Ah Ha! Proof of Liberal Profs!


Everyone knows college professors are a liberal bunch, right? A new study from Harvard University, a school just outside of Boston, Massachusetts, seems to confirm this beloved stereotype. But is it really proof?

First, some background. As the sophisticated and good-looking regular readers of I Love You but You’re Going to Hell (SAGLRROILYBYGTH) are well aware, the notion that the professoriate skews liberal is a deeply held culture-war notion. Conservatives decry it, even pushing through a mandatory conservative chair at Colorado University. Even perspicacious liberal thinkers worry about it. Historian Jonathan Zimmerman of New York University, for example, has suggested that true intellectual diversity requires some sort of affirmative action for conservatives.

It is not a made-up phenomenon. As Neil Gross argued in his new(ish) book, Why Are Professors Liberal and Why Do Conservatives Care?, there really does seem to be a tilt toward liberalism in higher-ed faculties. Not because liberals are smarter (sorry, liberals), and not because conservatives suffer from discrimination (sorry, conservatives), but because historical patterns have pushed more liberals into the profession.

An article in the Harvard Crimson describes the political donations of the faculty. Turns out, those faculty members who give money to political parties tend to give almost only to the Democrats. In the Arts & Sciences faculty, the majority tipped a whopping 95.7% in the direction of the Democratic Party, compared to a measly 3.7% who gave to the Republican Party. Things were a little more balanced in the Business School, with 36.7% of donations going to the GOP. In some departments, such as the Graduate School of Education, a Brezhnevian 100% of donations went to the Democrats.

Should we worry?

If we hope for a system of higher education that pushes students to think critically about a range of issues, should these numbers cause us to consider home-colleging our students? Both for us liberals and our conservative colleagues, is it time to think about creating a better sense of real intellectual diversity on college faculties?

I think not, for a couple of reasons. First, as both the Crimson article and Professor Gross’s book insist, a tilt toward the Democratic Party does not equate with a rigid groupthink. From the history of the culture wars, we can see proof that conservatives do very well in schools dominated by liberal faculties.

Leading young-earth creationist Kurt Wise, for example, studied under the vehemently anti-creationist Stephen Jay Gould at Harvard. Both scholars reported a cordial and productive relationship. Dr. Wise is not alone. For generations, leading conservative scholars, intellectuals, and pundits have done just fine in schools with liberal-leaning faculty. From William F. Buckley Jr. at Yale to Dinesh D’Souza at Dartmouth, nerdy conservatives thrive in elite colleges.

Perhaps the explanation can be seen in the work of sociologist Amy Binder. Binder and a colleague studied conservative students at two elite colleges. Binder argued that conservative students are certainly shaped by their environments. But at both a large western public flagship college and an elite eastern one, conservative students honed and shaped their conservatism, rather than being groomed away into liberal ideologies.

More important, perhaps, is the fact that almost nobody actually attends the elite colleges that culture-war punditry focuses on. Harvard, Yale, Dartmouth, Colorado, Brown, NYU…perhaps the faculties on these schools tip heavily in a liberal direction. But very few students go to these schools. Of the young people who go to college, many more of them go to less-fancy places.

My hunch—and I’d love for someone to get some numbers to back this up or refute it—is that the faculty at less-elite colleges tends to be more politically and culturally conservative. From the field of teacher education, I have heard anecdotes that suggest it’s true.

The Crimson article gives us some proof, but not about higher education. Rather, all we see is that Harvard faculty tip liberal. Harvard may have plenty of influence, but it doesn’t actually do much. Though the alumni might bother people with their smug self-satisfaction, there really aren’t too many of them around.


Conservatives Win a Prize They No Longer Want

A new report about racial segregation in Connecticut’s schools raises a painful historical reminder for conservatives: Conservatives, both white and African American, often promoted school segregation as a central tenet of conservative ideology. These days, mainstream conservatives want to shed their historic legacy of racism. Ironically, that means that no conservative is claiming “credit” for the current resurgence of racial segregation in schools.

The report from Gary Orfield’s Civil Rights Project praises Connecticut’s schools. Unlike most states, Connecticut has made real progress in racial integration of schools. In other states, though, public schools are becoming more starkly segregated.

Sixty years ago, this would have been cause for conservative celebration. Though they don’t like to be reminded, conservatives embraced racial segregation back then as a central plank in the conservative platform. At National Review, for example, William F. Buckley Jr. took a stand in favor of continued white supremacy in the South.

