The Religious Right Isn't Going Away
On the surface, there's a glaring contradiction between the books published last year by two journalists (Michelle Goldberg's Kingdom Coming and Chris Hedges' American Fascism) versus David Kirkpatrick's "The Evangelical Crackup" and Frank Rich's "Rudy, the Values Slayer," both published in Sunday's New York Times. Both Goldberg and Hedges see the specter of fascism in the Christian Right and warn that in a national crisis, we could be faced with a real totalitarian threat. Both cite Hannah Arendt's The Origins of Totalitarianism and Fritz Stern's The politics of Cultural Despair: A Study in the Rise of the German Ideology (both classic studies of fascism) in ways that send chills up your spine when you look at today's Fundagelical Right.
Kirkpatrick and Rich, on the other hand, see American evangelicals morphing into something far less threatening while the old guard Religious Right leaders like Robertson, Falwell, Dobson, Perkins and Kennedy are either dead, ready to retire, or no longer the great power brokers they once were. The hard-liners are now out of touch with their own constituency, which is disillusioned with the Iraq war and with the Bush presidency in general. Now evangelicals are flocking to more inclusive leaders like Rick Warren and Bill Hybels, who are still against abortion and anti-gay, but who also talk about the need to address other issues like poverty, AIDS and global warming. (Clearly the new "inclusiveness" refers to the number of policy areas it's OK to talk about and not who is OK since the homophobia continues unabated.)
I suspect Goldberg, Hedges, Kirkpatrick and Rich are all correct. The apparent contradiction is a superficial one. While the declining influence of the Fundagelical Right within the Republican Party may gladden hearts on both sides of the political spectrum, in the long run the danger is still going to be there.
Let's take a quick tour of twentieth-century fundagelical history.
Remember that embarassing 1925 Scopes Trial that supposedly sent fundagelicals back to their churches and out of politics until Jerry Falwell came along in 1979? Well, it's a myth. First of all, fundamentalist Protestants as fundamentalist Protestants had never been an organized pressure group in American politics. There was nothing to retreat from. They may have cheered William Jennings Bryan, and they may have been bitterly disappointed with the results of the Scopes Trial, but there was no organization to fall apart and no political party with a clear stand on evolution to desert.
What did happen after 1925 was that the most extremist elements of fundamentalism gained unprecedented influence among American Protestants.
The leader of this movement to the fringe was Gerald B. Winrod, a Wichita-based preacher, publisher and politician. Sometimes called the Protestant Father Coughlin , Winrod attracted hundreds of thousands if not millions of followers in the 1930's with his tent revivals, his radio programs and his monthly magazine The Defender, which had a circulation of over 110,000 by 1938.
I'm currently writing a book on Winrod's career, and his exploits are instructive about what happens when the Fundagelical Right loses in the arena of electoral politics.
You see, Winrod didn't slink away to save individual souls privately in a Wichita tabernacle after the Scopes Trial. Instead he founded the Christian Right in America. In 1925 he started an organization called Defenders of the Christian Faith, and the next year he began publishing The Defender. Already a star on the revival circuit from California to New England, Winrod quickly became active in politics nationwide. He lobbied for anti-evolution bills not just in Kansas but also in Minnesota, California and several other states. In all cases the legislation went down to defeat. He backed Herbert Hoover in 1928 because Al Smith was a Catholic, but then decided that Hoover was soft on prohibition, so he actively campaigned for Prohibition Party presidential candidate, Georgia congressman W.D. Upshaw, in 1932. Winrod actually believed that he had enough influence in fundamentalist circles in New York and Pennsylvania that he could help Upshaw win those states and throw the election into the House of Representatives, where, he thought, Upshaw had a real chance.
Needless to say, Winrod was bitterly disappointed with the 1932 election results, and what he did with that disappointment is what is instructive about the Fundagelical Right when it loses. Starting with the 1933 issue of The Defender, Winrod blamed everything political that did not go his way on an international Jewish conspiracy operating through the secret society of the Illuminati. He published and promoted The Protocols of the Elders of Zion and English writer Nesta Webster's books on the Jewish Illuminati conspiracy. Naturally, when Winrod finished a distant third in the 1938 Kansas Republican senatorial primary, he blamed the Jews, and he did the same when the United States entered World War II after Pearl Harbor.
What is remarkable is that throughout the 1930's, as Winrod became more and more obsessed with anti-Semitic conspiracy theories, he became more and more popular as a speaker at churches and revival meetings all over the country. For a period of time, only Father Coughlin and Charles Fuller had larger national radio audiences. It is safe to say that in many ways Winrod was the most influential leader within American fundamentalism from 1933 until WWII. Twice a year he was the biggest draw at Aimee Semple McPherson's Angelus Temple in L.A.
Winrod's influence began to wane in July, 1942, when he was named the lead defendant in the only sedition trial conducted by the United States government during WWII. Since 1934 Winrod had been a staunch advocate of Hitler's policies and had been constantly in touch with key German Nazi leaders. The sedition trial took place in federal district court in Washington, dragged on for seven months (Winrod was one of 30 defendants) and ended abruptly in a mistrial when the presiding judge died suddenly in November, 1944, an event Winrod, of course, attributed to Divine Providence. The case was never retried.
After the sedition trial, Winrod became increasingly marginal within the broader fundagelical world, although he continued pushing his conspiratorial anti-Semitism right up to his death in November, 1957. He died of an untreated case of the flu that had developed into pneumonia because he refused to see an M.D. since he believed the American Medical Association was controlled by Jews who wanted to destroy him.
Interestingly enough, though, his most committed fundagelical followers did not desert him while he was dealing with the sedition charges. His ledger books from 1941 through early 1946 reveal steady and substantial growth in his publishing business. Between 1941 and 1946 advertising revenue remained constant and contributions more than doubled. Total revenue for those years rose 47%. The faithful apparently kept sending in their hard-earned money.
I wish that were the end of the story, but of course it's not. During the 1950's and 1960's the Reverends Billy James Hargis and Carl McIntire rallied politicized fundagelical movements around many of the same conspiratorial theories Winrod had made popular in that community. Starting in 1958, many were promoted by the John Birch Society. I remember seeing copies of The Protocols and pamphlets arguing (as had Winrod) that Franklin Roosevelt was Jewish for sale in a Birch Society American Opinion Bookstore as late as 1973.
And the story doesn't stop there. After failing in his bid to become the Republican nominee for president in 1988, Pat Robertson wrote a book in which he explains his defeat (and all the country's problems) by invoking the same Jewish Illuminati myth popularized a half century earlier by Winrod. There are passages in Robertson's The New World Order (1991) that are not very well disguised paraphrases of Winrod's writings, although Winrod is never actually cited. Robertson does, however, cite Nesta Webster and Eustace Mullins, both notorious anti-Semites. Gary Kah, an author popular among American fundagelicals and a frequent guest on Trinity Broadcasting shows, did cite Winrod's Adam Weishaupt: Human Devil in his 1991 En Route to Global Occupation. (Weishaupt founded the Illuminati in 1776).
So, here we are, back in our own times. If Dobson, Perkins, Robertson, et al. lose their political influence over the next four to eight years, what do you think they will do? Sing "Kumbaya" with Rick Warren? Probably not.