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How Did We Get Here?: The Texts

The Religious Right Protests Brown V. Board, 1954

So on these grounds, I’ve chosen a set of texts that sit between the Scopes Trial and the Moral Majority. This is the era in which historians insist that conservative Evangelicals were distinctly apolitical, even anti-political. But they are not. Their political drama simply places them at the center of power so that they needn’t do more than stay-put to maintain it.

All of these texts are public. They are conservative Evangelical, and they are all expressly political. I have just excerpted fragments for the sake of time, but they span every decade. Reading them as a whole, three themes become obvious:

  1. The texts relish a nostalgia for a power that was secure in the not-too-distant past — a power the rhetors frame as peaceful and free for all the world and a power which is assumed to be white and Protestant.
  2. This peace is currently broken by an imminent threat from an outsider. Religious, racial, ethnic, or ideological threats — these distinctions are conflated. There is no difference among an “uppity black” or a “unwashed” immigrant or a “liberal” Protestant. They all threaten “native” power.
  3. Salvation comes from restoring or preserving that nostalgic ideal through a god-like unity. Not from God, but from something god-like. The terms are not simply practical, asking “how can we solve this current problem?” Instead the narratives are always ultimate and always spiritualized and the “Savior” is always human.
The complete texts are as follows:

These themes — a nostalgia for power, an imminent threat by better-organized outsiders, and finding salvation from that threat in a god-like unity — didn’t die with the 1920s Klan. These themes persist. And they perpetuate a problematic narrative about the good ol’ days where sin is outside of us and our salvation comes from within us, where our outside is threatening and our insides are pure. The 1920s Klan built a political ziggurat to heaven with violence and white supremacy — a tower that’s still pretty tempting to us today. H. L. Mencken called the Klan as “absolutely American as chewing gum, crooked District Attorneys, and chautauquas,” and its history is ours, but its story is not the Good News.

Bob Jones University “Preacher Boys” Preach at a Local Prison Camp, 1948

An excerpt from the Westminster Presbyterian Church’s Renew Conference, Suffolk, Virginia.

9 thoughts on “How Did We Get Here?: The Texts

  1. This looks like a great presentation, Camille. Have you gotten a chance to read Kelly Baker’s brand new “Gospel According to the Klan” yet?

    I do still have reservations about linking the Klan exclusively to conservative evangelicalism/fundamentalism. The second Klan had a broad base of support in both mainline and fundamentalist churches; it was an expression of traditionalist Protestantism broadly defined. That observation in no way lessens the sins committed by our evangelical ancestors in supporting the Klan’s racism and nativism, but it better represents the racist near consensus of the time.

    1. Yes, I’ve read it. I wasn’t impressed.

      You can have reservations. That’s fine. Yet those “mainliners” were the fundamentalists. Those “mainliners” would start exclusively conservative denominations. Race is the issue that divided them. I completely understand feeling a slug in the gut about it all. I do. I get that.

      Better than Baker’s book is Molly Oshatz’s _Slavery and Sin_. I think she does a better job of communicating the controversy. You’d like it!

      1. I’ll put her on my list, thanks. One of my great sorrows as someone with roots in southern evangelicalism is the way in which our early nineteenth century ancestors so quickly subverted the racial egalitarianism of the gospel in order to maximize their appeal to skeptical white Southerners (Christine Heyrman’s “Southern Cross”).

        I think making race the dividing line only works if you are talking about southern fundamentalism/evangelicalism. Their northern counterparts, like WB Riley, Clarence Macartney, Carl McIntire, Gresham Machen, and the like were not particularly interested in race. They were probably milquetoast racists, sure, but defending the racial status quo did not loom large in their thinking, unlike their southern counterparts for whom it was a vital issue. In other words, race certainly played an important role in the divide between modernists and fundamentalists/evangelicals, but not an equally important role in all places or at all times.

        1. Oh McIntire sure was! He flat-out said that blacks couldn’t be Protestants. His racism was no different than Jones’. The KKK kind of racism found purchase north of the Mason-Dixon line or it wouldn’t have survived. This is an American problem. Not a Southern problem.

