Communism and Creationism, Genocide and Gravy: Thanksgiving’s Greatest Hits

Ah…Thanksgiving. The holiday that brings us together to yell at each other and watch football. How can one Thursday fire up so much culture-war angst? How can it help explain both Rush Limbaugh and creationism?

simpsonsturkey

Carve out some time in the archives…

This year, as your humble editor prepares to head up to an undisclosed location in upstate New York to avoid any hint of culture-war histrionics, we stumbled across the ILYBYGTH Thanksgiving archives. Check out some of the ghosts of ILYBYGTH Thanksgivings past:

First, how does Thanksgiving help us understand the way schools really work? For everything from sex ed to evolution, Thanksgiving dinners can serve as metaphors for the real reasons why it is so hard to get schools to dive into controversial issues.

Second, were the Pilgrims really communists? And why do conservative pundits say they were? It seems to me conservatives would want to defend the tradition of friendly buckle-wearing Pilgrims.

Finally, some bad Thanksgiving advice on how to outsmart your crazy right-wing (or left-wing) uncles.

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From the Archives: Take the Creation Museum Challenge

The Challenge: Can you tell creationism apart from mainstream science just by looking?

[Editor’s note: As SAGLRROILYBYGTH are sick of hearing, I’m almost finished with my book manuscript about American creationism. In this book, I’m trying to help my fellow non-creationists understand the complexities of real creationism. For example, in my final chapter I’m arguing that creationists–whether they are radical young-earthers or mild-mannered BioLogians–can’t fairly be accused of being anti-science. Yet smart, well-informed outsiders keep insisting that they are.

[As I polish up this final chapter, I stumbled across the following ILYBYGTH post from a few years back. I thought I’d run it again to see if anything has changed. So here’s the question once again: Whether you’re a creationist, anti-creationist, or other, can you tell radical creationism apart from mainstream science just by looking?

[Please…take the challenge and let us know how you fared!]

Take the Creation Museum Challenge

We can gnash our teeth.  We can pull our hair.  But no matter what we do, the Creation Museum of Answers In Genesis has pulled it off.  With its new $1.5 million dinosaur exhibit, the flagship museum of young-earth creationism has successfully mimicked the outward appearance of mainstream scientific museums.

Big Valley Creation Science Museum

It used to be easy.  Creationist museums used to be only sad little affairs.  They used to look like this one from Alberta, Canada.  The Big Valley Creation Science Museum, pictured here, may do a great job in spreading the creationism gospel.  But no idle tourist would be likely to confuse it with mainstream museums such as the Smithsonian’s Museum of Natural History or Boston’s Museum of Science.

It used to be easy for outsiders like me to mock the lame pretensions of the many creation museums that dotted our great land.  And Canada.  As one angry visitor noted, even the bigger creation museums used to have strange, sad displays like this one from San Diego’s Creation and Earth History Museum.

Not a Lot of Big Bang for your Buck

But here’s the new challenge: Can you tell which of the three pictures below comes from Kentucky’s Creation Museum display and which come from the Smithsonian and Boston’s Museum of Science?  As arch-creationist Ken Ham explained gleefully recently, his new display of a million-dollar Allosaurus fossil puts Ham’s Creation Museum in the same league as those mainstream museums.  As Ham put it,

For decades I’ve walked through many leading secular museums, like the Smithsonian in Washington, D.C., and have seen their impressive dinosaur skeletons. But they were used for evolution. Now we have one of that class, and it will help us defend the book of Genesis and expose the scientific problems with evolution.

So take the Creation-Museum challenge.  Just by looking, can you tell which of these images comes from a young-earth creationist museum and which come from mainstream ones?  (Don’t cheat.  But once you’ve given it a try, you can click on each image to see its provenance.)

Field museum exhibit

Is this “real” science?

Or Is It This One?

Or Is It This One?

dinosaur hall smithsonian natural history museum t rex 550

Millions of year? …or millions of dollars?