As Neil McMillen made clear in his history of the White Citizens’ Councils, too, leading segregationists consistently tied their racist policies to the broader 1950s conservative movement. In his famous “Black Monday” speech, for example, Mississippi Circuit Court Judge Thomas Pickens Brady denounced the US Supreme Court’s Brown v. Board decision in both racist and anti-communist terms. Not only would school desegregation lead to “amalgamation” of the races, Brady charged, it was also part of a “socialistic” scheme to degrade southern traditions.

Back then, conservatism = segregationism

Back then, conservatism = segregationism

As McMillen tells us, southern segregationists often joined and led other leading conservative organizations. Georgia’s R. Carter Pittman, for example, not only led his local white supremacist Citizens’ Council, but also joined the John Birch Society, the Liberty Lobby, and Billy James Hargis’s Christian Crusade.

Many white segregation leaders in the 1950s embraced religious conservatism as well. The Citizens’ Councils denounced “pinkos in the pulpit” who had declared “private enterprise, rugged individualism, and conservatism in politics . . . equally un-Christian.”

The historical record is clear, if awkward. Though most mainstream conservative thinkers these days don’t like it, in the tumultuous 1950s and early 1960s “conservatism” was tightly bound up with white supremacy.

Even weirder from today’s perspective, many African-American conservatives in the 1950s also embraced continued school segregation. Obviously, they did so in different ways and in different organizations than did white conservatives. No African Americans joined the White Citizens’ Councils, for example. And no African-American conservatives embraced school segregation in the name of white supremacy. Rather, African-American leaders supported segregation in a cautious and strategic way and they abandoned segregation as soon as better options appeared possible.

More complicated than we might think...

More complicated than we might think…

But as John Dittmer demonstrates in his careful history of the civil-rights saga in Mississippi, African-American leaders often preferred racially segregated schools, at least in the early 1950s. At that time, some leaders felt, segregated schools provided Mississippi’s African American population with a steady source of teaching jobs. Some African American leaders also believed that segregated schools offered a better option for African American students than hostile integrated ones.

These days, no one likes to be reminded of this history. African American conservatives largely got on board with anti-segregation campaigns. White conservatives, too, if a little later. But in the 1950s at least, conservatism meant racial segregationism.

And this leads us to our unusual current situation. If today’s public schools are reverting to racial segregation, as the Civil Rights Project documents, we might see this as a long-term victory for 1950s conservatism. Yet, since mainstream conservatives have since abjured their 1950s racist roots, there is no one around to celebrate this significant conservative “victory.”

Schools of Social(ist) Work

America’s colleges and universities have become left-wing indoctrination factories. At least, that has long been a favorite conservative complaint. Today in the pages of the Weekly Standard we see another example of the “closing of the campus mind.” Why do so many conservatives seem to take such intense pleasure in the supposed leftist domination of American higher education?

Bearded weirdos...

Bearded weirdos…

In today’s Weekly Standard, Devorah Goldman shares her horror story from Hunter College’s School of Social Work. As a conservative, Ms. Goldman was asked politely not to participate in class discussions. She had to hold her tongue as she read anti-conservative textbooks. She had to hold her tongue as professors imposed racist, ideologically slanted ideas on her classes.

Goldman’s story of abysmally closed-minded universities seems to resonate among conservative intellectuals. As we’ve seen recently, some conservative academics have interpreted recent events as the death knell for conservative thinkers at mainstream universities. Elsewhere, critics have wondered if higher education as a whole has been irredeemably lost to true open-mindedness.

As a non-conservative who writes a lot about conservatism and education, these complaints raise two difficult questions for me.

  1. First, why do so many conservative thinkers seem to emphasize the leftism of colleges? That is, why do conservatives seem to take such bitter joy from an exaggerated assumption that they are no longer welcome in higher ed?
  2. Second, why don’t these conservative intellectuals recognize the long tradition of conservative laments about higher ed? In every case, it seems as if conservatives think higher ed has just recently switched over to the dark side.

Let’s take the second of these questions first. As Ms. Goldman’s story shows, every conservative complaint implies that the closing of the college mind is a recent phenomenon. But conservatives (and liberals, for that matter) have been protesting against the goings-on at mainstream colleges for almost a century.

In 1987, for example, Chicago’s Allan Bloom scored a surprise best-seller with his Closing of the American Mind. Bloom worried back then that universities had become nothing but indoctrination factories.

