By Sarah Posner
And why we haven’t heard the last of Ted Cruz and other anti-government conservatives.
In his speech at October’s Values Voters Summit, Sen. Ted Cruz (R-TX) cited the Book of Ecclesiastes. “There’s nothing new under the sun,” Cruz told the audience at the annual meeting of conservative Christian activists, where Republican presidential hopefuls strut their far-right credentials. The Reagan revolution, Cruz contended, saved America from the brink in 1980, and those who “love freedom” and “love this country” could do it again.
It was a call to arms for a movement anticipating—and possibly looking to create—an apocalypse. Cruz, fresh off his notorious 21-hour Senate floor speech, and speaking in the midst of the federal government shutdown as the days ticked down to a possible financial default, was referring to another kind of looming crisis—the kind in which the government goes so far in crushing the freedom of its citizens that they have a religious duty to rise up and, literally, shut it down.
“Nothing new under the sun” could be the underappreciated watchword of Cruz’s political career, as well as a warning to anyone who thinks his precipitous ascent is merely a sign of crackpot conservative politics. Cruz, like many of his Tea Party cohorts in the House and Senate, is generally seen in terms of those politics—as a budget-slashing, Dr. Seuss-citing crusader against Obamacare, indifferent to government shutdowns, defaults and worldwide financial calamity. These assessments overlook one important ingredient: his intense religiosity.
Cruz’s particular blend of anti-statism, rooted in fundamentalist Christianity, has a long legacy in American politics. When you hear today’s religious right activists accuse the federal government of tyranny because it has, they claim, overstepped its God-given authority, you can hear echoes of Christian anti-communist demagogues going back to the mid-20th century. In the 1960s, Billy James Hargis, a prominent anti-communist radio evangelist, complained of a “totalitarian-inclined welfare-state-type government” that “is something far different from what our founding fathers intended.” The American government, he wrote, “is becoming a deadly force against its patriotic Christian-American people,” because the country is “being sold out by treasonous, traitorous leaders.”
But a religious commitment to a free market economy and against a government safety net goes back well beyond this brand of Christian anti-communism activism, which thrived in the 1950s and 60s. As investigative journalist Jeff Sharlet documented in his 2008 book, The Family: The Secret Fundamentalism at the Heart of American Power, the Fellowship—a right-wing religious group of Washington political elites and powerbrokers—has its roots in union-busting and religious opposition to the New Deal. In her book, Invisible Hands: The Businessmen’s Crusade Against the New Deal, historian Kim Phillips-Fein details the anti-New Deal activities of groups like Spiritual Mobilization, launched by Los Angeles preacher James Fifield, who mobilized against what they considered collectivism in government and anti-capitalism in organized religion.
Fifield, Phillips-Fein writes, “believed in the ‘social gospel’ in his youth, until time and experience convinced him of the divine providence of capitalism.” Fifield partnered with Sun Oil magnate J. Howard Pew, who was also a backer of the Foundation for Economic Freedom, a free-market think tank that influenced Tea Party godfather Ron Paul. Though a devotée of the very secular Ayn Rand, the elder Paul attracts his own brand of religious followers who believe they are a biblical remnant battling an overzealous government that has overstepped its biblical authority.
For Cruz and other conservative Christian anti-government zealots, communism still thrives in America. It thrives in the White House under President Obama. It thrives, as Cruz has told more than one audience, at Harvard Law School, where both he and the president earned their degrees. It even thrives in the House of Representatives, where, former Tea Party representative Allen West (R-Fla.) has claimed, the Congressional Progressive Caucus is made up of communists.
In a June 2013 sermon at First Baptist Church of Dallas, Cruz likened the Fourth of July to the birth of Christ, suggesting that the founding of the United States of America shared a messianic purpose with Christ’s mission on earth.
Cruz cited Ecclesiastes there, too, this time chapter 3, verse 8: “To everything there is a season…a time for war and a time for peace.” Cruz contended that many of the soldiers in the American Revolution were pastors and other people of faith, roused by their religious conviction that it was a time for war.
In modern times, Cruz told the megachurch parishioners, the same principles the founders fought for are in jeopardy. For the Christian right and its Tea Party family, there is indeed nothing new under the sun. We’ll be hearing this again the next time—and there will be a next time—conservatives in Washington believe it’s time for war against the government.