We try not to get too “preachy” in the pages of Leben, preferring to concentrate on telling the stories of our shared history.  After all, there are plenty of theological journals, blogs and podcasts churning out a daily diet of theological kibble and bits. There are, however, only two publications devoted to telling the stories of the faithful, our own magazine and our good friends over at Christian History.  Our approach will be, as usual, to tell you what happened and let you, the reader, sort it out as it relates to your own church, denomination or situation.


 

As a free market advocate steeped in the literature of Austrian economics, I come to the present subject with no shortage of misgivings.  While I do not seriously question the innumerable material blessings which the whole world has enjoyed thanks to free market capitalism, it is quite another thing to suggest an equivalence of capitalism and the gospel.  While theologically conservative Protestants were quick to call out their liberal colleagues for substituting the social gospel for the blood atonement, they (we) seem almost blind to the syncretism that has occurred in our own camp.

Growing up in the conservative evangelical south, we had our doubts about a few things, but there were other things we just knew because, well, everybody knew them.  Like most churches in the south, mine prominently displayed the American flag and the “Christian” flag on either side of the dais.  We recited the Lord’s Prayer every day in my public school classroom, and the all-white student body marched as one across the street to the Virginia Heights Baptist Church for Thanksgiving and Christmas services.  In other words, it was a pretty homogenous culture, which didn’t have to think either long or hard to conclude that communism was godless and so our system was, well, the opposite.

Now, let me jump to a few conclusions to save you the trouble.  I’m not the least bit offended with the Lord’s Prayer being recited in public fora, school children attending religious assemblies and a host of other decidedly non-pluralistic practices, but I also don’t think they’re particularly important.  None of my own children attended public schools, and civil religion isn’t worth fighting for. It’s not the gospel, and so to lose it is to lose nothing.

The problem arises when we allow syncretism to water down and – as it must – eventually destroy the gospel message.  Thomas Jefferson wasted no time in attacking divine revelation, followed by Thomas Paine’s rationalism.  Emerson and the Trancendentalists leveled salvo after salvo at orthodox Christianity, while down in Pennsylvania John Williamson Nevin was turning his students to Rome before he himself tottered off into the Swedenborgian mist.

Harry Emerson Fosdick, Walter Rauschenbusch, Karl Barth and a host of others took aim, embracing virtually any alternative to the idea that Jesus really truly was born of a virgin, died to save sinners, was literally resurrected and is coming again at the last day.  We’re so very good at seeing the flaws in all of these men, but is it possible we are blind to our own syncretism?

In an article in the April 2015 issue of the New Republic, Elizabeth Bruenig reviews two recent books, Kevin Kruse’s One Nation Under God: How Corporate America Invented Christian America, and Nicole Aschoff’s The New Prophets of Capital. Bruenig describes herself as “Christian Left”, which means she doesn’t have a particularly good grasp of economics but understands, for example, that abortion is wrong. While neither of the books she is discussing has much sympathy for American evangelicalism, their outsider perspective can be, at once, both revealing and troubling. As Will Rogers put it, “It’s not what we don’t know that hurts. It’s what we know that ain’t so.”

And what we know that “ain’t so” makes quite a long list.  The Pledge of Allegiance is as good a place to start as any. The original Pledge was written by a Baptist preacher named Francis Bellamy who co-founded the Society of Christian Socialists.  Two years after the group’s founding, his congregation asked for his resignation.  Bellamy subsequently left the ministry.

Bellamy had three great loves; public education, nationalism (which is conceived of as national ownership of the means of production) and socialism.  He took a job writing for the magazine Youth’s Companion whose owner saw the upcoming 400th Anniversary of Columbus’ “discovering” America as a promoter’s dream.  Bellamy was tasked with writing a student pledge to the American flag, as part of the campaign to have “Columbus Day” declared a national holiday.

The magazine then decided that every schoolhouse needed to have an American flag flying over their little charges, and proceeded to sell more than 26,000 flags.  Patriotism turned out to big good business.  The pledge was written in a single evening by Bellamy, and has been regularly “improved” every now and then, first by changing “my flag” to “the flag” (reportedly at the urging of the Daughters of the American Revolution), and then we needed to make sure those little immigrant kids knew what flag they were talking about, so “of the United States” was added, and later “of America”.