Even earlier, conservative godfather William F. Buckley Jr. began his long career with an indictment of the culture at his alma mater. In God and Man at Yale (1951), Buckley blasted the sneering secularism and lax morality of his school.

Some people think Buckley invented modern conservatism, but the same themes go way back. In the 1930s, for instance, Congressman Hamilton Fish excoriated leading schools as subversive breeding grounds for communists. Fish named names. Columbia, New York University, City College of New York, the University of Chicago, Wisconsin, Penn, and North Carolina, Fish charged in 1935, had become “honeycombed with Socialists, near Communists and Communists.” As I note in my new book, Fish and other anti-communist conservatives in the 1930s assumed that leading colleges had recently been hopelessly lost to left-wing collegiate cabals.

Back in the 1920s, too, religious conservatives warned each other that recent events had caused the loss of mainstream colleges. As I’m digging into in my current research, fundamentalists such as Bob Jones Sr. convinced themselves and anyone who would listen that 1920s trends had moved college into the enemy camp. Too many schools, Jones charged, attacked the faith of conservative students. As Jones put it,

I had just about as lief send a child to school in hell as to put him in one of those institutions. We are spending millions of dollars on education in this country, but if that is the kind of education we are going to have we would be better off without our universities and colleges.

In every case, each generation of conservative activist has implied that these lamentable changes were recent occurrences. In every case, conservatives suggest that higher ed “these days” has been taken over by left-wingers. If this is such a long and strong tradition among conservatives, why do they keep insisting it is a recent phenomenon?

And why do conservatives seem so eager to emphasize their own victimhood? I don’t doubt Goldman’s story. I can imagine that some teachers and some schools really do insist on an ideological conformity. But there are plenty of other schools that do not. Why don’t conservatives spend more mental energy trumpeting their own dominance of some forms of higher education?

Recently, for example, conservative academic extraordinaire Robert George praised his school’s new academic-freedom rule. Why don’t more conservative intellectuals join Professor George in proclaiming the continuing academic clout of conservative or conservative-friendly ideas?

Some might think that conservatism only dominates less-prestigious schools. Ms. Goldman, for example, would likely have had a very different experience at a less prominent school of social work. But as the case of Professor George makes clear, leading schools such as Chicago and Princeton have long served as congenial homes for conservative intellectuals.

Instead of tearing their hair and gnashing their teeth due to the supposed loss of higher education, why don’t conservative intellectuals celebrate their continuing influence at many leading colleges?

Spelling and Vaginas: Have We Lost Higher Education?

Are new culture bullies taking over America’s college campuses? Jonathan Chait argued recently that today’s college campuses are suffering a new, more aggressive bout of political correctness. For those of us interested in higher education and America’s culture wars, Chait’s essay raises different questions: Have colleges and universities become hopelessly monolithic? Can students really learn anymore, or will they only be drilled in leftist platitudes?

Like Chait, I’m not asking this as a conservative, but as a liberal. Like Chait, I want college campuses to include a heady mix of ideas. I want students to see and hear a broad range of philosophies, many of which they will disagree with.

Chait catalogs some of the anti-liberal recent occurrences on elite campuses:

Speakers are cancelled; plays are cancelled; lecturers are shouted down. In many high-profile cases, it seems that leftist students are dedicated to blocking any speech they find distasteful. This kind of neo-Comstockery, Chait argues, is a far greater threat to liberalism than any right-wing speaker or writer could possibly create. It has created, as one professor told Chait, an “environment of fear” on college campuses.

Chait explores the way this sort of destructive cultural politics has ranged far beyond college campuses. Those interested in the strange unspooling of America’s culture wars should certainly read his essay in full. But this morning I’d like to ask a slightly different question: What is the relationship between conservatism and mainstream higher education?

It is not as simple as it might seem. Though many conservative intellectuals continue to insist that Chait’s Red-Guardism has squeezed out thoughtful conservatism at many colleges, the truth is more complex. It’s not true that college students these days can’t be conservative. Ironically, the campus climate Chait deplores seems to strengthen some students’ identification as conservative. It does seem, though, that students less committed to a conservative ideology will feel pressured to avoid provoking the wrath of the campus left.

First, there is ample evidence that conservative students are made MORE conservative in college. Sociologists Amy Binder and Kate Wood recently released their findings of conservative students at two elite universities. In each case, they found that conservative students tended to become more conservative at these purportedly leftist universities.