 

This successful mimicry is important.  In creationism’s twentieth-century struggle to establish alternative educational institutions to rival those of mainstream science, young-earth creationists often wrestled with significant disadvantages.  Not least of these were questions of funding, as historian Ron Numbers described in his must-read book The Creationists and I detailed in my 1920s book.  In the case of this priceless fossil, rich creationists Michael and Stephen Peroutka donated it to help the Creation Museum with its work.

It would be nice to think that America’s public would make its decisions about the age of the earth and the origins of humanity by weighing evidence and considering counter-claims.  To people like me, the Creation Museum’s claim that this well-preserved fossil serves as proof of a worldwide flood 4,300 years ago seems absurd.

But I don’t think we need to be very cynical to guess that appearance matters.  As Dan Kahan argues, what people believe about creation and evolution usually has more to do with their cultural identity than it does with scientific evidence.  If Answers In Genesis can make their museum LOOK like the Smithsonian, many visitors will assume it is just as good.  And if Answers In Genesis can crank out peer-reviewed science publications that attest to the scientific veracity of their claims, many readers will assume their science is just as good.

So take the Creation Museum challenge.  If you can’t tell the difference, how can you expect anyone else to?

Schools on a Mission

Why go to college? For most Americans, “college” is about a bunch of things all bundled together. People want to prepare for white-collar jobs. They want to watch football and engage in hijinks. They want to have an “experience” that they hear will shape the rest of their lives. In my new book about evangelical higher education, I’m arguing that fundamentalist and evangelical schools generally offered students all those things and more. In addition to training students to be lawyers, doctors, engineers, and teachers, “Fundamentalist U” prepared students for a unique sort of career that secular universities didn’t. And that focus changed things at evangelical schools in major ways.

1930s application ref form

MBI reference form, c. 1930s. Note question number 8.

For many evangelical Christians in the twentieth century, the main point of going to college was to prepare for a career (or at least an experience) as a missionary. As one Biola student reported in 1940, she wasn’t sure what to do with her life. She had grown up as a missionary kid in China, but she hadn’t planned to go into missionary work herself. However, one day she felt a “call” to become a missionary after all.

How did she go about it? She knew she needed some training, so after diligent prayer and consultation with “the fundamental Church groups” in her area, she decided to enroll at Biola. For her, the entire point of a college education was to become a better missionary. College, in her way of thinking, was the place to learn how to “more perfectly tell [the millions of lost and dying souls in the world] of the matchless wonders of His grace.”

The focus on missionary work didn’t just change the way students decided to go to college and which college to apply to. Schools, too, put formal mechanisms in place to encourage missionary careers. On admissions forms, for example, schools asked about more than just grades and activities. As did the Moody Bible Institute, most schools wanted to know if an applicant “has . . . a genuine love for souls.” Wheaton, too, added extra admissions points if a student had a “demonstrated ability as an outstanding soulwinner.”

The focus on missionary preparation shaped schools in other ways, too. ALL colleges and universities tended to expand their bureaucracies after World War II. They formalized and systematized their admissions departments and alumni outreach bureaus.  In addition to these sorts of new departments, evangelical colleges also formalized their missionary training, by adding departments to help students pick the right missionary career path.

missions flier

Attention Liberty Students–your school will help you get to your mission field. C. early 1980s

One of the central themes of my book is that evangelical higher education experienced its own sort of evangelical existence—IN the world of American higher ed, but not OF it. In some ways, that is, evangelical institutions were shaped by the same sorts of forces that transformed the world of American higher education as a whole. In other ways—as in the focus on training missionaries—evangelical schools shaped those forces to fit their unique vision of proper higher education.

