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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