Beyond that, for students who identify as conservatives, there have long been prestigious schools outside of the mainstream that welcome and nurture conservative cultural values. As I’m finding in the research for my new book, conservative evangelicals have a wide choice of colleges that serve as comfortable intellectual homes for conservatives. Often, these schools also embrace political conservatism.

Finally, we have piles of anecdotal evidence that conservatives are often made more conservative by leftist campus environments. Most famously, William F. Buckley Jr. launched his career with an angry memoir about his student days at Yale. Dinesh D’Souza similarly served first as a conspicuous college conservative at Dartmouth. Less famous conservative students have shared similar experiences.

Given all this evidence, it’s not fair to say that conservative students aren’t allowed to be themselves. In spite of what conservative leaders say, conservatism has not been shouted out of American higher education. There is another problem, though. What about students who are not committed to conservatism? Is the climate on campuses today conducive to a true intellectual experimentation among earnest but undecided young people?

This is a much harder question to answer. In some famous cases, colleges have made efforts to include conservative intellectual role models for young people. The most extraordinary case has been that of the University of Colorado at Boulder, where Steven Hayward and Bradley Birzer have worked as visiting conservatives. At that school, students in the middle are guaranteed to have at least one committed conservative academic voice on campus.

In other cases, it seems as if conservatives really have been given the squeeze. The best example is the recent treatment of Intervarsity Christian Fellowship. Intervarsity has been derecognized at leading campuses nationwide. For committed Christian students, it will not be difficult to find a comfortable conservative church near school. But for those who aren’t committed, the exclusion of conservative organizations such as Intervarsity seems to limit students’ opportunities to hear and experience a real range of intellectual and religious ideas.

Chait raises important questions about the goals and limitations of speech-policing on campuses. We need to remember, however, that high-profile cases of neo-PC thuggery do not mean that all universities have been taken over by the leftist thought police. The real situation is more complex. Conservative students and professors seem to thrive. However, those on the fence might be robbed of opportunities to hear more than leftist platitudes.

Do campuses today encourage a real mix of ideas?  What have been your experiences?  Those of your children?  Your students?

Bloomberg Bashes College Liberal Orthodoxy

It’s not news when conservative intellectuals complain about liberal orthodoxy at America’s colleges.  But recently former New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg told Harvard’s commencement audience that colleges needed to include more conservative voices.

The conservative intellectual world has long been aghast at the purported liberal bias of American higher education.  After all, it was in many ways William F. Buckley Jr.’s enfant-terrible critique of Yale that launched the post-war conservative fusion movement.  More recently, as we’ve noted in these pages, conservatives in Colorado managed to insert a prominent conservative into the faculty of that state’s flagship university.  And conservatives have offered prescriptions to heal America’s blighted leftist ivory towers.

In this commencement season, the world of higher education has been aflutter with commencement cancellations.  Rutgers pulled the plug on Condoleeza Rice, Brandeis said thanks but no thanks to Ayaan Hirsi Ali, and Asuza Pacific University cancelled Charles Murray’s talk.

Mayor Bloomberg warned that universities must welcome a real intellectual diversity.  Chanting and protesting to shut out conservative voices, Bloomberg warned, threatened the very purpose of the university.  “In the 1950s,” Bloomberg told Harvard,

the right wing was attempting to repress left-wing ideas.  Today on many college campuses it is liberals trying to repress conservative ideas even as conservative faculty members are at risk of becoming an endangered species.

Not surprisingly, conservatives have embraced Bloomberg’s theme.  Richard D. Land of the Southern Evangelical Seminary agreed heartily in the pages of the Christian Post.  Bloomberg, Land enthused,

has done the nation a great service by speaking bold truth to intolerant power.

Liberal intolerance was prevalent when I was a Princeton undergraduate in the 60s. It has become far worse in the intervening decades. Too many students are being brainwashed and indoctrinated, instead of educated, in our nation’s colleges. Unless such dangerous trends are reversed, it will increasingly imperil everyone’s liberties – personal, civil, and religious.

Similarly, Glenn Beck gushed, “you have to respect his willingness to speak so definitively about the intolerant culture at far too many universities and colleges.”

As I argue in my upcoming book, conservatives have worried about the ideological slant of America’s elite colleges throughout the twentieth century.  Now they have a prominent ally in former mayor Bloomberg.