The Headline You’ll Never Read

Cereal gets stale after about two weeks. Cheese can last a while. Milk goes bad much quicker. But conservatives never seem to tire of hysterical warnings about left-wing takeovers of public schools. Your humble editor experienced a dizzying bout of déjà vu this morning reading Newt Gingrich’s furious warning about the influence of “radical, left-wing” teachers. I had to check my watch and even my calendar to make sure what year it was. It serves as another reminder: When it comes to culture-war rants about public education, there is one headline that we’ll never see.

breaking-news

The headlines we’ll never see…

Don’t get me wrong: I understand why conservative activists like Gingrich want people to think left-wingers are taking over public schools. No conservative parent is likely to open her wallet for a politician who tells her there’s nothing much to worry about. So Gingrich tries to build back his political clout by warning FoxNews readers about a “thinly veiled attempt to instill radical, left-wing political views in impressionable children.”

Gingrich is reacting to an obscure story out of Minnesota, dug up by conservative muckrakers. In Edina, Minnesota (population 51,350), the school board is apparently implementing a new inclusivity curriculum. Students will read books such as A Is for Activism. [SAGLRROILYBYGTH may remember the title from earlier fuss-and-feathers controversies about it.] As Gingrich fumes, “This is pure, unapologetic political indoctrination of American youth.”

As I argued in my book about the history of educational conservatism, Gingrich is reading word-for-word from an old conservative playbook. In the 1930s, for example, conservative activists went haywire over a textbook series by progressive-ish scholar Harold Rugg. Back then, leaders of the American Legion foamed and fumed that Rugg’s educational scheme “encourages the totalitarian borers-from-within who would destroy our democracy.”

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

Boring…boring…boring…(c. 1941)

There’s no doubt that Harold Rugg really did hope to push American school and society to the political left. And I’m guessing some of the teachers in Edina feel the same way. But the notion that teachers and education professors are able to sneakily install a mind-warping left-wing curriculum in American public schools is simply ludicrous. Even if we wanted to—and again, I admit that some teachers and ed-school professors really do want to—such conspiracy theories miss a central truth about American education.

And that fundamental truth about schools and schooling generates the headlines you’ll never see. By and large, when conservatives want to rile up their base, they need to dig pretty hard to find teachers and districts that veer very hard to the political left. By and large, most schools are fairly traditional places, focusing on non-controversial tasks such as preparing students for jobs or college. Teachers, by and large, tend to avoid controversy.gallup people like their local schools

And that, perhaps, is what makes Gingrich’s job so hard. We know that most people—whatever their political affiliation—are happy with their local public schools. When Americans actually send their kids to a public school, they tend to be very happy with that school, even if they are pessimistic about the state of public education as a whole.

For Gingrich to get any attention, he has to pick out unusual examples of school districts far away that are doing something fairly unusual. Why? Because most of Gingrich’s audience is actually HAPPY with their local schools. Those schools don’t dabble in anything even remotely controversial. If a local community is Gingrich territory, the schools will be, too

How Do You Know?

It might seem sloppy or even a little slapdash. Historians claim to know things about the past, but most of us don’t have hard-and-fast proof for the arguments we make. This morning I’d like to share one small example of the way the process works, at least in the case of my upcoming book.

I just finished reading John Lewis Gaddis’s Landscape of History with my graduate class. Gaddis is a leading historian of the Cold War. In Landscape of History, he argues that academic historians don’t try to make the same claims as social scientists. And that’s okay.Gaddis landscape

Gaddis uses a painting of a wanderer looking down on a fog-cloaked valley to illustrate his point. Historians can never be absolutely sure of their data; they are like the wanderer—looking into a distance that is cloaked and ultimately mysterious. Some social-scientists might object that the process makes claims it can’t back up with real data. Gaddis describes one such encounter:

Some years ago I asked the great global historian William H. McNeill to explain his method of writing history to a group of social, physical, and biological scientists attending a conference I’d organized. He at first resisted this, claiming that he had no particular method. When pressed, though, he described it as follows:

“I get curious about a problem and start reading up on it. What I read causes me to redefine the problem. Redefining the problem causes me to shift the direction of what I’m reading. That in turn further reshapes the problem, which further redirects the reading. I go back and forth like this until it feels right, then I write it up and ship it off to the publisher.”

