The Christian Right gets more than its share of blame, usually by TV talking heads who are even more to blame. The obvious example is the commitment of the Christian Right to Bush’s war in Iraq. These Establishment-based critics were in positions of influence to challenge Bush’s war in 2003, yet they were on board with great fervency. So were liberal Democrats in Congress, who licked their index fingers, stuck them into the wind, and voted for the war.
The Christian Right does not control America’s media. It does not control positions of leadership inside the Washington Beltway. Its leaders do not get invited to become members of the Council on Foreign Relations or the Trilateral Commission. It listens to Rush Limbaugh, who is not a Christian.
Responsibility accompanies power. Critics say that the Christian Right is responsible for . . . exactly what? It is all a bit vague. To answer this question, the critics must first identify the institutional basis of the Christian Right’s supposed power. It must come to grips with this inescapable relationship: “No power = no responsibility.”
What is the institutional basis of the political power that is supposedly possessed by the Christian Right, either today or in 1980? Only this: it is a swing voting bloc. How did this come about?
Prior to 1980, Christian conservatives were not perceived as a political threat by the Establishment which controls Council on Foreign Relations Team A (the Democrat Party’s senior advisors) and CFR Team B (the Republican Party’s senior advisors). This perception changed in November, 1980, with the election of Ronald Reagan.
As a swing vote, the Christian Right can sometimes affect the outcome of the well-orchestrated, thoroughly entertaining Punch and Judy show that Americans call national politics. Prior to 1976, when Jimmy Carter openly campaigned as a Christian — the first Presidential candidate to do so since William Jennings Bryan — the Christian Right did not exist. I say this as a minor player in the construction of the Christian Right.
I was able to wheedle my way into the speaker’s line-up at the three-day public meeting at which the Christian Right came into existence, the National Affairs Briefing Conference, held in Dallas in late summer, 1980. The Establishment did not note its existence, and its historians still don’t, but that was where Ronald Reagan told 13,000 new converts to politics, “You can’t endorse me, but I endorse you.” Those words served as a kind of political baptismal formula — infant baptism, I might add: babes in the woods.
Reagan’s handlers did not like his endorsement. They had tried to keep him from appearing at the meeting, but they were unsuccessful. Carter’s handlers were successful. He and John Anderson failed to show up, although both had been invited. Carter’s decision not to show up turned out to be crucial for the creation of the Christian Right, which ended his Presidency two months later. It was in the final two months that Reagan overtook Carter in the polls. The Christian Right took the Presidency away from him. Yet he had helped create it in 1976. Bob Slosser, later a ghost writer for Pat Robertson (The Secret Kingdom, 1992), wrote a little paperback book, The Miracle of Jimmy Carter, in 1976. Carter betrayed these people, beginning in 1977. Actually, he didn’t betray them. They had imagined him to be something that he wasn’t, which they should have known if they had read his campaign book, Why Not the Best? For this perceived betrayal, they got even with him in 1980.
BABES IN THE WOODS
From the media’s orchestrated circus at the Scopes “monkey” trial in 1925 — the first such orchestrated media event on the radio — until the election of 1976, Protestant Christian fundamentalists had been out of America’s social and cultural loop.
The media’s campaign against William Jennings Bryan in 1925 had begun in 1922, after he began calling for state anti-evolution laws governing tax-funded high schools. This media campaign seemed successful. Bryan died in Dayton, Tennessee, where the trial had been held, five days after he had won the case but lost the war of public opinion. I have covered this in an earlier essay on this site, “The Significance of the Scopes Trial.”
In the following year, 1926, the triumph of theological liberals began in the northern Baptist association (John D. Rockefeller, Jr.’s) and the northern Presbyterian Church (Rockefeller’s by proxy). Ironically, it was Rockefeller’s son David who lured the fundamentalists in from the political wilderness in 1976 when he perceived in 1973 that Carter, a little-known Georgia governor, might represent a new political constituency as a political outsider. That was why Carter got into the Trilateral Commission, which Rockefeller began in 1973.
What was not perceived until the publication of Joel Carpenter’s article in Church History in 1980 was that 1926 marked the beginning of the great reversal of liberal Protestantism, and also the beginning of the growth of the fundamentalist-evangelical church movement. Growth in membership began to slow in the Seven Sisters of mainline Protestant denominationalism, while growth began to accelerate in independent church circles and fundamentalist denominations-associations. The fundamentalists voted with their feet. What Carpenter described for church historians in 1980 became apparent to the Establishment a few months later in the Presidential election of 1980.
For half a century, 1926 to 1976, fundamentalists had played no role as a separate voting bloc. They generally voted in the way that a majority of voters had voted in their region, state by state. Furthermore, the fundamentalists’ theology of premillennial, dispensational pietism became ascendent in conservative Protestant circles. Fundamentalists expected (and still expect) that Jesus will come with His angels to set up a tightly run, international, Christian bureaucratic hierarchy, which will at long last put non-believers in their rightful place as scraps-eaters under the table of the faithful (Matthew 15:25—28). Until then, however, their rallying cry was “politics is dirty.” They avoided political action. They regarded political activism as the heresy of theological liberalism, as incarnated in the National Council of Churches, a creation of both Rockefellers, Senior (1908—1916) and Junior (1917—1960).
They were under assault in the public schools, although they did not perceive this. That was because, until about 1960, Bryan’s campaign had been institutionally successful. Evolution was not taught in the public schools below the college level. Nothing was said in high school textbooks about either creation or evolution. So, as it turned out, from 1926 to 1960, the year Rockefeller died, Bryan had won the ideological battle in the schools. His politics — liberal-radical — also triumphed.
