We have just observed the 30th anniversary of a milestone in the spiritual deterioration of American evangelicalism: the National Affairs Briefing on Aug. 21-22, 1980.
Organized by Ed McAteer, called by some the “godfather of the Religious Right,” it brought 15,000 people to Dallas. It is usually remembered for Southern Baptist Convention president Bailey Smith’s comment, “God Almighty does not hear the prayer of a Jew,” and presidential candidate Ronald Reagan’s statement that “you cannot endorse me … but … I endorse you.”
It cemented the connection between Reagan and the new “Religious” Right in America. It also was a landmark event in the SBC’s capture by the Republican Right.
The fruits of Richard Nixon’s “Southern Strategy” were revealed. With the dispatch of Jimmy Carter’s presidency and the election of the nominally Christian Reagan, the face of Christian politics was changed forever. Henceforth, one’s Christian faith was to be demonstrated not so much as by a public confession of Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior as by the ideological commitment to a set of propositions advanced by the Christian Right.
To be sure, 20th-century evangelicalism was not known for its commitment to a Christian ethic of social justice. Few northern evangelicals looked favorably on Franklin D. Roosevelt’s reforms or spoke out against segregation in their own part of the United States, or the noxious “separate but equal” and “Jim Crow” measures in the South. They insisted that social justice and racial integration were something promoted by liberals and communists.
In a remarkably relevant book, “The Old Christian Right: The Protestant Far Right from the Great Depression to the Cold War,” historian Leo P. Ribuffo shows how extremists, the most notorious being the Kansas preacher Gerald Winrod, attracted considerable support from fundamentalists – the forerunners of the “new” evangelicals.
Studies of Catholic radio personality Father Charles E. Coughlin, publicist Elizabeth Dilling, (Roosevelt’s Red Record and The Red Network), the Louisiana demagogue Huey P. Long, and the various Ku Klux Klan organizations revealed the attractiveness of a politicized gospel to all too many evangelicals.
With the onset of the Cold War, evangelicals aligned themselves with anti-communists of every stripe and promoters of “Christian Americanism.”
· Arch-separatist Carl McIntire and his fundamentalist supporters railed against liberals and “communists” in the mainline denominations.
· Portly Oklahoma evangelist Billy James Hargis went from sending Bibles by balloons across the Iron Curtain to preaching anti-communism through his Christian Crusade.
· Australian doctor-turned-evangelist Fred Schwarz whipped crowds up in his Christian Anti-Communist Crusade rallies and even was invited to testify before Congress.
· George S. Benson of Arkansas stirred public passions with his defenses of the free enterprise system and a conspiratorial film about the spreading Red menace, “Communism on the Map,” that was shown widely in evangelical churches.
· Young Billy Graham was an enthusiastic cold warrior.
Official civil religion actions, like adding “under God” to the flag pledge and adopting “In God We Trust” as the national motto, linked God to the struggle against “godless” communism.
Evangelicals looked the other way as long as they could in the civil rights era. Graham did desegregate his evangelistic meetings in the mid-1950s and befriended Martin Luther King Jr.
I attempted to expose this dismal record of evangelicals being captive to the conservative ideology of the day in a co-authored book, “Protest and Politics: Christianity and Contemporary Affairs,” and my own book, “The Unequal Yoke.”
Others were speaking out as well. For example, the SBC’s Christian Life Commission stood out as a forthright advocate for racial and social justice. The feisty “Evangelicals for McGovern” challenged the establishment in 1972, and Harold Ockenga responded by forming a “Clergy for Nixon” group. A group of older and younger evangelicals assembled in 1973 to draft the landmark Chicago Declaration on evangelical social concern.
The election of Carter in 1976, the first openly professed born-again candidate since William Jennings Bryan, seemed to seal the victory of the progressive forces.
But the evangelical right did not give up. The effort of federal authorities to rescind the tax exemption of Bob Jones University – because of its segregationist policy – struck fear in the hearts of evangelicals. The all-white “segregation academies” in the South and “Christian schools” in the North insulated young people from the trends of the day, and now they were no longer safe from the long arm of Washington.
Paul Weyrich and McAteer brought several televangelists like Jerry Falwell and Pat Robertson together in 1979 to fight this development. Weyrich has said that Carter’s intervention against the Christian schools was what galvanized the right-wing evangelicals into forming the New Christian Right. Fighting abortion and demanding school prayer were essentially an afterthought. Roe v. Wade did not precipitate the New Christian Right.
In 1980, they threw their support behind Reagan. Following the election, he provided lip service to their agenda. For example, he delivered the dramatic “Evil Empire” speech before a loudly enthusiastic crowd at the National Association of Evangelicals meeting in Orlando in 1983; I was there and it sent chills up and down my spine. But Reagan did not implement very much of their agenda.
Still, the success of the “Southern strategy” was evident as the old segregationist Democrats defected to the Republican Party. Significant majorities of white evangelicals rallied behind him in 1984 and George H. W. Bush in 1988. In the new century the pattern continued, as a staggering percentage of evangelicals voted first for George W. Bush and then John McCain.
Sadly, the situation has only worsened in 2010. Glenn Beck’s pseudo-evangelistic rally in Washington in August was greeted with enthusiasm, complete with a bevy of preachers standing behind him.
What will happen next is uncertain. But God does work miracles in the most unexpected manner.
Richard V. Pierard is professor of history emeritus at Indiana State University. He lives in Hendersonville, N.C.