McNeill’s presentation elicited expressions of disappointment, even derision, from the economists, sociologists, and political scientists present. “That’s not a method,” several of them exclaimed. “It’s not parsimonious, it doesn’t distinguish between independent and dependent variables, it hopelessly confuses induction and deduction.”

Gaddis liked the method anyway, and so do I. As I’m reviewing my research files for my upcoming book about the history of evangelical higher education (available for preorder now!) I came across a few items that didn’t make the final cut, but they do help illustrate the way I came to make the arguments I’m making.

One of the central arguments of the book is that evangelical and fundamentalist colleges have always been subjected to furious scrutiny from the national network of fundamentalists. There has always been a strong sense among the evangelical public that evangelical colleges must be held to a high standard of religious purity. Naturally, parents and alumni of every sort of college watch their schools closely. After all, they might be spending big bucks to send their kids there. In the case of evangelical higher education, even unaffiliated busybodies feel entirely justified—even compelled—to intrude.stenholm notes in controversial Kodon

Another key argument of the book concerns the feud between the fundamentalist and evangelical branches of the conservative-evangelical family. Beginning in the 1940s and 1950s, the fundamentalist network split into fundamentalist and new-evangelical camps. Some historians have called this a “decisive break” or an “irreparable breach,” but at institutions of higher education, it always felt more like a continuing family feud. At least, that’s the argument I make in the book.

How do I know?

As Professors McNeill and Gaddis insist, it is mostly a question of time. I spent long hours and days in the archives of various schools. I read everything. As I did so, ideas about these themes developed. As they did, I went back and reread everything. Did the idea seem to match the historic record? Over and over again, I noticed that school administrators fretted about the eternal and invasive fundamentalist scrutiny to which they were subjected. Over and over again, I noticed the tones of betrayal, hurt, and intimate outrage that characterized the disagreements between “fundamentalist” and “evangelical” schools.

Not all the evidence made it into the book. One episode I do discuss is a controversial student publication from Wheaton College in Illinois. Back when he was an earnest evangelical student in the early 1960s, Wes Craven—yes, the Nightmare on Elm Street guy—was the student editor of Wheaton’s literary magazine. As part of his intellectual revolt against fundamentalism, Craven published two stories that he knew would ruffle fundamentalist feathers. In one, an unmarried woman wonders what to do about her pregnancy. In another, a white woman is sexually attracted to an African American man.

A quirk of the archives helped me see the ways the controversy unfolded. At the time Craven’s magazine came out, Gilbert Stenholm had been working at fundamentalist Bob Jones University for quite some time. He kept everything. His archive files are full of unique documents that helped me see how fundamentalist higher education worked in practice.

For example, he saved his copy of Craven’s controversial student magazine. His notes in the margins helped me understand the ways fundamentalists were outraged by their new-evangelical cousins. Along the edges of one story, an outraged Stenholm penned in one shocked word: “Profanity!” Elsewhere, Stenholm filled the margins with exclamation points.

What did this one-of-a-kind archival find tell me? It helped me see that fundamentalist schools like Bob Jones University had never really washed their hands of evangelical schools like Wheaton. For Stenholm, at least, the goings-on at Wheaton were always of intense interest. And it helped clarify to me the ways members of the far-flung fundamentalist community watched one another. They were always nervous about slippage—always anxious that trustworthy schools could slide into the liberal camp.

Stenholm’s outrage in the case of Craven’s student magazine didn’t make the book’s final cut, but this copy of Wheaton’s student magazine in Stenholm’s collection told me a lot. It doesn’t serve as the kind of “parsimonious,” independent-variable method that Gaddis’s social scientists would prefer. But taken all together, bits and pieces of archival gold like this one guided me to the argument I finally “ship[ped] . . . off to the publisher.”

From the Archives V: “No, He Is a Fundamentalist”

Editor’s Note: As SAGLRROILYBYGTH are sick of hearing, I’m just about finished with my book about the history of evangelical higher education. As always, there was a ton of great material I couldn’t fit in. I’ll share some of the archival gems here.

