Billy Graham and Bob Jones

The news is in: Billy Graham has passed away at age 99. I’m not among his evangelical followers, but over the past several years I’ve gotten to know Billy Graham as I’ve worked on my new book about evangelical higher education.

Billy Graham

Graham preaching to the multitudes, London 1954.

In the 1940s and 1950s, Graham became the embodiment of a new spirit among American fundamentalists. He reached out to other Protestants to help lead big revival services all across the world. Some fundamentalists thought he went too far. As I note in my book, Bob Jones Sr. in particular had a long and tempestuous relationship with Graham.

Graham had started his college career at Bob Jones College. After a year, though, Graham left, ending up with an anthropology major from Wheaton. Jones and Graham kept in close contact and their correspondence is the best single source I’ve found to understand the rift between fundamentalists and new-evangelicals.

By the 1950s, Jones actively warned fundamentalists not to trust Graham or any institution that welcomed Graham. Jones’s letters show both the reasons and the personal anguish involved. Below I’ll quote from a five-page single-spaced letter Jones wrote to Graham in 1951.

                Here is the difference between your mistakes and mine: My mistakes grew out of the way I did things because I did not know how to do them.  After I got the right kind of advice, I quit making them.  Your mistakes have not grown out of your lack of information or your inability to get information.  Your mistakes have grown out of the fact that you are not building your evangelistic campaigns on the right foundation and the right principles.  Billy, if you build a house on the right foundation, the storms and wind may blow that house down, but you do not have to ever rebuild the foundation. . . .

In your heart, you love Jesus, and you are happy to see people saved; but your love for glamour and your ambition (which is the strongest ambition I have ever known any man in evangelistic work to have) and your desire to please everybody are so dominant in your life that you are staggering from one side of the road to the other. . . . You, in your effort to please, are putting yourself on the spot. . . .

Most of the material that goes out about you, you put out. . . .

I could tell you much more, Billy; but it does not do any good to talk to you.  You will agree with a fellow, but you go on just as you are, and that is the discouraging thing about it. . . .

You are popular like any showman is popular, but you have no real grasp upon the hearts of the people like Billy Sunday and other men had. . . .

[When you were young, you begged me] to call you one of my boys and told me that you got your slant on evangelism at Bob Jones  University.  My evangelistic heart was touched, and I put about you the arms of evangelistic affection.  I came back here to the school and told everybody that you were one of our boys.  I did not tell them what kind of a record you made here.  I took at face value what you said about going to Florida because of your health.  I asked all of our boys to pray for you.  I asked my friends to pray for you.  Remember, Billy, that was before you made the headlines. . . .

you began to think that probably the best thing for you was at least on certain occasions and in certain places not to let people know that you were here [as a student at Bob Jones College] and that, as you had said, you got your slant on evangelism here.  So you began to sort of soft pedal. . . .

Now that you are in the headlines, the fact that I ever said that you were one of our boys because you told me to, and people know about that, and you cover it up gives the idea that we are trying to hang on to your coat tail because you are in the headlines; but we are not, Billy. . . .

I still love you…

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Fundamentalists Were Right

For a hundred years, conservative evangelicals have told themselves that college is a dangerous place. As I argue in my new book about evangelical higher ed, the threat posed by mainstream schools pushed fundamentalists in the 1920s to invest in their own network of interdenominational schools, safe colleges for fundamentalist youth. A new study suggests that fundamentalist fears are still well founded.

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How today’s fundamentalists view college…

Back in the 1920s, fundamentalists loved to recount horror stories of college gone bad. As evangelist Bob Jones like to tell revival crowds in the 1920s, one Christian family he knew scrimped and saved to send their beloved daughter to a fancy college. What happened?

At the end of nine months she came home with her faith shattered. She laughed at God and the old time religion. She broke the hearts of her father and mother. They wept over her. They prayed over her. It availed nothing. At last they chided her. She rushed upstairs, stood in front of a mirror, took a gun and blew out her brains.

Other fundamentalist pundits shared an apocryphal letter from a damned college graduate. This letter, from 1921, told the folks at home,

My soul is a starving skeleton; my heart a petrified rock; my mind is poisoned and fickle as the wind, and my faith is as unstable as water. . . . I wish that I had never seen a college.

Back then, fundamentalists didn’t just rely on anecdotal evidence. They shared social-science evidence of the dangers of mainstream higher education, especially psychologist James Leuba’s 1916 study of college-student religiosity. The students he interviewed tended to grow less religious during their college years. The takeaway? College must be doing something to strip students’ faith.

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Those darn college professors…

These days, conservative evangelicals are just as nervous as ever about college. On my recent trip to Answers In Genesis’s Ark Encounter in Kentucky, I was surprised to find a huge walk-through comic book illustrating the dangers of higher education.

And, over a hundred years after Leuba’s book, new research seems to suggest that mainstream colleges really do tend to water down student religiosity. The survey by the Interfaith Youth Core was most interested in the ways college students reacted to religious diversity. Along the way, they found that among 7,194 students at 122 colleges, religious activities as a whole tended to drop during the first year of college.

Forty-three percent of the freshman respondents said they had talked about religious ideas in high school, while only a quarter said they did in college. When it came to religious diversity, the numbers are even starker. Thirty-seven percent of respondents said they had attended a religious service of a different faith than their own in high school, but only 20% did in college.

College students also reported friendlier attitudes toward liberal ideas after a year of college, from 55% up to 63%. And a majority said they felt some pressure to change their religious ideas and that they tended to keep their religious ideas to themselves.

