Describe your latest book.
My book, One Nation Under God: How Corporate America Invented Christian America, seeks to explain why so many Americans have come to believe that this country is an officially "Christian nation." As I show in the book, the religious symbols and ceremonies that are often invoked as proof that it is come not from the Founding Fathers but rather from our own grandfathers.
The book begins by showing how, during their fight against the New Deal, corporate leaders worked with conservative clergymen to advance a language of "freedom under God" that they could use to challenge the "slavery of the state." Over the 1930s and 1940s, they spent a great deal of time and money popularizing this new Christian libertarianism, and with the election of Dwight Eisenhower in 1952, they succeeded in placing an ally in power.
With the new president pointing the way, America officially embraced a wide variety of developments that previously would have been unthinkable — the National Prayer Breakfast in 1953, the addition of "under God" to the Pledge of Allegiance in 1954, and the adoption of "In God We Trust" on paper money in 1955 and as the national motto in 1956. During these years, Americans were told their country was a Christian nation; they've believed it ever since.
Eisenhower succeeded in enshrining all these new religious changes largely because he had uncoupled the religion from its partisan political origins. But in the 1960s, politics crept back in, first in the backlash over the Supreme Court's decisions against school prayer, then in a bitter congressional fight over a prayer amendment, and finally when the Nixon administration sought to use the language of piety and patriotism as cover for its own agenda. From that point on, the religious language that once united the nation only served to drive its factions apart.
How did the last good book you read end up in your hands, and why did you read it?
I picked up Ari Kelman's A Misplaced Massacre because he's a good friend; I couldn't put it down because he's an even better writer and historian.
What was your favorite book as a child?
Shel Silverstein's Where the Sidewalk Ends. I won third place in a second-grade poetry reading competition for my stirring performance of "Paul Bunyan." I've been in love with the stories of America ever since.
What scares you the most as a writer?
What do your bookshelves look like? Are you a book hoarder? Do you embrace chaos, or are you a meticulous organizer?
Once I've read a book, I hang onto it forever; many, many more are stacked up patiently waiting to be read. As a result, my bookshelves are so overloaded they're likely violating several safety codes. The organization varies. One long side of my office is dedicated to political and social history, with the books organized roughly chronologically by their topics; the other has sections devoted to race, religion, and regions and is as wide ranging as those topics.
Offer a favorite sentence or passage from another writer.
This sentence has five words. Here are five more words. Five-word sentences are fine. But several together become monotonous. Listen to what is happening. The writing is getting boring. The sound of it drones. It's like a stuck record. The ear demands some variety. Now listen. I vary the sentence length, and I create music. Music. The writing sings. It has a pleasant rhythm, a lilt, a harmony. I use short sentences. And I use sentences of medium length. And sometimes, when I am certain the reader is rested, I will engage him with a sentence of considerable length, a sentence that burns with energy and builds with all the impetus of a crescendo, the roll of the drums, the crash of the cymbals — sounds that say listen to this, it is important.
– Gary Provost
What's your biggest grammatical pet peeve?
The passive voice must be avoided at all costs.
Name the best television series of all time, and explain why it's the best.
My opinion changes daily, but at the moment Breaking Bad narrowly edges out The Wire for me. Both are absolutely brilliant, with phenomenal casts of actors and intelligent, captivating plots, but Breaking Bad had a cinematography that was just breathtaking. Plus, it had the ability to surprise me a little more.
Five great books about 20th-century America:
- Murdering McKinley: The Making of Theodore Roosevelt's America by Eric Rauchway
- The Straight State: Sexuality and Citizenship in Twentieth-Century America by Margot Canaday
- Inventing the "American Way": The Politics of Consensus from the New Deal to the Civil Rights Movement by Wendy L. Wall
- From Bible Belt to Sunbelt: Plain-Folk Religion, Grassroots Politics, and the Rise of Evangelical Conservatism by Darren Dochuk
- Stayin' Alive: The 1970s and the Last Days of the Working Class by Jefferson Cowie