What is a fundamentalist? It’s not as easy a question as it might seem. As we’ve explored in these pages, any attempt at a simple definition quickly runs up against big problems. One quirky document from the archives of the Moody Bible Institute helped me understand how the term “fundamentalism” was really used during the twentieth century.

The biggest problem—at least to my way of thinking—is that fundamentalism said it was one thing, when it was actually something quite different. As Tim Gloege has argued convincingly in his book about the early history of the Moody Bible Institute, fundamentalists tended to talk about themselves as defenders of orthodoxy, but their views were in fact quite un-orthodox or even anti-orthodox.

Gloege Guaranteed Pure

Or maybe a “grammar. . . a corporate evangelical framework.”

They had to be.

Especially in the first half of the twentieth century, fundamentalism was something theologically new, a lowest-common-denominator coalition dedicated to fighting against theological modernism. Unlike real orthodoxies, fundamentalism could never agree on a set of hard and fast theological doctrines.

Instead, fundamentalism served, in Gloege’s words, as “the performance of ortho­doxy facilitated by modern promotional techniques.”

Fundamentalism, in other words, wasn’t a specific set of beliefs or practices, but a loud and often belligerent clubbishness in favor of conservative attitudes about church and culture. The kicker comes from the fact that early fundamentalists such as William Bell Riley said over and over again—loudly and often belligerently—that fundamentalism WAS a set of specific theological doctrines.

Riley wasn’t lying, but he was wrong. Riley wanted to insist on his nine-point creed as the one and only definition of true fundamentalism, but he couldn’t impose such a definition. Not for lack of trying, but because as a coalition of conservatives, fundamentalism itself could never be hemmed in by mere theology.

That’s the argument I’ll be fleshing out in more detail in my upcoming book anyway. On the campuses of fundamentalist colleges, universities, seminaries, and Bible institutes, the tenuous and ill-defined nature of fundamentalism was always starkly evident, if not often politely discussed.

As I was reviewing my files the other day, I came across one document that underlined the ways “fundamentalism” was used in real life. For admission to the Moody Bible Institute, students were required to submit recommendation forms. Like all higher-ed institutions, MBI wanted to know if potential students were good students. Unlike students at secular schools, though, potential MBI students had to provide evidence that they had good missionary potential.

One question asked recommenders if a potential student had any “doctrinal, or other peculiarities that would unfit him for Christian work”.reference he is a fundamentalist BETTER

One recommender’s response to that question can give us some insight to how the idea of “fundamentalism” worked in practice. Did the potential student have any “peculiarities”? “No,” the recommender wrote, “he is a fundamentalist.” To this recommender, at least, calling someone a “fundamentalist” meant that the person was vouched for, that the person was solid theologically, that he could be trusted as a missionary.

It did NOT mean that he or she shared a certain set of ideas about Christianity or about the proper way to read the Bible. It did not mean that he or she agreed with William Bell Riley’s nine-point list of fundamentals. It meant only that he or she had no “peculiarities.” He or she was within the circle of fundamentalist trust, even thought the exact outline of that circle could never be agreed upon.

What did being a “fundamentalist” mean? In practice, in this case at least, “fundamentalism” was an affiliation more than an orthodoxy. It was an in-group marker rather than a doctrinal platform. It identified someone as trustworthy without going into specifics about their theological or denominational beliefs.

From the Archives IV: The View from 1944

Editor’s Note: As SAGLRROILYBYGTH are sick of hearing, I’m just about finished with my book about the history of evangelical higher education. As always, there was a ton of great material I couldn’t fit in. I’ll share some of the archival gems here.

What did life look like at Moody Bible Institute in the 1940s? Thanks to one student scrapbook preserved in the archives, we have a couple of great souvenir postcards from the era to give us a hint.

1940s postcard dining room

Students fought hard to be able to eat with members of the opposite sex.