Poem of the Week

If a picture is worth a thousand words, a good poem has to be worth a million, right?

We stumbled across this gem recently.  For those of us who are trying to understand educational conservatism in America, the sentiments expressed here go a long way.

“Buzzsawmonkey” left this poem as a comment on a recent essay by Stanley Kurtz in National Review.

The Red Faculty
—apologies to William Carlos Williams and “The Red Wheelbarrow”

so much depends

a red prof

glazed eyed bored

to deride white

Now, I realize the poem does not have much to do with Kurtz’s essay about the Common Core State Standards.  But it does sum up a good deal of conservative punditry about the lamentable state of American higher education.

I apologize for my ignorance if this poem has been around for a while.  It seems both too clever and too irrelevant to the essay it commented upon to have been used only in this context.  So please correct me if this is old hat.  This is my first sighting.

The skewed ideological environment of most college campuses has long been an article of faith among conservative activists and thinkers.  Long before William F. Buckley Jr. launched his career with his jeremiad about God and Man at Yale, conservatives warned about the terrifying intellectual bullying among once-hallowed quads.

In 1921, for example, William Jennings Bryan attacked the teaching at the University of Wisconsin.  In a scathing editorial, he sarcastically suggested the university post placards about the content of its curriculum.  “Our class rooms,” the warning could state, “furnish an arena in which a brutish doctrine tears to pieces the religious faith of young men and young women; parents of the children are cordially invited to witness the spectacle.”[1]

Neither the loquacious Bryan nor Buckley, however, managed to come up with as poetic an indictment as has Buzzsawmonkey.



[1] Bryan, “The Modern Arena,” The Commoner, volume 21:issue 6 (June 1921): page 3.

Missouri Loves Company: Catholics in Fundamentalist America

Missouri’s Catholic Bishops support Missouri’s proposed constitutional amendment.  In a recent statement, the Missouri Catholic Conference supported Amendment 2, which will go before voters on August 7.  The bishops’ statement argued that the amendment would ensure religious people’s rights in the public square.  As they put it:

“Increasingly, it seems, religious values are becoming marginalized in our society. People of faith need assurance that they remain free to exercise and express their religious beliefs in public, provided just order be observed, without threat of external pressure to conform to changing societal ‘norms’.”

For some, this defense of public religiosity by Catholic bishops seems unremarkable.  But from a historical perspective, this Catholic endorsement of religion in public schools signals a shocking turnaround in the history of religious life in America.

In the nineteenth century, after all, intense Catholic political pressure led to “Bible Wars” in public schools.  For many Protestants, the reading of the King James Version of the Bible in public schools seemed natural.  As Steven Green has argued in his new book, these nineteenth-century battles determined much of the role of public religion long into the twentieth century.

This history of Catholic protest against a Protestant-dominated public religiosity resulted in lingering anti-Catholic animus on the part of many conservative Protestants.  In the 1928 Presidential election, for example, self-described Protestant fundamentalists vehemently opposed Al Smith’s candidacy in the Democratic Party due to Smith’s Catholicism.

Yet even in the 1920s, we can see connections between conservative Catholics and conservative Protestants.  William Jennings Bryan tried hard to recruit Catholic anti-evolution writer Alfred  McCann to testify at the Scopes trial, for instance.  These connections received a boost in the 1950s with the strengthening of anti-communism on the Right.  And Catholics such as William F. Buckley and Phyllis Schlafly assumed new leadership roles in the postwar conservative revival.

By the 1970s, the issue of abortion fused even stronger connections between conservative Catholics and Protestants.  As Daniel K. Williams has argued, abortion politics brought pro-life Catholics into the fold of the “New Christian Right.”

The recent statement by Missouri’s Catholic bishops demonstrates how seamless these connections have become.  Early 1920s fundamentalism in America often included a virulent anti-Catholicism.  But by 2012, we need to include conservative Catholics in any sensible study of conservative religion in American public life.

Some readers have objected to ILYBYGTH’s broad definition of “Fundamentalist America.”  And they are right: “fundamentalism” in the American context usually refers to one subset of conservative evangelical Protestants.  But if we hope to understand the broad sweep of conservative religious activism in America, if we want to talk about the conservative side of America’s culture wars over the proper role of religion in the public square, we need to include a much broader coalition of religious groups.  Not only conservative Catholics, but also Pentecostals, Orthodox Jews, Mennonites, conservative Lutherans, and others who don’t fit within the smaller boundaries of small-f fundamentalism.