The Pledge was delivered by the nation’s youth standing at attention with a stiff-armed salute called, appropriately enough, the “Bellamy salute”.  For obvious reasons, this was switched to a hand over the heart when the stiff- armed salute was later adopted by the Nazis.

It wasn’t until President Eisenhower’s pastor endorsed calls to add “under God” to the Pledge that this final edit became what most of us may have assumed was a paean of more ancient origins.  Godless communism needed to be met with a good dose of civil religion and spicing up the Pledge was a good start.  We also added “One Nation Under God” as our official national motto and decreed that it appear on our currency.  “In God We Trust” had occasionally appeared on coins since Civil War Times, but not without controversy.

Teddy Roosevelt often seemed to be the embodiment of a civil religion, but a proposal to add the phrase to a new $20 gold piece brought this response:

“My own feeling in the matter is due to my very firm conviction that to put such a motto on coins, or to use it in any kindred manner, not only does no good but does positive harm, and is in effect irreverence, which comes dangerously close to sacrilege…”1New York Times, November 14, 1907

The problem of post-Depression America, in the eyes of many in the industrial and financial castes, was that American trust in major corporations and the captains of industry was at an all-time low and remedial efforts were needed.  While genuine Christianity surely offered an antidote to revolutionary socialism, it seemed to depend an awful on the blessings of God, and corporate America preferred more of a guaranteed outcome.

There has always been a strong communitarian strain to American Christianity, a covenantalism that manifested itself in local churches, and was wary of the British notions of class. Everyone mattered, and yes, you should stop to help that stranger in need.  We didn’t give it a second thought that such an others-directed outworking of our faith was not at all common elsewhere.

In Kevin Kruse’s One Nation Under God: How Corporate America Invented Christian America, the author lays out a deftly detailed history of Christianity’s service to capitalism in the United States. “Christianity was brought into the service of laissez-faire economics in Puritan devotion to work and thrift, but the decisive moment at which Christianity fused with free enterprise in the American psyche occurred, Kruse argues, in the middle of the twentieth century.”2Bruenig, Elizabeth; The New Republic, April, 2015.

So sure, we have that Puritan thriftiness, but that doesn’t explain the all-in association of capitalism and Christianity.  It was a linkage that I found utterly natural as a college student.  Steeped in a mixture of Southern evangelical social conservatism and anti-communism, it was an easy segue to Hayek, Mises and Friedman.  Now, in the interests of full disclosure, I certainly agree that the Bible speaks to economics, as it does to every other area of life.  As a college student, I sold my first article to Applied Christianity, a magazine previously known as Christian Economics.  What I didn’t know at the time was that the magazine was a heavily subsidized affair. Bruenig continues,

“Concerned that populist politics might endanger their wealth, America’s monied interests did what they do best: They bought a solution. It came in the form of James W. Fifield Jr., a Congregationalist pastor who made his fortune in Southern California by preaching to the fabulously wealthy and accepting their patronage. Fifield, Kruse notes, was especially gifted at assuring wealthy Christians that their riches were evidence of virtue rather than vice. A philosophical descendant of Max Weber, Fifield married Christian thought with a new era of economic development, and spread the gospel through his organization, Spiritual Mobilization. Its mission was simple: to stamp out Christian support for a generous welfare state—which paired naturally with New Deal concern for the poor, elderly, and vulnerable—and to advance a new theory of Christian libertarianism.”3Ibid.

School children in Southington, Connecticut performing the Ballamy salute, May 1942

The rich and powerful have always tried to reshape the world in their own image, from the Carnegies and Rockefellers to Adolph Coors, Richard Scaife, George Soros, and Bill and Melinda Gates.  Occasionally, such efforts end in a cure for disease, the feeding of the hungry and so forth, but sometimes they simply resemble botched cosmetic surgery, leaving a society to suffer the ills and embarrassment until the effects wear off. Of course, they never wear off entirely, and so it’s a worthwhile exercise to occasionally examine our lives and culture and gauge their relative toxicity.