1940s postcard library

Getting those dispensations right…

1940s postcard proposed auditorium

Big plans for the future…

1940s MBI banner and patch

Rah rah.

From the Archives III: Playing the Rice Card

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.

Were white evangelicals racist? Short answer: Yes. Long answer: Yes, but.

In Fundamentalist U, I’m working hard to tease out the ways evangelical and fundamentalist colleges, institutes, universities, and seminaries wrestled with questions of race and racism in the twentieth century. It wasn’t easy, but I had to cut one of the most intriguing sections of my chapter.

Here’s what happened: In 1970, fundamentalist publisher John R. Rice came out in favor of Bob Jones University’s racial-segregation policy. The leaders of Moody Bible Institute had just invited Rice to give one of the most prominent speeches in their annual Founder’s Week celebration.

What was MBI to do? Like most white evangelicals in the era, they had moved away from the unabashed racism that they had shown since the 1930s. But they hated to alienate Dr. Rice and the potent strain of unreconstructedly racist fundamentalism that he represented.anti john rice demonstration warning letter

As MBI’s leaders hemmed and hawed, they received a clumsy letter opposed to Rice’s appearance at MBI. The authors go to awkward lengths to insist they are not students at MBI—and honestly I have no evidence that they were—but the language and content of the letter seem to suggest that it was written by MBI students.

What does this tell us about white racism at evangelical institutions? Here are some of my thoughts and I’ll welcome yours:

1.) White evangelicals in 1970 often opposed their historic racism.

2.) They often did so as part and parcel of their evangelical belief.

3.) Institutions—even ones that wanted to move away from their segregated pasts—hesitated to alienate powerful fundamentalist factions.

4.) Students at evangelical schools closely watched the goings-on at secular colleges and often mimicked the activism of their secular peers.

5.) Student activists often misunderstood the attitudes of their school administrators.

In this case, at least, MBI President William Culbertson was as ardently anti-racist as any student, but he didn’t want to hurt his school by insulting John R. Rice too publicly. When the cards were down, however, Culbertson went ahead and cut off Rice, consequences be damned.

As Culbertson wrote to John R. Rice, they both agreed on theology, but they had split on questions of race and racism. If Rice were to come speak at MBI, Culbertson concluded, it would give

the impression that the Institute agrees with your views in this regard. This cannot be.

From the Archives II: The Scams and the Sacred

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.

Fundamentalists never knew whom to trust. It made sense. After all, since the 1920s, fundamentalists had been telling one another that mainstream institutions had gone to the dogs. Colleges like the University of Chicago, magazines such as Time, denominations such as the Methodists…all had once been trustworthy—in the eyes of fundamentalists—and all had succumbed to a deadly mania for secularism and liberalism. Any school, any church, any preacher could have its or his head turned by the siren song of liberal theology. Any school could slide into soul-damning modernism at any time. This deep skepticism of everyone outside of the charmed circle of trusted fundamentalist institutions, ironically, made it easier for scam artists like George Martin to fleece the faithful.

IMG_1872

Martin pleads for fundamentalist funds, based on his MBI background

How did he do it? It wasn’t a quirk, or an isolated case. Rather—at least, this is the argument I’m making in Fundamentalist U—con men like Martin were able to take advantage of a central, defining element of American fundamentalism.

Here’s the story: Martin ran an orphanage and college in Hornell, New York. In the 1950s, he solicited funds and donations for this fundamentalist project. Fundamentalists were no dummies; before they sent him money, they wanted to know he was trustworthy; they wanted to know that he had good theology and sound finances. They wanted to know their money was really going to spread the Gospel and to teach new generations of fundamentalists.

But how could they know for sure? Because fundamentalism was a staunchly interdenominational protest movement, it had no governing boards, no presbyteries, no denominational supervision. The only way for fundamentalists to know if an institution was trustworthy—financially or theologically—was by reputation and rumor.