The recent statement by Missouri’s Catholic bishops is just further proof of how the times are a-changing.  When conservative Catholics can get behind an amendment protecting religion’s role in public schools, we know the old Catholic/Protestant split has become largely irrelevant.

FROM THE ARCHIVES: Bible in America: Bible Evangelism to the Crabgrass Frontier

A few years back I stumbled across a remarkable Bible campaign.  Beginning in 1921 and continuing throughout the twentieth century, Bible evangelists based at Chicago’s Moody Bible Institute delivered Bibles, New Testaments, and tracts to underserved regions.  This campaign, which began as part of the Bible Institute Colportage Association and eventually became part of the Moody Literature Mission, delivered millions of Bibles and religious literature to the Southern Appalachian region, as well as the Ozarks, western logging camps, Louisianan Catholic schools, prisons, hospitals, and other venues in which missionaries thought people were hungry for the Word. 

            At the time, I focused my study on the missionaries’ use of Appalachian public schools as a distribution network for this religious literature.  I published some of my findings in an academic journal [“The Quiet Crusade: The Moody Bible Institute’s Outreach to Public Schools and the Mainstreaming of Appalachia, 1921-1966,” Church History 75:3 (September 2006): 565-593.] 

            Looking over my notes as I thought about the meanings of the Bible in Fundamentalist America, I came across my collection from this research.  As usual, there was a lot more material than what I could use in the article. 

            For the next couple-few posts, I’ll pull up various pamphlets, brochures, and other materials from this archival collection.  Most of the material is available at the Moody Bible Institute in downtown Chicago.  The people there were very accommodating and friendly on my visits, and the archive is certainly worth a visit if you’re in the area. 

            I won’t argue that these materials somehow capture any single essence of fundamentalist attitudes about the power of the Bible.  That would be far too simplistic.  But I do believe that the attitudes toward the Bible expressed in these materials give a window into a commonly held fundamentalist vision of the nature of Holy Scripture.  As we’ll see, the Bible missionaries from Chicago believed the Word had a unique power.  The Gospels, to them—and, I argue, to many fundamentalists in the 1920s and since—meant more than just a collection of edifying religious messages.  As we’ll see, many of these Bible missionaries held a fundamentalist belief in the saving power of this powerful text. 

For many fundamentalist evangelists, the merest exposure to the words of the Gospel can have a saving power.  It can serve as an inoculant to sinful doctrines and sinful ignorance.  For example, one post-World War II brochure trumpeted its success in exposing students in public schools to the Word.  These students were described as “otherwise unreached boys and girls.”  By giving them Bibles, these missionaries proclaimed they had been “introduced to the way of salvation for the first time, with many of them accepting Christ as their personal savior.”

In the view of these fundamentalist missionaries, the dangers to these students—depicted as white, fairly affluent suburbanites—came from both ignorance and false doctrine.  This brochure warned of other missionaries: “Jehovah’s Witnesses, Mormons, Catholics and Seventh Day Adventists,” all of whom were “making devastating inroads among these gospel-hungry communities.”  In the view of these Bible missionaries, young people did not need anything beyond the Bible to be protected from this threat.  If these students could simply be exposed to the “true message of eternal life” from the Bible, missionaries would be able to “capture them for the Lord Jesus before they are ensnared by the evil one.”

There is a good deal here of interest for those who hope to understand Fundamentalist America.  As I write, the 2012 Republican presidential primaries are slogging along, with (Catholic) Rick Santorum fighting (Mormon) Mitt Romney and (Converted Catholic) Newt Gingrich for the vote of the Fundamentalist Faithful.  Romney’s Mormonism sometimes comes up as an issue for conservative Protestant voters.  We don’t see as much, though, about the threat of Santorum’s Catholicism.  We have wondered here about this “Fundamentalist Mystery.”  This brochure from sixty-odd years ago paints a very different picture of the relationship between fundamentalist Protestants and conservative Christians of other groups.  The relationship between the two has long been tense.  Some historians have argued that it was only the “pro-life” movement that emerged in the 1970s that brought the two together.  But there had been other rapprochements, with prominent Catholics such as William F. Buckley Jr. leading a broader conservative movement in the years after World War II that attracted many Protestants as well as Catholics.

