, right? So it was changed to…

KID: I pledge allegiance to the flag of the United States of America, and to the republic for which it stands. One nation, indivisible, with liberty and justice for all.

When God Was Added to the Pledge of Allegiance

CS: All right, the pledge is sounding a lot like it does today… with one notable exception.

Charles Dorn: “Under God” isn’t added until 1954. (echoed)

CS: 1954. It’s not until 1954 that God is added to the pledge.

We’re going to be talking a lot about the 50s for the next few months. That era experienced a patriotic and spiritual explosion. Though the seeds of it were planted well before then. Adding “under God” to the Pledge in the Eisenhower administration didn’t happen in a vacuum. Or just because of a revival of faith in the public square. It was also in response to the rise of communism and socialism. Maybe you’re wondering what does, “under God” have to do with fighting communism? If you remember, the textbook version of communism, the Marxist ideal, is inherently atheistic. We like to refer to godless communism like it’s a joke. Godless communism. But, remember, Russia had two pro-communist magazines called Godless. They openly persecuted religious people. Marx said that once communism was realized that the world would have no need for religion, which he saw as an invention humans created to dull their pain. In response to atheistic, collectivist communism, as we’ll demonstrate, the US did its level best to marry religion, capitalism, and patriotism. Especially in the public square.

Charles Dorn: And one way to do it is to get kids to recite a pledge that declares that they’re one nation under God, indivisible with liberty and justice for all.

CS: Seems a little simple, right? Fight communism with a short pledge? But that’s how we as citizens learn stuff from an early age. Through things like pledges. Simple recitations.

We’ve done this throughout Christian history too, creating simple creeds and songs so people can understand Christianity.

Of course… not everyone is excited about adding “under God” into the Pledge. And not everyone is okay with a pledge at all. We’ll get into that in a bonus episode next week. For the rest of this episode, lets focus on the idea of the pledge as it is.

When I think about pledges and trying to get patriotic ideas into kids heads… I feel a little squeamish. This kind of education sounds… a little creepy, right? Less like education and more like indoctrination, right? I asked Professor Dorn about my misgivings.

The Difference Between Education and Indoctrination

Charles Dorn: It’s a very interesting question, this idea that… what is indoctrination and what role does it play in schooling? So, there are a couple of things you can say about that. One is that all education is political to some degree and in some way. Education certainly in the 21st century is central to developing a student’s sense of themselves as citizens in a democratic republic. And that means we need them to question things. Indoctrination on the other hand is sort of the other side of that, which is “no, actually we don’t want them to question. We want them to believe a set body of knowledge about something”. And so, those two things are very much in tension. Schools are the places where those tensions become sort of manifest and certainly we ask public school teachers on a daily basis to sort of navigate the tensions that we’ve imposed on them when it comes to asking them to both teach their students to think critically and teach them to adopt some sort of an identity that has something to do with being an American citizen.

CS: Going forward you’re going to see that there are loads of parallels between US history and Soviet history. We went through labor disputes at the same time. We struggled to create a national identity at the same time. We set off to create empires, us with the Spanish American War, and them with the Russo-Japanese War. The difference is how we handled those conflicts. We were in no small part driven to become the nation we’ve become because of their decisions. They went collectivist, we focused on the individual not just economically but theologically. They went communist and we struggled with labor unions.

This Fourth of July as you think about patriotism, as you maybe wave a flag at a parade, think about the decisions that were made that brought you there. About the teachers who helped to shape you into who you are today. While our goal may not be heaven on earth, consider how you and yours can help others.

And, if you like, with your hand over your heart, not out in front of you like a Nazi, over your heart… consider the weird twist of events that brought about flags in every school and our ever changing pledge.

Do you have thoughts on the Pledge of Allegiance or on education? We’d love to hear them. Contact me via social media, Twitter, Instagram, Facebook at at trucepodcast. I’d love to see a picture of where you are on the 4th. Take a photo and tag us.

