In my book, I talk about James Fifield, who argues quite explicitly that both the systems are based on individual salvation. In his telling, a good Christian goes to heaven; a bad one goes to hell. A good capitalist makes profit, a bad one goes to the poorhouse. In both systems, individuals rise on their own merits.
Green: How would you tease apart the difference between today’s libertarians and the type of Christian libertarianism that you were describing from the mid-century?
Kruse: If you go back and look at the main libertarian thinkers from the 1930s on, religion doesn’t play a large role in their lives. Even some, like Ayn Rand, are atheists.
Christian libertarianism is an effort by ministers like Fifield or Vereide or even Billy Graham to appropriate classic libertarian arguments, which didn’t at all have to do with religion, and put a religious veneer on them to make them palatable for Americans. They reprint Hayek and von Mises and people like that who never would have made an argument in religious terms; they send them off to ministers and religious leaders. Christian libertarianism is essentially an effort to appropriate a political ideology that either had nothing at all to do with religion or was antithetical to religion and instead use it toward a set of ends that had a religious gloss to it.
Green: How does the mindset of Christian libertarians in the mid-century period you’re describing match up with the later mindset of strong government advocacy by groups such as the Moral Majority?
Kruse: I credit Christian libertarians with getting this religious language into government—the popularization of the idea of “freedom under God.” But they had always posed religion as an oppositional force to the state.
It’s Eisenhower who takes the language that these Christian libertarians had been pushing, uncouples it from its libertarian roots, and weds it to the state. Instead of “freedom under God” as opposed to government, he promotes “government under God.” He promotes “one nation under God” and the motto “in God we trust.”
A later generation, the nascent religious right seizes on that language that had been created by Christian libertarians, and instead urges the state to be more Godly. The language that had been used to promote economic conservatism comes to be used to support social conservatism. It’s not at all what the originators of this language had hoped to bring about.
Green: Does 2016 mark a turn away from the conservative base wanting the president to embody a kind of moral leadership that, for example, Eisenhower aspired to?
Kruse: I think this has been in the making for at least the last decade. The real change seems to be in evangelical leaders. We’re seen a transformation in the way, for example, leaders of the Southern Baptist Convention talk—someone like Russell Moore is really important and transformative in the way the SBC thinks about politics. There’s a certain edge that has come off of faith in politics.