As Republicans celebrated the passage of their sweeping tax reform bill last week, religious liberals were equally quick to vent their frustration. Thousands of faith leaders signed letters decrying how the bill will increase the number of Americans without health insurance by 13 million over the next eight years, and others were arrested while protesting the bill that stands to disproportionately benefit the rich.
But their outcry was dismissed by conservative voices such as blogger Erick Erickson, who insisted the bill’s critics were trying to “pass off” their “individual” Christian responsibility to the poor to the “government.”
“There is no tax rate that is or is not sinful,” Erickson wrote. “The fact is by letting people keep more of their of their money, people are able to do more to help the poor themselves.”
Meanwhile, President Donald Trump celebrated the tax plan by conflating it with his promise to make Americans say “Merry Christmas” again—a message that is increasingly perceived to be evocative of his penchant for Christian nationalism, a complex but powerful conflation of faith and ardent patriotism.
“When I was here last time, I said, we’re going to have Christmas again,” he said. “With Trump as your President, we are going to be celebrating Merry Christmas again, and it’s going to be done with a big, beautiful tax cut.”
These various faith statements about tax policy may seem somewhat disconnected. But history suggests they’re tied together in more ways than one, and represent the latest salvo in a nearly century-long debate between “Social Gospel” Christians (who championed government programs that helped the poor) and “Christian Libertarians” (who largely did not). This theological dispute is what helped create the Religious Right in the first place, as well as the resurgence of Christian nationalism we see today.
In fact, according to Princeton historian Kevin Kruse’s 2015 book, One Nation Under God: How Corporate American Invented Christian America, the fervent declaration that citizens of the United States live in a “Christian America” is a relatively new concept, emerging out of an alliance between fundamentalist Christians and corporate tycoons who wanted to preach a pro-capitalist message—a message that continues to resonate with contemporary Republicans, conservative Christians, and Trump himself.
The invention of ‘Christian libertarianism’
In the early 20th century, the dominant religious force in American politics wasn’t conservative faithful, but liberal Protestant Christians—especially those inspired by the “Social Gospel” movement. Spurred in part by the negative aspects of the Industrial Revolution, Social Gospel Christians focused on the ills of “social” sin and sought to create the “Kingdom of God” on earth by bettering the lives of everyday people. Clergy such as Walter Rauschenbusch preached about the plights of working people, calling on churchgoers to fight societal woes such as poverty and labor issues.
The theology formed the spiritual foundation for what is now called the Progressive Movement, and won over several prominent public figures by the 1930s. President Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s Secretary of Labor, Frances Perkins, was a passionate Social Gospel devotee. Many leaders of the left-leaning movement were also adamant supporters of the New Deal, the landmark series of regulations, public works projects, and financial reforms instituted by FDR throughout the 30s.
Kruse argues FDR and his allies were known for using Social Gospel religious rhetoric to chastise champions of capitalism, once delivering a speech criticizing a Republican plan to privatize public utilities that began, “This is a history and a sermon on the subject of water power, and I preach from the Old Testament. The text is ‘Thou shall not steal.’”
But as Kruse documents in his book, many conservative Christians did not ascribe to the Social Gospel, and still others did not celebrate FDR’s sweeping reforms. Corporate tycoons were especially unhappy with how the president’s rhetoric and his rash of regulations tarnished the image — and bottom line — of Big Business. By the 1940s, pro-business lobbying groups such as the National Association of Manufacturers (NAM) were already mounting a public-relations counterattack that fused faith, patriotism, and capitalism.
“Economic facts are important, but they will never check the virus of collectivism,” H.W. Prentis, president of NAM, said in a speech at the time. “The only antidote is a revival of American patriotism and religious faith.”
The result, Kruse says, was the creation of the Spiritual Mobilization movement, led by Congregationalist minister Rev. James W. Fifield Jr.
Kruse describes the pastor as a sort of progenitor to modern megapastors: Fifield’s Southern California-based worship community was the single largest Congregationalist church in the world in the early 1940s at around 4,000 members, and his adult education series “The College of Life” claimed some 28,000 paying participants. His chauffeur drove him around in an expensive car, his parishioners were often famous and wealthy, and a reporter once described him as the “Apostle to Millionaires.” And most importantly for business moguls, he was a big fan of capitalism—and knew how to preach it.
“The easiest way to override a secular authority is to appeal to a higher power,” Kruse told ThinkProgress in a phone interview.
Fifield set out to do just that. Backed by money from oil tycoons, General Motors, and other patrons from across the corporate world, Fifield slowly built an national network of ministers who preached a message that glorifying the government was a denial of God. By the late 1940s, Kruse explains, Spiritual Mobilization claimed more than 17,000 ministers as representatives and published its own publication filled spiritual messages that opposed the Social Gospel, the New Deal, and liberalism they equated with totalitarianism.