Thanks to Professor Charles Dorn. His books are “For the Common Good: A New History of Higher Education in America” and “Patriotic Education in a Global Age”. For a list of select sources, check out our website at Once you’re there you can join our email update list, hear previous episodes, and donate to keep this show going. If you want to keep hearing great content, please donate to keep it coming.

My challenge to you this week is this: I really need to double to listenership of this podcast by the end of the summer. That sounds really really difficult but all it takes is each of us telling one or two people about the show. Would you please text or call a friend right now to tell them about Truce? It would make a big big difference.

Leave us a comment and a rating on your podcasting app and subscribe to the show so you get every new episode as it’s released.

Thanks to Nick Staron and Andy Pearson for their support.

Look for a bonus episode out next week and we’ll be back with a full on in two weeks.

Thanks for listening! I’m Chris Staron. This is Truce.

S3:E21 Empire: the Game!

S3:E21 Empire: the Game!

We’ve spent the last several weeks asking the question: “Is the United States an empire?” Now we want to go even deeper: “Is empire always a bad thing?”

So we invented a game that will explore that question. It’s Capture the Flag… with resources.

Topics discussed:

  • Is empire always a bad thing?
  • How can the US use resources to build alliances?
  • Is the US a Christian nation?
  • How should Christians treat resources?
  • The US has over 800 military bases. Would we want a foreign military base in or near our land?
  • Should Christian resist burglars?
  • Would we want a Chinese military base in the US?
  • How do we treat countries with less important resources?
  • The difficulty of being both a Christian and an American

Truce is listener supported. Find out how to help at

S3:E20 Home of the Forgotten

S3:E20 Home of the Forgotten

Donate a little to help the show on either Patreon or Paypal

The United States, a “Christian” nation, has a bad habit of forgetting its own people. Really. We’ll prove it to you! We forget that the territories are a part of our country. Why does that matter? It impacts if/when they can vote and allows us to withhold federal aid. That matters! What happens when a “Christian nation” ignores its own people?

Our guest this episode is Daniel Immerwahr, author of the book “How to Hide an Empire” and an associate history professor at Northwestern University. In his book, he argues that the United States has been an empire since it’s inception.

Special thanks to:

Helpful Links:

  • FDR’s “Day of Infamy” speech

Topics Covered:

  • Is the United States an Empire?
  • Can Puerto Rico vote in congress?
  • Can Puerto Rico vote for president?
  • Can American Samoa vote for president?
  • Who was bombed on December 7, 1941?


S3:E19 Teddy Roosevelt and the Guano Islands

S3:E19 Teddy Roosevelt and the Guano Islands

Donate a little to help the show on either Patreon or Paypal

Remember to post #nowherenearcuba this week!

When we were done conquering the west, done warring with Mexico, done fighting Native Americans, we looked out across the Pacific Ocean and said… “huh… I wonder what’s over there?” The truth is that the United States is an empire. We accomplished that by fighting wars and by seeking out resources.

In the 1800s the United States faced a very real problem: we were running out of nitrogen. Not in the air. There is plenty in the air. We were losing it in our soil. Plants need nitrogen. Where were we going to get it?

The answer we came up with was: bird poop. It’s rich in nitrogen and makes a great fertilizer. The trouble is that we didn’t have any way to get large quantities of it. Until American businesses took over islands off the coast of our country.

This is the story of greed, a different kind of slavery, a Supreme Court battle, and the worst job in the 1800s.

Our guest this episode is Daniel Immerwahr, author of the book “How to Hide an Empire” and an associate history professor at Northwestern University. In his book, he argues that the United States has been an empire since it’s inception.

Helpful Links:

  • New York Times review of a book on the Spanish American War where I first learned about German plans for the Philippines.
  • Helpful info about President McKinley’s declaration of war against Spain.
  • New York Times archived article about the German plans to attack the US otherwise known as Operation Plan III.
  • Doris Kearns Goodwin’s book The Bully Pulpit which provided some background on Teddy Roosevelt and the Spanish American War. It’s a good book, but its main focus is on Roosevelt’s relationship with Taft.

