15 June 2015

Christian libertarianism: against the brotherhood of man

A religious fanatic commutes between Albany and Troy, New York. In both cities, I see his signs on bus shelters, streetlamps and street signs. His signs are little decals he sometimes manages to stick quite high up, containing his interpretations of Christianity. In one such post he rejects the idea of a brotherhood of man under the fatherhood of God. There is only the brotherhood of the saved, he says, and only when you join that brotherhood is God your father. Like many Christians for the last century or more, he rejects the premises of a Christian egalitarianism that has found expression in American "Social Gospel" preaching and in sometimes more militant Latin American "liberation theology." I was reminded of this anonymous fanatic as I was reading Kevin M. Kruse's new book One Nation Under God: How Corporate America Invented Christian America. Kruse describes the rise of what he calls "Christian libertarianism" in opposition to the New Deal and its rise to something like cultural dominance in the 1950s. While corporate America didn't literally invent Christian libertarianism, Kruse shows that many of the corporate leaders who bitterly opposed the New Deal threw their support behind preachers who shared their antipathy toward the welfare state, organized labor and anything vaguely socialistic. These preachers merely continued the polemic against the Social Gospel that conservatives had been waging for more than a generation, and they made good money at it. Kruse focuses on James W. Fifield, who built a California megachurch into a media empire that propagandized for Christian libertarianism. Interesting, Fifield was no fundamentalist, preferring a selective reading of Scripture for his own reasons, yet he shared the hostility of many early fundamentalists toward Social Gospel ideals. For Christian libertarians, it seems, preaching the brotherhood of man under the fatherhood of God could only lead to collectivism and statism and away from the churches. Critics of the Social Gospel had long argued that Christian egalitarian -- or worse, secular egalitarianism -- downplayed sin and each individual's dependence upon God's grace and his own discipline for salvation in the next life and success in this one. By seeming to goad people into demanding justice in this world, the Social Gospel, not to mention the atheistic communists waiting in the wings, became supplicants, if not worshippers, of the state. The great fear expressed from the Christian libertarian pulpit was that the state would become the people's god. Worse from their perspective, the social justice demanded by the left wasn't even justice at all. Redistribution of wealth violated the "Thou Shalt Not Steal" amendment, while the demand for redistribution, or the demand for better wages from organized labor, violated the commandment against coveting what others had. You can understand the preachers' anxiety. If the church no longer defined what was right or wrong, how could ministers like Fifield accumulate the fortunes they'd made under the free-enterprise system. As for the threat of international communism, Kruse suggests that it was no more than a useful coincidence, since Christian libertarians saw their struggle against the New Deal in almost apocalyptic terms already.

Kruse somewhat chillingly describes a high-tide of Christianist politics during the Eisenhower years. This movement had its limits, which were recognized when a constitutional amendment that would recognize "the authority and law of Jesus Christ" failed to make it out of Congress. But these were the years when the National Prayer Breakfast was established, "under God" was added to the Pledge of Allegiance" and "freedom under God" became a mantra differentiating the American Way from the secular or communists way. For some people, "under God" may have meant nothing more than "rule of law," compared to which everything was permitted, presumably, for an atheistic and thus absolute government like the USSR. For Christian libertarians, "under God" also served implicitly to limit the aspirations of ordinary Americans. They were not to look to the state for a better life, but depend on themselves, with plenty of guidance from their local churches. The churches seemed to assume that if you weren't a success it was because you were a sinner, while Fifield, Billy Graham and others hailed millionaires and billionaires as exemplars of the Godly life of hard work. It's hard not to assume that Kruse sees these characters as little more than toadies for the rich, but he notes that not so long before the clergy was skeptical toward political conservatives, or at least reluctant to play the role of propagandists for the Republicans or the Liberty League. The right finally won them over by convincing them that a crusade against the New Deal and all we'd call "big government" today was their own idea, to be waged for their own reasons. On the defensive in the Thirties, Christian libertarians took the offensive in the Fifties but sometimes overreached. A climax of Kruse's book is his discussion of Engel v. Vitale, the case that struck down mandatory school prayer. It makes you thank, er, Providence that the Supreme Court exists to stop crude majoritarianism in its tracks. The Court's decision set a firestorm of protest, but it was really an easy call, because the New York Board of Regents had been so blatant as to write a prayer to be read in schools. Although that prayer was designed to be as innocuous and non-sectarian as possible, the mere act of drafting it was unacceptable state interference with religion. To this day, people date the decline of America to that decision, but it was really one of the Court's finest hours.

Before long, the Sixties would have the churches back on the defensive, with the fundamentalists poised finally to enter the lists in the Seventies. But for a time the U.S. had resembled the milder forms of Islamism, which demand a similar acknowledgment from their nations of their laws' dependence on Allah. Of course, few if any Christianists in the Fifties called for killing secular humanists or even Communists. On the other hand, Islam does have a stronger notion of social justice than many forms of Christianity, though it, too, is often honored in the breach. Kruse's book is useful for helping us recognize the existence of something that can be fairly described as "Christianism" on analogy with "Islamism," not to mention how much power it won here not so long ago. Christians can say the label -- which is mine, not Kruse's, though his own "Christian libertarianism" is problematic in the full context of libertarianism --  is unfair because Islamism carries connotations of violence, but let's not confuse means and ends. They may prefer to compare means, presuming they'll look better for it, but from my perspective the end is hardly better than that of Islamism, and justifies no more. Even on their own Christian terms, it seems wrong to recruit Jesus to the side of the moneychangers against the poor. It's like pulling a camel through the eye of a needle in the other direction, and the result is pretty nasty.

1 comment:

hobbyfan said...

I've seen those decals, too. Not just on buses, but at bus shelters and street lamps. I wish I could meet this guy.