Libertarian Papers Vol. 2, Art. No. 14 (2010)
The Importance of Christian Thought for the American Libertarian Movement:
Christian Libertarianism, 1950–71
In his 1971 book, Betrayal of the American Right, Murray Rothbard argued that the Old Right in American politics, those isolationists and libertarians who had provided conservative opposition to New Deal liberal ideas since 1933, had been ‘betrayed’ by 1964. Led by William F. Buckley, the New Right had transformed American conservatism, a change marked by the Goldwater presidential campaign, by validating support for the welfare-warfare state that the Old Right had so trenchantly opposed for the previous thirty years. Rothbard correctly identified the root cause of the ideological schism that had separated American conservatives since the establishment of Buckley’s National Review in 1955; the extent to which the State should be involved in defeating communism abroad and progressivism at home. He, also, carefully related the contending philosophies of the Old and New American Rights. But what he failed to adequately explain was the importance of Christian thought to the libertarian movement. This article will remedy that omission by exploring the reasons why Christian libertarians, between 1950 and 1971, protested America’s liberal public policies. It will also present their alternative vision of how the United States should be governed; or, more accurately, how and why Americans should govern themselves. For only by understanding the religious arguments for political liberty can we appreciate America’s traditional defense of individual freedom.
Spiritual values were the predominant justification for espousing a libertarian viewpoint before 1971, and continue today to provide the founding convictions of many American libertarians and conservatives. In fact, if the beliefs of the founding fathers are taken at face value, then Christian libertarianism—the defence of individual freedom as the will of God—is the first and most enduring American political and moral philosophy. A case can even be made that Christian libertarianism forms the foundation of any claims for ‘American Exceptionalism.’ And as a body of political thought, largely as a consequence of the pressures exerted upon individual freedom by New Deal liberalism and events of the early cold war, Christian libertarianism received its fullest exposition in the 1950s and ‘60s.1
The winter of 1949–50 marked a transitional moment in the history of the intellectual conservative movement in the United States. Before the traumatic events of that period of the cold war conservatism existed only as the philosophy of a marginalized, in Alfred Jay Nock’s term, ‘Remnant,’ of scattered and isolated opponents of the liberal juggernaut. After that critical winter of 1949–50, however, conservatives, instilled with a new apocalyptic urgency, slowly began to coalesce as an organized movement dedicated to ending liberal dominance in Washington. Historians of post-World War II conservative intellectualism have paid most attention to the emergence of the New Right in the 1950s, especially the establishment of the National Review in 1955 by William F. Buckley Jr. and associates. Historians have also commented extensively on the pivotal role of the Old Right libertarian journal the Freeman in helping build the rudimentary outlines of a philosophy that, by 1964, could immediately be identified in the political arena as a conservative alternative to the existing liberal consensus.
Far less attention, however, has been given to two journals, Christian Economics and Faith and Freedom, which first appeared in 1949–50. Both journals promoted the theory of Christian libertarianism, and their importance to the history of intellectual conservatism is twofold. First, their defense of individual freedom and the free market, based on religious principles, provided conservatism with a moral foundation—or certitude—upon which to confront the menace of both international communism and domestic liberalism. Second, an appreciation of Christian libertarianism dispels once and for all the lazy association of libertarianism with, as one historian has claimed, an “atomistic economism found wanting by conservatives who see humans as spiritual creatures, reflecting a superior side of human nature.”2 For libertarians individual freedom is an end in itself, not merely the means for the strong to dominate the weak in a capitalistic world of dog eat dog. As Murray Rothbard explained in the Libertarian Manifesto, the libertarian “does not want to place man in any cage.” What the libertarian “wants for everyone is freedom, the freedom to act morally or immorally, as each man shall decide.”3 Christian libertarians made exactly the same argument, but with the added proviso that the Bible contained the lessons that would persuade everyone of faith to decide to use their ‘freedom to act morally.’