The assault against fundamentalism was in terms of the textbooks’ version of history, politics, and economics: the legitimacy and triumph of the New Deal. American fundamentalists, 1933—1960, were as committed to the New Deal’s legacy as any other victorious voting bloc was. In the American South, they were more committed than in the Protestant Midwest. So, they were not a separate swing voting bloc. They were politically invisible.
Their eschatology — premillennial dispensationalism — taught a doctrine of earthly cultural and political defeat prior to Christ’s Second Coming. As the 1950’s radio preacher J. Vernon McGee put it, “You don’t polish brass on a sinking ship.” This outlook implied a specific concept of historical victory: “Out of the jaws of defeat.” First, all Christians will be “raptured” by Jesus into heaven. (The word “rapture” does not appear in the Greek text of the New Testament, nor does it appear in the King James Bible.) Second, beginning three and a half years later, the slaughter of two-thirds of the Jews by the forces of the Antichrist will begin. Third, three and a half years after this, Christians in their heaven-supplied, perfect, sin-free, immortal bodies will return with Christ to take over the world. From then on, it’s the rod of iron for a thousand years. It’s payback time. It’s “no more Mr. Nice Guy.” This is what popular dispensationalism has taught for over a hundred years.
This view of social causation might be said to teach that there is no relationship between training in history and total power in history. This interpretation would be incorrect. Fundamentalism’s view of social dominance in history rests on an even more astounding, unstated, but operational theory of eschatological cause and effect: “The self-conscious lack of training or experience in exercising leadership in history is the basis of obtaining total power in history. The self-conscious lack of responsibility in history is the basis of gaining total responsibility in history.” This is the Betty Crocker theory of historical causation: “Just add the Rapture and have God stir history for three and a half years. Then bake in the oven at 350 degrees for three and a half more.”
Rev. Jerry Falwell publicly held this view of self-conscious political withdrawal until the early 1970’s. In a much-quoted sermon which he preached in 1965, shortly after Martin Luther King’s march to Selma, Alabama, Falwell made this declaration: “Believing the Bible as I do, I would find it impossible to stop preaching the pure saving gospel of Jesus Christ and begin doing anything else — including the fighting of communism, or participating in the civil rights reform. . . . Preachers are not called to be politicians, but to be soul winners.”
Between 1965, the year that postmillennial Calvinist R. J. Rushdoony started the Chalcedon Foundation, and 1976, when Southern Baptist Jimmy Carter became a brief miracle, a shift in fundamentalist political opinion took place. By 1980, it had visibly changed. Its theology hadn’t, but its conclusions had. I referred to this oddity at the time as the intellectual schizophrenia of the New Christian Right. It remains just as schizophrenic today.
NO TEXTBOOKS, WORKBOOKS, OR PLAYBOOKS
Fundamentalists generally have had no accredited liberal arts colleges for their children. The only major exception has been the Church of Christ, which has half a dozen. In the 1940’s, the only Christian college president in America who testified before Congress against New Deal policies was Harding College’s George S. Benson. He stood alone in his day. Hardly anyone has heard of him. His small Arkansas college was the only fundamentalist college that had anything like a separate curriculum for its students, and most of these materials were supplied by Benson’s on-campus National Education Program. There is a reason for this exceptionalism. Church of Christ preaching is generally not dispensational. The roots of the denomination go back to the ex-Presbyterian pastor, Alexander Campbell. The Presbyterian Church in his era (1810—20) was postmillennial and socially activist.
Go into any campus book store at a Christian college. Look at the required textbooks. You will find the same textbooks at the nearby junior college or the fourth-tier state university in the region. You will not find workbooks by the professors that show, point by point, how and why the textbooks favor the conventional academic humanist worldview. Why not? Because the professors adopted this worldview when they were in graduate school. To gain accreditation, a college’s faculty must have people with Ph.D. degrees. The university accreditation system — invented by Rockefeller, Sr. (the General Education Board began in 1903) — has accomplished its goal.
Most fundamentalist parents send their children through the tax-funded K-12 system, which is at war with Christianity. A few of them then send their children into the humanist-accredited collegiate system. The students return home just as they left home: intellectually schizophrenic, as Rushdoony described in his 1961 manifesto, Intellectual Schizophrenia.
Ever since 1700, Protestants have taken sides: the right-wing Enlightenment vs. the left-wing Enlightenment. They have not developed a systematic worldview of their own. Fundamentalists generally favor the right-wing Enlightenment, but they send their children into schools dominated by the left-wing Enlightenment.
Why should anyone expect fundamentalists to offer a well-thought-out alternative to the choice between CFR Team A and CFR Team B? Mainline Protestantism hasn’t. The Catholic Church hasn’t. Mormonism hasn’t. Nobody has. Hardly anyone thinks this is necessary, let alone possible.
You can’t beat something with nothing.
To the extent that the Christian Right corporately accepts the idea that there is any good reason to get involved in national politics, it is responsible for its share of the outcome. But what share? That of a swing voting bloc. It has not formulated the policies it votes for. It has not organized the media’s machine. It does not have any experience at the national level. It does not have much disposable income. It has only one institution of acknowledged excellence: Wycliffe Bible translators. It has sat in the back of humanism’s bus since 1926, and without protest until 1980.
There has been only one man in my lifetime who has had an outside possibility of reversing this: Ron Paul. If, in 2008, he offers to his digital name base a full-scale, non-partisan training program for local political mobilization — what I have called the dogcatcher strategy — we might actually get a choice a decade or two from now.
There still are no textbooks, workbooks, or playbooks. Maybe he can supply a few playbooks.
But who will supply the textbooks?
How about you?
October 12, 2007