For American evangelicals, the answer is a mixed bag of false promises, self-deception and, ironically, a much more enlightened electorate when it comes to issues of economics.  You see, despite the disingenuous means employed, the economic principles our benefactors grafted onto the corpus theological are basically sound.  The commandment against theft does speak to the issue of degrading the value of currency, appropriating bank accounts and forcing the productive to provide for the willingly unproductive.

Ah, but there’s the rub.  It wasn’t long before Christianity was little more than a system of ethics stuck onto the side of the engine of capitalism.  And soon, the willingly unproductive became merely the unproductive.  While Christianity expressly calls for caring for the weak, the poor, the feeble and elderly, Twentieth Century libertarianism increasingly dismissed or ignored such Christian idiosyncrasies. And it was Rev. Fifield who was the chief enabler.

James Fifield during a radio broadcast

Fifeld was called to serve as pastor to the First Congregational Church in Los Angeles, a church which had recently incurred a huge debt load to pay for an elaborate facility.  The membership was 1,500, but tripled in a few years under Fifield’s leadership.  The debt was retired by a congregation composed chiefly of the wealthy and the very wealthy.  Fifield’s Spiritual Mobilization campaign was sweet music to the rich, and sweeter still to those in the process of getting richer.  His speech to the National Association of Manufacturers in 1940 put him on the map with corporate leaders, and the back-channel funding began in earnest.

A radio program soon followed to preach the new religion of “freedom under God”.  Bible verses littered the corporate narrative of baptized capitalism, as the lexicons grew more and more interwoven.  The problem was that Fifeld wasn’t particularly conservative when it came to his theology.  He fought the proposed merger of the Congregationalists into the Evangelical and Reformed Church, a merger which eventually went through and subsequently morphed into the United Church of Christ.  The Evangelical and Reformed Church, for its part, had a virulently socialist element that had manifested itself in the Potomac Synod, in particular. Its strident socialist rhetoric was sure to scare off the likes of Fifeld, but sadly, neither side seemed to notice how the gospel was essentially missing from the debate. There was the social gospel of the National Council of Churches, and then there was the anti-social gospel of Fifield.

From the New York Times, November 14, 1907

As time passed, and the personalities changed, so did the temporary alliances.  Christianity was fine for the fifties, but the new religion was self-actualization and individualism. In other words, i.e. Bruenig’s words,

“…the ground has shifted. The preoccupation with Christian doctrine that animated the ardent pro-capitalists of yesteryear has subsided to a vaguely spiritual moralism. We now live in the age of “moral therapeutic deism,” where the shapes and colors of religion are imported into mass-market self-help schemes.”

Great.  Just great.

Untethered from even the semblance of moral suasion, secular economic libertarianism toyed with anarchism, but eventually settled into either the essentially benign work of Leonard Read’s Foundation for Economic Education, or the malevolent cauldron of Ayn Rand.  As one reads through the history of how causes, campaigns, issues and movements overtook, swallowed up and then spewed out evangelicalism, it will expose connections we have been part of without necessarily being aware of.

I feel deeply privileged to have met and in some cases known well a number of these players.  Fifield was before my time, but I’ve met and known many of the other players.   I am profoundly thankful for the positive things they have wrought, but deeply saddened that the church was harmed and knocked off-mission in the process.

I know thy works, and thy labour, and thy patience, and how thou canst not bear them which are evil: and thou hast tried them which say they are apostles, and are not, and hast found them liars:

And hast borne, and hast patience, and for my name’s sake hast laboured, and hast not fainted.

Nevertheless I have somewhat against thee, because thou hast left thy first love.

 Remember therefore from whence thou art fallen, and repent, and do the first works; or else I will come unto thee quickly, and will remove thy candlestick out of his place, except thou repent.

But this thou hast, that thou hatest the deeds of the Nicolaitanes, which I also hate.

He that hath an ear, let him hear.

Rev.2 1-7

We don’t really know who the Nicolaitanes were, but it’s pretty clear that, regardless of the perceived enemy, it simply won’t do for the church to leave its first love. He that hath an ear, let him hear.

[1] New York Times, November 14, 1907

[2] Bruenig, Elizabeth; The New Republic, April, 2015.

[3] Ibid.

Endnotes   [ + ]

1. New York Times, November 14, 1907
2. Bruenig, Elizabeth; The New Republic, April, 2015.
3. Ibid.