Were Libertarians Behind the "Christian Nation" Idea?

The New York Times has a hostile, blinkered vision of a forgotten religious libertarian group, Spiritual Mobilization.


Kevin M. Kruse wrote last week in the New York Times about a very much forgotten early libertarian movement group called Spiritual Mobilization.

It brought a libertarian message to mostly Protestant churches in the 1940s and '50s. The group is little noted nor long remembered, though I wrote about them, their publication Faith and Freedom, and their curious breaking apart (caused to some degree by a wave of LSD enthusiasm among some of the group's principals) at some length in my 2007 book Radicals for Capitalism: A Freewheeling History of the Modern American Libertarian Movement.

Just one thing about them seemed worthy of note to Kruse when explaining them to modern readers of the Times. Kruse is, his bioline states, "a professor of history at Princeton and the author, most recently, of "One Nation Under God: How Corporate America Invented Christian America."

Kruse begins and frames his essay with the idea that the concept of America as a "Christian nation" has nothing to do with the Founding generation, but is rather a product of a religious counter-revolution starting in the 1930s. Then he brings in Spiritual Mobilization:

throughout the 1930s and '40s, corporate leaders marketed a new ideology that combined elements of Christianity with an anti-federal libertarianism. Powerful business lobbies like the United States Chamber of Commerce and the National Association of Manufacturers led the way, promoting this ideology's appeal in conferences and P.R. campaigns….

The Rev. James W. Fifield — known as "the 13th Apostle of Big Business" and "Saint Paul of the Prosperous" — emerged as an early evangelist for the cause. Preaching to pews of millionaires at the elite First Congregational Church in Los Angeles, Mr. Fifield said reading the Bible was "like eating fish — we take the bones out to enjoy the meat. All parts are not of equal value." He dismissed New Testament warnings about the corrupting nature of wealth. Instead, he paired Christianity and capitalism against the New Deal's "pagan statism."

Through his national organization, Spiritual Mobilization, founded in 1935, Mr. Fifield promoted "freedom under God." By the late 1940s, his group was spreading the gospel of faith and free enterprise in a mass-circulated monthly magazine and a weekly radio program that eventually aired on more than 800 stations nationwide. It even encouraged ministers to preach sermons on its themes in competitions for cash prizes. Liberals howled at the group's conflation of God and greed; in 1948, the radical journalist Carey McWilliams denounced it in a withering exposé. But Mr. Fifield exploited such criticism to raise more funds and redouble his efforts.

The Times article goes on to discuss some people who apparently did actually try to inject Christian ritual into government itself to some degree, from Rev. Abraham Vereide to Rev. Billy Graham.

But despite giving so much space in his short article, called "A Christian Nation? Since When?" to Spiritual Mobilization, he provides no evidence that they in any way were on a mission to inject Christian ritual into the state. 

I've read and written more about Spiritual Mobilization than most living journalists or historians, but even I, who was writing a book about dozens of organizations and publications and hundreds of activists over 50 years and needing to finish in one lifetime, haven't read everything the organization published. Maybe there is stuff under their aegis that was about making government Christian in an explicit sense, the sort of "religious right" stuff with which Kruse starts off his essay:

57 percent of Republicans favored officially making the United States a Christian nation. But in 2007, a survey by the First Amendment Center showed that 55 percent of Americans believed it already was one.

The confusion is understandable. For all our talk about separation of church and state, religious language has been written into our political culture in countless ways. It is inscribed in our pledge of patriotism, marked on our money, carved into the walls of our courts and our Capitol. Perhaps because it is everywhere, we assume it has been from the beginning.

But if Spiritual Mobilization is guilty of that sort of thing, I never came across evidence of it. It's an interesting thing to blame on the libertarians, quasi-theocracy, but I don't think it holds up, and Kruse provides no evidence for it here himself.

But here are some more characteristic selections from what Spiritual Mobilization was about, which might give you a different, and more accurate, sense of what these big-business backed Christian libertarians were up to.

This is from a pamphlet they issued, derived from an article in the September 1952 issue of Faith and Freedom, called "The Christian's Political Responsibility." There is little in it that matches what most moderns would think of when they hear about advocates of America as a "Christian nation."

First, the essay discussed how a Christian should judge the American government's actions:

Does…the program, platform, or act encourage the Christian principle of love or the collectivist principle of compulsion?

If it proposes to take the property or income of some for the specific benefit or use of others, does it violate the Commandment: "Thou shalt not steal?"

Is it necessary to use the compulsion of political means in this instance or could the ends be accomplished by Christian co-operation and non-political voluntary associations?

And what was the Christian's mission, after considering government policies in those particular Christian terms? Some of the suggestions in that essay:

"We must strengthen our efforts to live up to our own Christianity and not expect government to require others to carry our responsibilities for us…We cannot know, in advance, the degree of corruptibility of candidates for public office…All we know is that power corrupts….therefore, all we can do….is to minimize the power and size of our government…..we should stop asking government to assume more and more responsibilities–responsibilities that should be assumed by the individual himself…we should cease trying to organize world freedom by economic, military, and political means–by force. Simultaneously, we should spend more of our time, effort, and money voluntarily teaching the Word of God–the word of love–in our own and other lands….Applying Christian principles to politics will take all the intelligence and courage the Christian can muster. he will be called 'reactionary' by one clique and 'radical' by another. He will be labeled crackpot, dangerous…."

Nothing in it spoke of enforcement of Christian morality on law in the sense of punishing anyone for doing anything immoral that isn't a direct crime against others' person or property. None of it spoke of imposing Christian ritual or language in affairs of state explicitly.

Indeed, an essay by Orval Watts from Faith and Freedom called "Lest We Forget" on the roots of the separation of church and state states that our forebears sought such separation because "they wanted to prevent the blight of bureaucracy and see to it that government could never use religion for political purposes. They knew that such political perversion meant the end of true religion."

And my favorite, from an article in the April 1951 Faith and Freedom by Foundation for Economic Education founder Leonard Read, written during the Korean War:

"I have yet to find a single person who is in favor of the present war, which is to say, I have yet to find an individual who is anxious himself to give up home, family, fortune, and even life, shoulder a gun, and go forth to kill Chinese."

Now, does that fit in anyone's estimation of the jingoism of the modern "religious right"/"Christian nation" types with whom Kruse tries to link Spiritual Mobilization?  I don't know why the editors of the Times thought that a very misleading representation of a long-dead organization that none of their readers had heard of and that impacts no particular current controversy was what their readers needed, but all's fair in war against libertarians these days.

Many full issues of the very hard-to-find publication Faith and Freedom are at the website of the Mises Institute. While I cannot be sure their search engine is impeccable, a search for the phrase "Christian nation" on their site brought up no content from Faith and Freedom.