In this Protestant brochure, written around the same time that Buckley began his long career as the intellectual darling of Fundamentalist America, Catholics, Mormons, Seventh day Adventists and Jehovah’s Witnesses are not seen as part of a broad conservative coalition, but rather as deadly, aggressive threats to the health of America’s unreached masses.

For those outsiders who hope to understand Fundamentalist America, another interesting lesson from this brochure is the perceived power of the Gospel among these literature missionaries.  This point is so central to this tradition that it usually went unremarked, but if we want to understand Fundamentalist America, we need to explore the meanings of this Biblicism in a little more detail.  First of all, we need to note that this tradition is strongest only in this segment of today’s broad Fundamentalist coalition.  Conservative Catholics, for example, don’t historically place the same emphasis on the miraculous power of Bible text.  For these Chicago book missionaries, however, the assumption was that the words of the Bible, especially those of the four Gospels, had the power to effect soul-saving conversions on anyone who read them.  The challenge, then, for the missionaries was only to get the Word out there.  If these white suburban schoolkids could somehow be persuaded or cajoled into looking at the Gospels, their souls would be saved.  Again, this assumption is so powerful among a segment of today’s Fundamentalist Americans that it usually goes without comment.  But it explains a good deal that is puzzling to non-fundamentalists.  So, for example, when people at sporting events hold up signs with Biblical chapter and verse—either as Broncos’ quarterback Tim Tebow or just as a guy in the bleachers—the hope is the same.  If they can simply convince people to look at John 3:16, the tradition goes, sinful or ignorant people will be eternally saved.  This is the impulse behind much of the fundamentalist effort to Biblicize public space.  If students in public schools can be exposed to the words of the Bible, they will be saved.  If billboards can proclaim the words of the Gospel, readers will be saved.  If court sessions can start with a Bible reading, sinners will be saved.  All of these goals only make sense once we understand the enormous power some Fundamentalists grant to the words of the Gospel.  The merest exposure is presumed to have eternal power.

Another interesting point about Fundamentalist America that this brochure reveals is its presumption about its readers.  This is a fundraising brochure that trades on its readers’ sense of duty.  The duty is to save as many souls as possible.  The public schools, in this brochure, present an “opportunity” to reach many imperiled young souls with only a small effort and expense.  The central point of this public-school campaign is that students in schools are likely to be reading.  Why not help make that reading material Biblical?  At least among this particular postwar Fundamentalist community, the missionaries did not need to explain that their readers should want to save souls.  Instead, the assumption was that Fundamentalists worked in contest with other spiritual missionaries—Mormons, Catholics, Seventh day Adventists, and Jehovah’s Witnesses—to capture as many souls as possible.

This Fundamentalist requirement to save souls helps explain some of the puzzle of Fundamentalism.  Many non-fundamentalists have complained about the aggressive nature of Fundamentalist America.  In the 1920s, for instance, famous atheist Clarence Darrow put it something like this, “I don’t mind them going to heaven their way, but I don’t want them to stop me going to hell my way.”  Other non-fundamentalists, these days, say they don’t understand why fundamentalists care if other people do things like marry same-sex partners.  Once we see the centrality of soul-saving outreach to the Fundamentalist tradition, we can get a better sense of the reason for this aggressive insistence on the morality of everyone, not only the Fundamentalist community itself.

Finally, this brochure shows us the ways some Fundamentalists starting seeing whitebread suburban America as the newest “mission field” for their outreach work.  In the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, a lot of this outreach was directed away from mainstream middle-class American life.  Earlier fundamentalists assumed that the core of American middle-class culture was safely aware of the Gospels, safely educated and inoculated from the spiritual dangers of life.  Of course, some of those folks might still choose a life of sin, but at least they knew the saving message of the Gospels.  After World War II, some fundamentalists—like these Bible missionaries—began to see their role in American culture differently.  Their missionary outreach no longer had to be only to “outsider” groups, whether that be in sub-Saharan Africa, Latin America, Asia, among immigrant communities in big American cities or among isolated mountain families in places like the Southern Appalachians.

Instead, some fundamentalists started to see themselves as surrounded by a vast mission field.  Even in affluent white communities they began to see their role as one of outreach and salvation.  Much as later fundamentalists such as Jerry Falwell would complain that they were a minority group, so these postwar evangelists saw themselves as one missionary enterprise among others, competing for the souls of middle-class white kids in suburban public schools.