Before 1949, journals like Human Events, analysis, Plain Talk, and American Affairs provided a platform for authors such as Garet Garrett and Frank Chodorov to air their grievances at the growth of federal government, and for isolationist historians like Harry Elmer Barnes to cry unheeded at the warmongering tendencies of the liberal state. Voices were also raised in the conservative wilderness in books by Isobel Paterson, John T. Flynn, and Friedrich Hayek warning that the ‘Road to Serfdom’ beckoned if America did not abandon the nation’s disastrous experiment with collectivism that had started in 1933. They were, largely, ignored as the liberal media portrayed them, and any dissenting opinion to the prevailing progressive orthodoxy of Washington, as reactionaries intent on returning the United States to a Robber Baron past of capitalist exploitation and greed. Liberals were aided in this presentation, after 1945, by an American public more concerned with garnering their share of the American Dream in the new age of prosperity and affluence for all, than with questioning the assumptions that underlay the existence of the liberal Leviathan.4
But that complacency was shattered in the fall of 1949 by two international catastrophes. First, the discovery that the Soviets now possessed the A-bomb, and presumably the means to deliver it within the borders of the United States, destroyed the illusion that America was safe from physical destruction. Second, the news that the countless hordes of mainland China had fallen under the sway of a Communist dictatorship ended the optimism that the Cold War would be ended swiftly and painlessly. Before 1949, Americans worried about communism, but in the abstract. Truman had saved Greece and Turkey with his ‘Doctrine’; a declaration of foreign policy that would presumably suffice to blunt communist expansionism everywhere. Marshall was saving Europe from communist takeover with his Recovery ‘Plan.’ And HUAC had protected the home front by purging the Communists in Hollywood. All, if not well, was under control in the world. But now the threat America faced from Communism was real and immediate, and all the more frightening because Americans could not understand how these two disasters had been allowed to happen.
So, Americans were even more shocked to find in the winter of 1950 that the reason for these international debacles was the internal subversion of the United States by domestic and foreign Communist agents. The guilty verdict reached by the jury at Alger Hiss’s second perjury trial in January 1950, followed almost immediately by the announcement America’s nuclear secrets had been passed to the Soviets by the British (originally German) scientist Klaus Fuchs, incensed Americans. And anger soon turned to fury when on February 9, 1950, Senator Joe McCarthy informed his fellow citizens that the country’s Government, especially the State Department, was riddled with traitors, and that he had the evidence to prove it. If this was not enough astonishment for Americans, the unexpected invasion of South Korea by the Communist North provoked the dawning realization that once more American boys were to be sent to fight for freedom in some foreign land.
It was at this point that American conservatism began to emerge as an organized voice of intellectual opposition to liberal dogma at home and the communist menace abroad. 1950 saw the beginnings of a conservative movement dedicated to educating American citizens, and especially the opinion makers in society, about the errors inherent in the liberal philosophy; and as a concomitant, in reawakening their fellow Americans to the correct principles to be learnt from the country’s traditional belief in conservative ideas. The object of conservatives after 1950 was to bring together and propagate the opinions of the critics of the New Deal and early cold war years, and to couch their message in terms that would reassure an anxious populace that conservatism could save America from a perplexing future. Unsurprisingly, given America’s past as a Christian nation, most attention in the early years of the new conservative movement was given to the disastrous abandonment of correct religious values in the United States, especially by those swayed by the false arguments of the high priests of the social gospel order, the National Council of Churches. Consideration was also given to the proper application of the moral lessons contained in scripture to the just relationship between the State and the individual, and to the conflict taking place between the free and communist worlds.
It was these two questions that formed the basis for the establishment of the two journals that specifically promoted the idea of Christian libertarianism; Faith and Freedom in December 1949, and Christian Economics in May 1950. But, as crucially for this fledgling development of a conservative movement, other journals also espoused a philosophy of individual free will and economic freedom based on religious ethics. Often overlooked in discussions of the libertarian ideology contained in the Freeman, first published November 1950, is the number of articles that used religious and moral lessons to buttress their defence of individual freedom. This article examines the essential propositions of Christian libertarianism as presented in these three journals, and also, in light of the controversy provoked among conservatives by the liberal policies of the National Council of Churches, briefly examines Carl McIntire’s paper Christian Beacon. Lastly, the article presents the testimony of some noted conservative writers as corroborating evidence for the contention that, before 1971 at least, libertarianism in the United States was strongly influenced by religious conviction.
One of the distinguishing features of the conservative intellectual movement after 1950 was the financial backing it attracted from businessmen in the United States. Either through individual donations, or the establishment of think tanks and foundations, industrialists provided the finance needed to spread the conservative message to a wider audience than before.5 One of the most, if not the most, generous of these donors was the retired Pennsylvanian oilman, J. Howard Pew.6 With a gift of personal stock from his company Sun Oil he established the Christian Freedom Foundation (CFF) in May 1950. Because of his personal religious beliefs Pew desired that all his philanthropic activity remained anonymous, and as a result he allowed the story to circulate that the CFF was organized and founded by Howard E. Kershner; the retired Quaker businessman who became the first President of the new Foundation, and editor of the organization’s 4-page bi-weekly paper Christian Economics. The two men’s correspondence, however, reveals that the CFF was Pew’s idea, and that after consultation with Rev. Norman Vincent Peale in the fall of 1949, he invited Kershner to become the President of the new organization.
