From the Archives I: Extremism in the Defense of Bible Prophecy Is No Vice

Editor’s Note: I am happy to say that my book about the history of evangelical higher education has entered its final production stages. We are on track to release Fundamentalist U by January 1, 2018. The sad fact, though, is that so much great archival material got cut from the final draft. In this series, I’ll be sharing some of these too-good-too-lose gems from my work in the archives.

You may have heard it before. There is a myth circulating in nerd circles about the history of fundamentalism in the twentieth century. It’s not true and historians have punctured it convincingly. If we needed any more proof, the archives are full of evidence.

As the old story goes, fundamentalists were humiliated at the Scopes trial in 1925. They retreated in anger and disgust from participation in mainstream life, building up a network of inward-looking institutions such as colleges, church networks, and parachurch organizations. Then—depending on which version you hear—either Billy Graham in 1957 or Jerry Falwell in 1976 broke out of this self-imposed fundamentalist ghetto to leap back onto America’s center stage.

It’s hooey, as historians such as Matthew Sutton and Daniel K. Williams have shown. As Professor Sutton put it in American Apocalypse, the “rise-fall-rebirth” story just doesn’t match the historical record. Fundamentalists never retreated from political involvement or mainstream cultural engagement. In Sutton’s words, fundamentalists’

agenda was always about more than correct theology; it was also about reclaiming and then occupying American culture.

I’m making this argument in my book as well. Even at schools such as the Moody Bible Institute that were supposedly the most otherworldly, the most focused on Bible prophecy and the farthest removed from the nitty-gritty politics of the so-called “New Christian Right,” fundamentalists never withdrew from politics, never retreated from mainstream involvement. As this photo makes clear, in the 1960s MBI ardently engaged in partisan politics, pushing hard for a conservative Goldwater presidency.1964 WMBI and Goldwater

It wasn’t only in the 1960s, either. MBI’s leaders always fought in the political arena. Back in the 1920s, for example, President James M. Gray worried that MBI’s radio station had come under undue political pressure. What did Gray do? “The time for fighting has begun,” he warned. He used every weapon in reach to oppose the new radio regulations, including the Capitol-Hill influence of Missouri Senator James M. Reed.

Gray’s political activism was not the exception, it was the rule. No matter where you look in the archives, you see fundamentalists and neo-evangelicals fully engaged in mainstream politics. There was no retreat. There was no withdrawal. And, of course, that means Jerry Falwell’s 1970s leap into politics was not as ground-shaking as Falwell liked to say it was.

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  1. Dan

     /  July 25, 2017

    What are the sources of the myth? Is it old historical scholarship and/or a lack of it? I’ve actually heard versions of it from rather esteemed northern evangelical and reformed intellectuals, theologians and other scholars, including some you might call “movement evangelicals” who have manned the helm at major institutions like CT. Especially now they want to differentiate themselves from far right wing fundamentalists. The difference is they don’t call Graham a fundamentalist; they ignore his racism and other unpleasant things, pitching him as an evangelical breakthrough in contradistinction to Falwell, Robertson, and others who are described as opportunists riding in on Graham’s popularity. I think they’d have trouble saying the Joneses were not engaged with the culture and political realm, but I’ve never heard an Evangelical credit him for this. (An anti-union preacher paid by business leaders might be hard for them to praise — or criticize — especially when southern union-busting was tied to keeping down liberals, catholics, and minorities from control of the Democratic party.)

    You know this stuff, and I assume other historians do, but Evangelicals often buy versions of the myths that they like. Why is that, and how do the different myths circulate?

    • I think the myth of the fundamentalist “retreat” has a couple of roots. First, it was a story widely told (and, I think, sincerely believed) by leaders in the 1970s who thought of themselves as a “New Christian Right.” The story, they often said, was that they had always abstained from politics, but that things had degenerated to such an extent that they felt obliged to intervene. Another source is academic historians and journalists from non-evangelical backgrounds, writers such as Norman Furniss, Frederick Lewis Allen, and William Leuchtenberg. Because they didn’t see any evangelicals in political roles, they assumed that evangelicals had retreated entirely from politics after the 1920s.