“Essentially, they argue that Christianity and capitalism are both systems in which individuals rise and fall according to their own merit,” Kruse said in a separate interview with NPR. “The New Deal, they argue, violates this natural order. In fact, they argue that the New Deal and the regulatory state violates the Ten Commandments.”
When “Red Scare” culture arose in the 1950s, Fifield and Spiritual Mobilization began openly conflating Christian libertarianism with Christian nationalism in an effort to push back against “godless” Communists. The organization published a monthly magazine entitled “Faith and Freedom,” where concepts of “liberty” and “personal responsibility” were touted as “spiritual values.” The idea of “freedom under God” became a rallying cry: Pastors preached “freedom under God” homilies as part of a sermon contest held on “Independence Sunday,“ thousands gathered at “Freedom Under God” rallies, and versions of the phrase soon worked their way into the Pledge of Allegiance—and, perhaps most fittingly, onto U.S. currency.
In so doing, they created the lexicon of Christian nationalism still in use today.
A legacy of praising God, country, and wealth
Over time, the original goal of promoting Christian libertarianism became something of a side project alongside triumphant God-and-country rhetoric. The effort ultimately created the structure and ideological framework that gave rise to what we now call the Religious Right, which has been most concerned about social issues such as same-sex marriage and abortion.
“This language that is crafted in the 1930s and 1940s to press for economic conservatism gets transformed over the course of the 20th century, and there’s an unintended consequence of it now being a rallying cry for social conservatives,” Kruse told ThinkProgress.
Still, sects of modern conservative Christianity retain elements of Christian libertarianism, often set alongside Christian nationalism. Republicans have cited the Bible while chipping away at programs that help the poor in recent years, for instance, drawing inspiration from theology that delineates between “deserving” and “undeserving” poor.
Kruse also pointed to the landmark 2014 Supreme Court case Burwell v. Hobby Lobby, which granted the craft store giant an exemption from the Affordable Care Act’s contraception mandate.
“If you look at, say, the line of businesses that would be lined up behind Hobby Lobby,” he said. “That argument in that case is essentially drawn directly out of Christian libertarianism, that corporations have certain religious beliefs, and those beliefs trump any kind of government action.”
One of Trump’s favorite lines to quote on the stump, “We worship God, not government,” would have fit right into the sermons of Spiritual Mobilization pastors.
“That is almost a verbatim quote from some of the people I study in the book,” Kruse said.
Kruse suggested the most obvious theological legacy of Spiritual Mobilization is the development of what we now call the Prosperity Gospel movement, an often blatantly pro-capitalist form of Christianity that instructs church members they can be blessed with wealth and success if they simply strengthen their faith (a pursuit that often includes donations to their pastor).
Although modern Prosperity Gospel preachers had been largely apolitical until Trump’s rise, “the Donald” has made a point to surround himself with “health and wealth” preachers such as such as Paula White, who currently serves as one of his spiritual advisers. While White’s recent embrace of Christian nationalist rhetoric came as a surprise, Kruse’s work hints the prosperity gospel was never far removed from conflations of piety and patriotism.
And then there is the other connection Kruse says didn’t make it into his book. When Fifield was looking for a replacement to run the organization in 1947, he sought out Norman Vincent Peale, an author and pastor of Marble Collegiate Church in New York City.
Peale was an important figure at the time, and remains influential to this day—especially for Donald Trump, who attended his church. Peale’s teachings and sermons on self-love are credited with helping craft the president’s unflinching self-confidence, and the pastor remains one of the few historical religious figures Trump mentions by name, once calling him “one of the greatest speakers” he’d ever encountered. Peale’s 1952 book, The Power Of Positive Thinking, is also often listed as a progenitor to the modern prosperity gospel movement.
“There’s a real connection there,” Kruse said. He said Peale ultimately passed on Fifield’s offer, reasoning he could make more money “staying at Marble Collegiate and doing his book tours.”
It’s not always a straight line between the Spiritual Mobilization movement and modern Christian nationalists, Kruse said. The movement has morphed and splintered over time, and Fifield’s ideological descendants often vehemently disagree with each other. For example: Erick Erickson has been deeply critical of Trump, and has decried the Prosperity Gospel as a heresy—as have many other Christian conservatives.
But as Kruse notes, the tendency for the Religious Right, Christian nationalism, and pro-capitalist theology to occupy the same space is something that happens periodically in the United States, in part because they often emerge out of the same conversations. He said this is especially true in historical moments when the accumulation of personal wealth is seen to be an ideal—like, say, when the country elects a prominent businessman as president.
“I do think there is a historical pattern here,” he said. “When society decides that…’Greed is good,’ often you see religious leaders acquiescing to that—not all of them, but many see what their congregations are believing in, and fit themselves to that.”