In a 1961 letter to a friend (at which point he had spent nearly $2.7 million on his organization)7 Pew explained why he had started the CFF in 1950. He stated that in 1946 and 1947, as Assistant Chairman and then Chairman of the Public Relations Committee of the National Association of Manufacturers (NAM), he had commissioned an opinion poll to determine why businessmen were so distrusted by the American public. And why, in general, capitalism was under attack. He was surprised to find that respondents named their ministers as the most influential molders of public opinion, and “shocked,” that “in those tests it came out the Protestant churches were doing more to promote socialism and communism than any other group.” As a consequence, Pew related, he “started a paper to educate ministers”8 in correct principles. And for the next twenty years Pew’s paper, Christian Economics, was sent free to every minister in the United States, approaching at its peak a circulation of 200 000.
What the ministers received was a paper that promoted the idea that the free market economy is implicitly sanctioned, but not specifically endorsed, by lessons contained in the Bible. God gave us the way, the Ten Commandments, by which to live a moral life. Unfortunately, the ‘original sin’ of mankind meant individuals tried to circumvent the Divine law, and only the threat of harsh punishment by an earthly authority prevented the strong from enslaving the weak. In effect, individuals were coerced to obey God’s plan for His creation through fear of the consequences.
The crucial development came, for the Christian libertarian, when Jesus wrote the desire to follow voluntarily the Ten Commandments into the heart of mankind. Jesus gave us the choice, the individual freedom, to believe in Him and his message, or to reject Him. And as no manmade authority can intervene in that decision, the most important an individual can make, then no earthly authority can intervene in an individual’s free agency in those parts of their life—economic, political, or religious—where mankind attempts to be a good Christian and live according to the laws revealed in the Bible. Thus, Government is a ‘necessary evil,’ as Thomas Paine once argued, limited to the police powers of preventing the unregenerate from injuring the ‘life, liberty and property’ of their fellow citizens. When the State arrogated powers to itself more than those basic functions it became the ‘enemy’ of the Christian libertarian, interposing governmental regulations between an individual and their God.
Kershner wrote the editorials for Christian Economics, and had an initial writing staff of two economists, George Koether and Percy E. Greaves, who received instruction from Ludwig von Mises in the correct economic principles to explain to ministers. In an early editorial of September 1951, Kershner set forth a general libertarian position that government should be limited to the basic requirements of: maintaining domestic order, restraining and punishing fraud, providing for the common defense, conducting international relations, and insuring the public health.9 And, for the next twenty years, Kershner and a succession of staff and guest writers (including von Mises, Hayek, Haake, and Roepke) consistently defended that laissez-faire position in relation to the eternal principles contained in the Bible.
The CFF urged a return to: the Gold Standard and the sound money principle that protected the savings of retirees from inflation, the abolition of the welfare state and a return to the voluntary charity impulse that glorified the word of God, and the repeal of the Sixteenth Amendment which, with the establishment of the income tax, had made the State the arbiter of an individual’s conscience when it came to the distribution of property. These last two arguments are developed succinctly by H. Edward Rowe in the Christian Economics article, ‘The Christian Scriptures and Freedom,’ an example of how Christian libertarians applied the lessons in the Bible to contemporary affairs.
Rowe promoted the primacy of individual moral autonomy by arguing, the “Christian Scriptures clearly proclaim the principles essential to freedom in any human society.” And even though they were not carved in stone as the Ten Commandments were the Scriptures, nonetheless, “disclose a way of life” which, “constitute the only solid foundation upon which freedom, self government and economic well-being may be constructed.” In particular, the Bible illustrated five articles of faith which were needed for a free society to exist: freedom of choice, a life based on moral principles, a realistic view of human nature, rewards for service, and personal accountability to God. Of those tenets the first was by far the most important; individual free agency was the “heart of political and economic freedom,” without which there could be no religious freedom.
Rowe continued the article’s explication of the importance of individual free-will by pointing out that the “Bible is replete with evidence of free agency on the part of God and man alike.” God was “free to create and sustain the universe,” and in the act of Creation man emerged free “to accept or reject Him and His way of life.” Further, God had not coerced Jesus to redeem the sins of mankind and, similarly, Jesus had not compelled the rich young ruler to give up his wealth. He was given the choice “to choose wealth instead of God.” Neither, did Scripture state that the recalcitrant young ruler should have his wealth redistributed for him; “Jesus might have instructed his disciples to dispossess the young man and to distribute his goods to the needy, but He did not do that.”
Instead, Jesus taught, and made clear through his actions, that one person could not force another person to act morally. Jesus offered a path to salvation where each individual was at liberty to act according to their conscience, to honor God by voluntarily following the moral lessons contained in the Scriptures. An individual could not be forced, for instance, to give charity as Jesus had given us the “power to choose between right and wrong,” and when the State took that responsibility upon itself (the welfare state) it broke the First, and Great, Commandment—‘Thou shalt have no other Gods before me.’