      • Dan

         /  July 25, 2017

        Thanks. That’s quite interesting. I’ve always been aware of the multiple competing narratives from my relatives because there are three or four different camps represented among the Boomers who all fit in the Evangelical family but with different caveats and ways of differentiating themselves from “Fundamentalists.” Fundamentalism includes some of these same people, according to others, just not when they are in the same room. The “Fundamentalists” too reject the label and apply it to people they dislike or had falling outs with. At the same time, considered by their beliefs, they all are more alike than different and not really at odds with the “fundamentals” or the Bebbington definition of evangelicalism despite other major doctrinal and cultural-traditional differences. Political parties are the big divide, but they’re all historic swing voters. The Wheaton grads also have positive views of BJU in some respects from experience with their arts and theatre programs. Officially it seems like we’re not supposed to exist according to scholars, but I think this is actually rather common. Over the course of their lives, people have also moved around quite a lot in their views and affiliations but still orbit the same general centres.

  2. Which fundamentalists does your post mainly discuss? I often don’t see information about fundamentalists/ evangelicals who don’t see politics as central to their identity, so I’m just curious what distinctions you make. I do not doubt your central argument that fundamentalists have always involved themselves in mainstream politics.

    • Donna,
      Maybe it’s more of an argument among academic historians, then. But even among big organizations such as the National Association of Evangelicals, the term “evangelical” is defined explicitly and on purpose in strictly theological terms, not political or cultural ones. More recently, too, top-notch religious historian Neil Young argued that too many journalists forget that “evangelical” is not a political term.
      I agree with all that; I understand that to be an evangelical is first and foremost a religious thing. My argument, in its biggest form, is that evangelical identity is not understandable if we only consider religious ideas. More specifically in this post, I was pointing out that even those evangelical institutions that considered themselves–and were considered by many historians and journalists–to be in “retreat” from worldly matters have always been intensely involved in politics. Moody Bible Institute, for example, is generally considered to be a relatively apolitical place, a place for missionary preparation and Bible study, not a place to win congressional elections. (Contrast that, for instance, to Liberty University, which has always boasted about its political activism.) Even at MBI, though, there has never been a real retreat from political involvement. And not just since 1976, but at least since 1926.

      • Dan

         /  July 27, 2017

        You’re right about this, absolutely. It makes no sense to try to separate “politics” from religious “beliefs” for Evangelicals of all people, who always relate their beliefs to some implication in the political realm.

        Evangelicals have long embraced Bebbington’s quadrilateral as a fine self-definition. One part of it is “activism.” Gospel Christianity — the biblical narrative itself is activistic and of course politically engaged. From the Essenes to Christian monastic movements, “withdrawal” is engaged in the world and political in every way, much as passive aggression or passive withdrawal from conflict is a strategy for coping and even winning. As Aristotle said, we are social, political animals. There is no such thing as a non-political life. Even if that just means avoidance of state/public affairs, this still tends to be a way of engaging indirectly. Yet as you say there is always plenty of direct involvement as well.

        The prime directive of mainstream Evangelicalism has been to engage the culture since Carl F. Henry coined the phrase. They have made it a thematic, central argument that there is no neutrality in any part of life for anyone, therefore Christians must be engaged in politics and all other aspects of their culture. Further, they have contended for decades that liberalism is not neutral and cannot be, nor can there be a strong separation between faith and politics, church and state.

        This was a winning argument they never backed away during the Bush years. Suddenly, now there is a reversal. “Evangelicalism is not intrinsically political.” The reason for the shift is clear: buyer’s remorse after the Evangelical rank and file destroyed the brand.

        The mainstream press and academy accepted, in the 90s and 00s, the argument that Evangelicals deserve a voice and seat at the table in intellectual and public life. They got a seat at the table. And then they flipped it over, which was always the fear and reason for stricter separation on the part of secularists and religionists alike. Politicians trying to capitalize on a movement that asserts it can’t compromise on key civil rights issues and must tyrannize even a majority cannot pretend to be surprised. Evangelicals who say this is not what they intended or wanted — well it’s what they got, and what they did. They should own it.

      • That makes sense. Thank you.

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