Special thanks to:


S3:E18 How to Hide an Empire

S3:E18 How to Hide an Empire

What do you think of when you hear the word “empire”? Maybe Great Britain? The Soviet Union? The Mongols? Sure. But what if I told you that the United States is also an empire. And always has been.

Our guest this episode is Daniel Immerwahr, author of the book “How to Hide an Empire” and an associate history professor at Northwestern University. In his book, he argues that the United States has been an empire since it’s inception. We claimed lands owned by native peoples, and then expanded into places like the Philippines, Cuba, Puerto Rico, Hawaii, Alaska, and more. This is the story of war, greed, resources, and tragedy.

Helpful Links:


CS: Chris Staron (host)

DI: Daniel Immerwahr (author)

We’ve been asking a lot of big questions lately. Like, what is the difference between communism and socialism? And how do they impact the Christian church? How did the United States react to communism? This week we’re taking a short break from Russia to explore this elemental question… what IS the United States?

(people playing a game)

Like, physically. What is the US? I was recently at the Spark Christian Podcast conference, where I made a bunch of new friends. So, as you do, when you make new friends, I decided to do an art project.

(people playing a game)

Is it just the fifty states and the district of Columbia? Or is it also Guam, American Samoa, Puerto Rico… What about the land under out embassies in foreign countries? Our military bases?

(people playing a game)

CS: Today on the show we try to explore that question… what IS the United States? If we are a Christian nation, as some people say that we are (and as a lot of people say we aren’t) we should probably know what the US is. Get out your pencil and crayons… we’re redrawing the map.

You’re listening to the show that uses journalistic tools to look inside the Christian church. We press pause on the culture wars in order to explore how we got here and how we can do better. I’m Chris Staron. This is Truce.

I hope you’re as excited as I am. I have been able to speak to some great authors this year and for the next few episodes you get to hear one of my favorites.

DI: My name is Daniel Immerwahr. I’m an associate professor of history at Northwestern University outside of Chicago. And my book is called How to Hide an Empire: a History of the Greater United States.

CS: It’s a great read. My copy is just filled with highlights. In the book, if you can’t tell by the title, he argues that we have this vision of the United States as being one tidy clear cut thing. Fifty states, the district of Columbia not much else. But that’s not accurate. The United States, is like a whole list of countries in their heyday. Great Britain, France, Spain, Austria, Russia… the United States is actually an empire.

DI: And that just has to do with not what the quality of it’s foreign policy is… not really who it is in the sense of character, but rather where it is on the map.

CS: You can explore this to yourself and wow your friends at parties just by looking at a map.

DI: Because most people when they call to mind a map of the United States when they imagine what it looks like they imagine that familiar shape.

CS: Oh, the shape. The US is basically a rectangle with a strip of land going up in New England, another one going down on the south east for Florida, and Texas is just kind of hanging out there on the bottom. How else do you describe the shape? Oh, and we have to include those other two states.

DI: Yes, Hawaii and Alaska too…

CS: Hawaii and Alaska too, maybe in little boxes off to the side…

DI: But that’s mainly the center of it. And the thing is that’s not actually a very good map of the United States. It’s not a very good map now because it doesn’t include places like Puerto Rico and Guam.

CS: Yes! Puerto Rico and Guam. We always forget about Puerto Rico and Guam.

DI: It certainly wasn’t a very good map earlier in US history because it didn’t include really large places like the Philippines. So what I tried to do in my book was to re-tell US history in a re-mapped way to actually show it to… from a different perspective and show you all of the places that are a part of the United States and tell Us history that way.

CS: Not only is our understanding of the United States as it is today just not accurate, but it also does not reflect the past. The United States has been on an aggressive expansion campaign basically since it’s inception.

DI: The first day when the United States had its independence from Great Britain ratified, when the treaties had gone through and signed by both sides, etc… the name of the country was the United States of America and that suggests that it is a union of states. But by that day the United States was no longer a union of states. It was… it wasn’t really a union because union suggests voluntarily entering into… it was an amalgam. It was an amalgam of states and territories.