So while people like me might worry that students are not getting enough exposure to religious diversity, fundamentalists will likely worry more. Even if college students are shying away from other religions, they are also shying away from their own.

The Art Is In!

Thanks to the folks at Oxford, we have a terrific cover for my new book about the history of evangelical higher education. We had batted around a few other ideas about cover art, including artsy-fied excerpts from some of the student rulebooks. In the end, my editor thought those looked too busy and hard to read and I think she was right. Especially when I see this snazzy cover.Cover art final

When can you get your hands on a copy? Soon. Pre-orders are available now, and OUP promises to ship on February 1st.

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.”

I Love You but You Didn’t Do the Reading

Leaves are falling and campus speakers are speaking. What else is going on out there? Here’s our ILYBYGTH collection of stories of interest:

Almost two-thirds of colleges/universities missed their enrollment targets this year.

The Wall Street Journal agrees with Ed Stetzer. There is no call for anxiety about religious judges or other officials, they note.

Ben bucks Berkeley boos: What happened when Ben Shapiro brought his in-your-face conservatism to California?

What does it mean for a public school to be “public?” Sarah M. Stitzlein of the University of Cincinnati wonders in the pages of EdWeek.Bart reading bible

“Is this heaven?” Some Iowa schools lock bad kids away in “little dungeons,” from The Progressive.

Should we defend Professor Wax’s right to be wrong? That’s Jonathan Zimmerman’s argument at IHE.

Across the (other) pond: South Korean ministry nominee and professor of engineering testifies about his belief in a young earth.

Free-Marketeer Arthur Brooks in the NYT: Universities need to “form communities that do not just tolerate conservatives but actively embrace ideological diversity.”

Is fundamentalism roaring back? John Fea looks askance at recent developments at Southern Baptist Seminary.

Who blocks campus speakers? A reminder from IHE that progressive speakers are being shouted down, too.

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.

The Proof’s in the Pudding

Well, I guess there ain’t no stopping it now. I’ve just received the proof pages for my upcoming book about the history of evangelical higher education. Fundy U proof title page

It is a very exciting moment for any nerd to see the way the book will actually look in print.

And now, the last stage of my work begins. I’ll go over these proofs with a fine-tooth comb, looking for any typos or other errors. It’s too late at this stage for me to make any major changes in the content, but I still want to be sure there are no goofs in the printing. fundy u proof TOC

I’ll also use this time to put together an index. I’m always surprised by how much I enjoy this process. It’s a ton of painstaking work, to be sure, but I like putting together a topical list of the book’s main ideas, sorted out by sub-headings.

When will all this come together as a final book? Once I send in the final proofs and the index, the folks at OUP will do their magic and get the book out by early 2018. I’ll keep you posted!

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.

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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.

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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.

Conspiracy and American Jihad

Michael Gerson is right. Feverish conspiracy theories have become “a kind of discrediting madness” among American conservatives. But it’s not only a problem on the right. Progressives are prone to embracing outlandish conspiracy theories, too. (*Paging Louise Mensch*) What are we supposed to do, then, whether we’re progressive or conservative, when we see evidence of a real, frightening conspiracy? Of prominent preachers calling for American jihad and civil war?

In general, it’s difficult for a historian like me to get too worked up by hyperbolic claims of conspiracy. It’s not that historians don’t see plenty of conspiracies in the archival record. Rather, as I’ve argued in these pages before, digging into archives shows us lots of evidence of real conspiracies. It is precisely the abundance of conspiracies that keeps us calm. There are so many conspiracies afoot, operating at cross-purposes and usually in bungling fractious competition with one another, that the ultimate goals of such conspiracies foil themselves.

When my progressive friends have warned of theocratic fundamentalist or creationist conspiracies, I’ve replied time and again that fundamentalists and creationists are among the most divided groups in America. The notion that they could combine to impose a Handmaid’s-Tale sort of theocracy simply doesn’t match the historical record.

I was flummoxed, then, by a recent Jim Bakker video.

Remember Jim Bakker? Of PTL Ministries? In a recent video circulated by Right Wing Watch, Bakker insisted that any impeachment of Trump would lead to a “civil war in the United States . . . Christians will finally come out of the shadows” to fight for what’s right.

Even for a mild-mannered historian like me, it’s hard not to be disturbed by such threats of American jihad. And it’s easy for secular people like me to see more evidence everywhere we look. We know, for example, that a whopping 81% of white evangelical voters voted for Trump. Those of us who study evangelical history might politely argue about the meaning of evangelical support for Trump, as John Fea and I did a while back, but it’s not too difficult to make a case that Bakker’s violent Trumpism might have plenty of support.

So should we freak out?

Not yet. Here’s why: Clearly, violent extremism is real and dangerous. Whether from Portland, the PTL, or campus radicals, we can’t afford to pooh-pooh the threat of real theo/political/racial violence. But in order to recognize and fight the danger of extremism we need to avoid the temptation of lumping together all those with whom we disagree.

Rather, we need to understand and encourage the diversity within every group. It is hard for secular progressives like me to truly understand, but no one will be more horrified by Bakker’s jihadist rhetoric than other evangelical Protestants. If we leap to assume that Bakker’s extremism represents the thinking of all white evangelicals, we turn our greatest potential anti-extremist evangelical allies into imagined pro-Bakker extremist enemies.

Are conspiracies real? Are Bakker’s fulminations dangerous? Yes, and hell yes.

The proper response, though, is not to score cheap points against conservative evangelicals by using Bakker’s words against them. The real goal should be to recruit anti-Bakker allies from among his many evangelical opponents.