So vouching played a key role in defining fundamentalism in practice. Fundamentalists nationwide looked to reliable authorities to vouch for various institutions. And Martin knew it. He boasted of his connection to the most venerable evangelical institution of all, the Moody Bible Institute. And he advertised in impeccably trustworthy fundamentalist magazines such as Sunday School Times.IMG_1875

Nevertheless, rumors continued to circulate that Martin’s operation was nothing but a scam. Local fundamentalists denounced him, and secular journalists from Maclean’s magazine published a damning expose. Donations, the Maclean’s article described, didn’t fund gospel work but rather luxury cars and houses for Martin and his family.

That brings us, though, to the fundamentalist pickle. Since the 1920s, fundamentalists had warned one another that mainstream magazines such as Maclean’s were not to be trusted. After all, such magazines called ALL fundamentalists con men and scam artists. Even the most respected institutions such as Moody Bible Institute were not much respected outside of fundamentalist circles.

Some fundamentalist leaders tried to police their own ranks. Keenly aware of their responsibility to their fundamentalist readers, the editors of Sunday School Times interrogated Martin about his finances. In 1954, they demanded more information—detailed information—about Martin’s income and expenses. They demanded full disclosure.

Martin refused.

What could SST do about it? Not nothing, but not as much as editor Harry F. Jaeger hoped. In the world of American fundamentalism, Jaeger could not simply kick Martin out. There was no process for disbarment, excommunication, or banishment.

But SST and other fundamentalist institutions weren’t powerless. Jaeger sent a powerful message to the fundamentalist community by pulling Martin’s ads from SST. The magazine would no longer offer Martin its implicit endorsement. And Jaeger could and did use his influence to sway other fundamentalist leaders.

For example, he wrote to Moody Bible Institute president William Culbertson to warn him of Martin’s scams. Martin, after all, based his reputation largely on Martin’s record as an MBI alum. MBI should worry, Jaeger wrote, that its reputation was being abused. As Jaeger put it,

Under the circumstances, it seems to me that his work should not be presented to the Christian public for support.

What did MBI do? As usual in the world of American fundamentalism, they were extremely hesitant to condemn a fellow fundamentalist, especially if the evidence came mainly from secular critics. But they didn’t ignore the criticisms, either. To start, they stopped running Martin’s ads in Moody Monthly, in spite of Martin’s protests.

IMG_1888

Your money, please…

When fundamentalists wrote to MBI for assurance, though, MBI only gave them the run around. In 1963, for instance, one administrator wrote to an inquirer, saying he had “no firsthand knowledge of the organization.”  He noted that the popular magazine Maclean’s had just written a damning expose of Martin’s school.  MBI itself, however, was not sure “whether the article is fair or factual.”

The fundamentalist public, after all, had grown accustomed to unfair treatment at the hands of mainstream journalists. Was Martin merely being misrepresented by hostile secular and liberal critics, as he claimed? Or did he really take the money of well-meaning fundamentalist backers and buy himself fancy cars and houses, as his critics insisted?

There was no easy way for the fundamentalist community to know for sure. They relied almost exclusively on reputation. If Martin claimed to be part of the Moody Bible Institute alumni community, then he must be trustworthy…right?

Only years later, when local evangelical sources had corroborated the charges made by the Maclean’s reporter did MBI administrators begin sounding a more clearly negative note.  Even then, in 1968, MBI administrators did not actively denounce Martin and his fraudulent school.  Rather, they only responded to inquiries with batches of clippings about Martin’s depredations.

It made fundamentalists nervous. It was very difficult to tell who was really representing the fundamentalist movement and who wasn’t. Both legit schools and fakes would be denounced in the mainstream press as bogus. And established institutions such as Moody Bible Institute were extremely reluctant to expose anyone’s shady dealings.

Fundamentalism was built on a shaky structure—supported mainly by reputation and rumor. And this set-up made for predictable abuses. Scam artists like George Martin weren’t the exception, but rather a predictable result of the lack of any higher (human) authority in the world of twentieth-century fundamentalism.

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.