CS: Territories. That is the keyword, the concept that makes this whole thing really sticky. Sure the founding fathers got together and knocked out the Declaration of Independence then the Constitution and that group of men created a whole new country. They split from Britain and took with them not just people who wanted the new country, but also British loyalists. Including a whole bunch of Christian pastors who preached that we should stay in the Union. Also dragged into this country… the native people who were here long before Europeans. And of course, enslaved peoples who had no say at all.

The US was not just a bunch of states who agreed to this thing. You know this part, right? This is the stuff we cover in middle school. How we slowly took over native American lands. It took a long time for us get to our weird rectangle with a side bubble off to the side.

DI: That’s the map in 1854 after the United States, you know, through a series of annexations and conquests and dispossessions of indigenous people sort of filled out that familiar shape on the North American continent. And 1854 was the year when the final treaty was ratified and that’s what the United States looked like.

CS: Not all of it was violently acquired. We bought the Louisiana Purchase (a bunch of the center and the southern end of the country) from our old friend Napoleon Bonaparte.


NAPOLEON: Zu ta lore! My wars they are so expensive! How am I going to pay for this?

AID: I’m afraid our bake sale didn’t go so well, sir.

NAPOLEON: Zu ta lore! Have we pillaged?

AID: We have pillaged, sir.

NAPOLEON: Have we plundered?

AID: Indeed.

NAPOLEON: What else can there be? I will have to sell my pointy hats.

AID: Or, if I may be so bold. We could do a real estate deal.

NAPOLEON: I am, how you say, listening.

AID: Sell our holdings in the New World. That would make us a lot of Benjamins.



CS: That’s not how it happened, but wouldn’t it be great if it was?

The Louisiana Purchase may not have been that silly, but at least it was peaceful. The country had expanded quite a lot. But there was a long way to go. Do you know how we got much of the southwest? In the 1840s we fought a war with Mexico to get Texas, Utah, Arizona, New Mexico, and California. What we call the southwest is about 1/3 of what used to be Mexico.

A bunch of the states most embroiled in the immigration debate… used to belong to Mexico. Which we purchased or wrestled away from them through war. We could have taken more too. People estimated at the time that we could have conquered all of Mexico. Instead, we took the sparsely populated parts. According to Daniel, we took the parts where there weren’t many brown-skinned people.

John C Calhoun, a Senator who, no surprise, really dug slavery, said:

CALHOUN: “We have never dreamt of incorporating into the Union any but the Caucasian race – the free white race.”

CS: Mind you, this was not whispered in some parlor. This was on the Senate floor.

CALHOUN: “Are we to associate with ourselves, as equals, companions, and fellow citizens, the Indians and mixed races of Mexico?”

CS: Yeesh. You know, they’re making a third Bill and Ted’s movie. I hope they travel back in time just to slap that guy. (slap sound) No… that’s not the godly thing to say. Okay… maybe Bill and Ted pair him with W.E.B. DuBois and some hijinks ensure, leading, no doubt, to an enduring bromance.

I don’t think that’s too much to ask.

John C. Calhoun was not alone. Not by a long shot. We invented a lot of shenanigans to keep people of color out of our country. Either consciously or unconsciously people in territories as opposed to states… are largely non-white.

You and I have covered a lot of ground already! Mexico, the Louisiana Purchase. A lot of work to make that nice map we all remember from our elementary school classrooms.

DI: Here’s the thing, though. That map was only accurate for three years.

Only three years of that familiar shape. Everything in that rectangle thing except for the District of Columbia would eventually become a state. Wyoming, California, Arizona, Texas, on and on. To form what we think of as the lower 48, the core of the country. That map that so many of us can draw with some degree of accuracy. Lasted for three years.