          1. I should have been more specific. Racism flourished in the North. I agree with you there. After all, Indiana was one of the hotbeds of the Klan. My own advisor has written a book about the extreme Right in Pennsylvania during the 1920s-50s, including the Klan.

            However, white supremacy (which is not congruent with racism) as the sine qua non of political action predominated among southern, not northern evangelicals during the first three quarters of the twentieth century. Don’t get me wrong: most American evangelicals–in all regions–held racist views. But it was primarily in the Deep South where white supremacy remained the organizing principle of social, religious, and political order.

            For example, Darren Dochuk and Lisa McGirr have recently argued, quite convincingly, that although race mattered to southern expats in the Sunbelt (many of whom came from the Outer South), it did not rank anywhere near as high on the list of priorities as it did for residents of the Old, Deep South.

            I can speak to Carl McIntire’s early career (from the early 1930s-1955) for which I did a very close reading of the “Christian Beacon” for my master’s thesis. Out of 25 years worth of sermons, editorials, and articles, race popped up fewer than ten time, only a few of which could be defined as racist. (I can send you the relevant pages of my thesis if you’d like.) Some of those comments are rather progressive, like his comparison of Jim Crow laws to the Nazi persecution of Jews. In another instance, he criticizes the KKK in response to an accusation of being an ally of the Klan.

            In any case, his mentions of race during that period are swamped by hundreds upon hundreds of attacks on fascism, communism, and the politics of radio access. I did not look closely at McIntire’s later career, but from what I know of his opposition to the civil rights movement I’m sure race began to loom larger in his imagination. I just don’t know. But he is a far cry from a Theodore Bilbo, Strom Thurmond, or, even, Bob Jones Sr.

          2. I disagree. The racist code is there, but it’s better hidden. The assumption that the Northerners were more “real” fundamentalists and more “enlightened” runs deep. It goes along with the unfounded assumption from even the Grand Patriarch of Fundamentalist Histories, George Marsden, who says that conservative evangelicals weren’t that politically involved in the twenties.

            When you hear attacks on communism from Billy James Hargis and Carl McIntire, it’s coded for anti-immigrant and anti-black. It’s the same thing. You see it most plainly in the then-Northern-produced _Sword of the Lord_ when Rice lays it out quite clearly. That all blacks were commies, and Jewish commies were agitating the blacks for their own selfish means.

            I know what the conventional wisdom says. It’s incorrect.

    1. Oh, I am quite sympathetic to challenges to the “apolitical fundamentalists” narrative. Indeed, one of the goals of my dissertation will be to expose that as a myth. Fundamentalists in the mid-twentieth century only appeared to be apolitical because they needed to rebuild their institutions from scratch in the 1930s-50s (Joel Carpenter’s “Revive Us Again”) and because the federal government subsidized a mainline denominational cartel that limited right-wing access to political discourse on radio and television (Heather Hendershot, “What’s Fair on the Air?”). I believe the origins of the New Protestant Right can be traced to the fundamentalist/modernist denominational controversies.

      I suppose we’ll just have to disagree on “code.” I’m not saying that coded language doesn’t exist–it does–but McIntire was intensely philo-semitic and the only references to immigrants that I found in the first 25 years of the Christian Beacon welcomed Jewish refugees.

  2. Hi! I came upon your blog kind of out of curiosity. I’m not a BJ student (the closest I came was three years prior to HS), but my parents attended BJU, as did my brother and siblings-in-law. (Long story in regards to theological differences.) I’m far from a historical expert, but your writings are fascinating and go into a lot of details. I’ve heard some bits of BJ history from my parents, read some in recent books, and learned other bits from reading a few old books in my High School library left over from the 1960’s.
    A question or two- have you done research into BJU’s connection with the John Birch Society? I know that BJU hosted “Americanism” conferences in the 1960’s, in which the JBS and allies were involved. I also know that one prominent JBS member, Stewart Crane was at one time an economics professor at BJU. (I’m not sure if he left or was fired, or if it was due to expressing a variant of Calvinism or due to him being a tax protestor.) BJ also gave other honorary degrees to JBS supporters, like Billy James Hargis.
    I may not agree with all your beliefs, but I do greatly enjoy your writings and you have been very informative. If there’s any information I can help you with (Even if I don’t have much), let me know.

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