Rowe then related the example of how Jesus had dealt with the rich young ruler to the Sixteenth Amendment, to prove the eternal (and Absolute) relevance of God’s word. The Federal income tax was introduced in 1913, and for the nearly 100 years since then constitutionalists (adherents of the ‘original intent’ of the document) and libertarians have denounced the Amendment as unconstitutional. Rowe believed, more importantly, that the Amendment should be repealed because it violated the First Commandment. By forcing citizens to pay tax to finance the welfare state the Federal Government replaced God as the keeper of mankind’s conscience. Each individual had the right to dispose of their private property as they wished; if poverty existed they had the choice, or the moral desire if they were good Christians, to use their property to lessen the hardships of their ‘Brothers in God.’ It was not the function of the State to redistribute wealth because when they did so they intervened in the covenant between God and His Creation. And Rowe noted sadly, even Christians, “in one of the greatest tragedies of our time,” were “abandoning the plan for human salvation inaugurated by Christ and are calling in the policeman (State power) to do what they…despair of being able to accomplish by Jesus’ plan.”10
Last word on this brief outline of the Christian libertarian philosophy contained in Christian Economics goes to Kershner’s explanation of the central importance of the Golden Rule to the Christian life; the charitable impulse that led Pew, William Volker, J.C. Penney and other supposedly selfish businessmen of the era to donate most of their hard won substance to philanthropic causes. Kershner believed the Jews of the Old Testament had obeyed the letter of the Ten Commandments, without fully appreciating the spiritual essence (the route to eternal life in heaven) the laws embodied. When the moral imperative to follow Mosaic Law was lost then it became a relatively easy task to break them, and when that happened, inevitably, “the strong quickly find ways of exploiting the weak, and a master-slave relationship develops.”
It was because of this diversion from the intended path to salvation, and because it “is the purpose of God to restore man’s broken fellowship with His maker by the means of spiritual regeneration,” that He had sacrificed His only Son. The Jesus revealed in the New Testament did not coerce obedience with dire threats of retribution. He did not threaten another Sodom and Gomorrah to force compliance with His message; instead He “made the incentive for conduct dependent upon the voluntary wills of men.” The example of Jesus’ life was central to the doctrine of individual freedom because He inspired people to follow the road to salvation, and “men with (such) faith gradually come to believe that God is just as much interested in others as in themselves.” With that realization came an understanding of the dynamic of Christian theology; that when mankind is guided by the Golden Rule in their conduct to each other, then they “can no longer exploit and enslave his fellows.” And when they no longer desire to exploit one another because they do not want to, not because they fear to, only then can all mankind be free.11
It was because they believed all mankind should be free that Christian libertarians looked with dismay upon the rise of communism, with its denial of the centrality of spiritual values to an individual’s existence. Kershner, in a 1957 Commencement Address at Grove City College12 explained to the students, “socialism is anti-God.” He narrated the cradle-to-grave realities of life under a socialist government—which he equated with a communist system—and argued socialism “rejects God’s plans for creating unique individuals and starts back down the trail toward obscuring the person in the mass.” It was the “impudence, and sin of socialism” to “reverse God’s plan and begin the process of reducing individuals to the level of the common denominator.”13 And though Kershner was a Quaker, he believed communism should be contained militarily when it involved the prestige of the United States. Kershner, also, had no time for coexistence, arguing in 1955 that by “treating these cruel Communist tyrants as friends and gentlemen” at the Geneva Summit Conference, “we may have caused a serious decline in the morale of the victims who still have some hope that the U.S. will aid them in throwing off their galling yoke.”14 And the CFF displayed little faith in the United Nations. A 1954 article by V. Orval Watts declared, the “UN is mainly a device for spreading socialist tyranny.”15
Overall, when discussing the imminence of the Soviet threat to the United States way of life, the CFF mirrored the position Chodorov took in his November 1954 debate with William Schlamm in the Freeman (an argument Schlamm continued with Murray Rothbard in 1955 in the May and June issues of Faith and Freedom). The communists would never attack the United States, and there was no reason to destroy communism abroad through military means as the system would, inevitably, destroy itself. The growth of the bureaucratic State to administer America’s increased military establishment posed more of a danger to individual freedoms than the Soviets ever would. But, in general, foreign policy issues received relatively little attention in Christian Economics. The journal reserved most of its anticommunist ire for the National Council of Churches (NCC), which replaced the FCC as the voice of organized Protestantism in the United States in 1950. The CFF opposed the NCC on a whole raft of issues (e.g., in 1954, the CFF denounced the NCC for proposing the recognition of Red China, and opposing the Bricker Amendment), but its overriding criticism concerned the NCC’s destruction of the unity of the church.