We’ve been talking for a long time about how communism impacted Russia. In a few weeks, we’ll start talking about the US response to that movement. How, since the USSR was communist and atheist, the US tied Christianity to capitalism. That may seem trivial, but our ties to capitalism have a huge impact. You can attend churches that preach the benefits of capitalism. That encourage their congregants to bring in so much money, have side businesses, or where the preacher will straight up push a product from the pulpit. Big oil gets tied to our faith. Arts and craft supplies. Even chicken sandwiches. I’m not here to tell you that’s good or bad, but we are going to explore how, at least in the least 150 years it came to be that capitalism, the US, and Jesus got tied together.

Before we get there, I feel like we need to talk about what the US is. What it really is.

Let me start with a story.

Last year I was at the Podcast Movement conference in August. My friend Eric and I were just two of a few Christians in a sea of podcasters. Because this show is about the church, I ended up having conversations with many people about the church. About Christianity. But something somewhat unexpected happened: almost everyone who talked with me about God also brought up the United States in one form or another. Politics, the president, a Christian company, some moment in history.

There I was in this giant hotel, talking about the most important thing in my life, my faith, and… in order to share Jesus with my new friends I had to also give compelling arguments for US policies on foreign affairs, domestic laws, and apologize for the darker parts of our history. There were all of these hurdles in the way of me sharing the gospel. And that isn’t a new thing. It has happened my whole adult life.

Being tied to the US isn’t all bad. We’ve got some great things like the national parks system, access to public education, equal voting rights, freedom of speech, religion, and assembly. The trouble is that Christianity is also tied to US history. Murdering native people. Slavery. Gerrymandering.

The purpose of this series is to expand our idea of what the United States is. It’s all of those things, good and bad. In my personal ministry that connection often slows down or inhibits my ability to share the gospel. It might be different for you.

One more thing before we go. People throughout the Bible are confronted with idol worship, putting anything else ahead of God. Money, statues made of stone and metal. Patriotism itself is not bad. Loyalty to a group is part of the human experience. But when that patriotism trumps our worship of God… we’re in danger of worshipping an idea over the creator.

The purpose of this series is not to make us feel bad. But to add some depth. It’s not just people within the US who are impacted. Our actions to the rest of the world reflect back on God. For better or for worse. Because our aggressive expansion didn’t stop with manifest destiny.

At some point, after conquering from the Atlantic to the Pacific, all the stuff we learn in middle school… we looked out across the waves and said… huh… I wonder what’s over there.

We’ll continue that story in the next episode.

Special thanks to Daniel Immerwahr. His book is “How to Hide an Empire”. We’ll be hearing from him in the next few episodes. Truce is listener supported. If you want to continue to stretch what’s possible in Christian media, partner with me by donating even a little bit each month. If you do it on Patreon you’ll even get access to bonus materials not heard anywhere else. Like updates on the shows progress from me or extra audio I couldn’t use in the show. Learn more at Follow us on social media at My challenge to you this week: sign up for our email list! You’ll get notifications about new episodes, links to our guests, access to our media fast curriculum, and so much more. Sign up on the website.

Special thanks to our vocal volunteers. They include Holland Webb from The Afterword Podcast, Angel McCoy from Angel reads the Bible, Colleen and Danny from Fitness and Houston’s First, Savannah, and Erin . You can see some of their drawings of the US on the website and our social media feeds.

Thanks for listening. I’m Chris Staron. This is Truce.

S3:E17 Is the USA a Christian Nation?

S3:E17 Is the USA a Christian Nation?

Is the USA a Christian nation?

There are a lot of people who argue that it is. And a lot of others who say that it is not. Which is it? What do we gain by calling it a Christian nation?

Our guest this episode is Dr. Gregg L Frazer, author of The Religious Beliefs of America’s Founders: Reason, Revelation, and Revolution and God Against the Revolution: The Loyalist Clergy’s Case Against the American Revolution. He also teaches at the Master’s University.

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Our “Would You Rather Questions”:

  • Would you rather make a hundred thousand dollars a year working for the mob, or be married to the best-looking person on earth who cheats on you?
  • Would you rather sell something benign like corn to Iran or be Vladimir Putin’s personal barber?
  • Would you rather go to a church where the senior pastor is always getting into Twitter fights or one where the youth pastor is always starting gossip?

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