God, Calvin, and Social Welfare - Part Seven: Born Again Political Activism
Chip Berlet printable version print page     Bookmark and Share
Mon May 22, 2006 at 07:04:09 PM EST
Senior Analyst, Political Research Associates (author info)
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After World War Two, many American evangelicals and fundamentalists thought that it was the external threat of Soviet military power and the internal threat of communist subversion that was likely to send Americans hurtling into Hell. Global nuclear annihilation, in this context, might be preferable to a Godless secular collectivist society. The strategy of Mutually Assured Destruction earned its ironic acronym.

Meanwhile, social welfare was being framed as a communist plot.

Evangelist Billy Graham began a series of revivalist crusades during this period, originally through rallies scheduled by Youth for Christ. Graham struck off on his own and in 1949 a hugely successful Los Angeles crusade boosted him into public prominence, in part because anticommunist tycoon William Randolph Hearst instructed the newspapers he owned to "puff Graham."

Graham started a national radio program in late 1950, The Hour of Decision, which in turn led to sporadic and rather dull television specials beginning in 1951. Graham in person and on the radio was a more charismatic and persuasive figure. In 1957 Graham went to Madison Square Garden in New York City to lead a crusade; and J. Howard Pew, who funded a variety of anticommunist groups, offered a financial guarantee to bring the crusade to network television.

Both Hearst and Pew viewed the New Deal social welfare programs as a form of collectivism that would lead to socialism and communism, and further saw that a particular brand of Christian evangelicalism rooted in libertarian Calvinist themes could provide a bulwark against further slippage down the slope from social welfare to communist totalitarianism, in their view.

Hearst and Pew had backed a winner with their support of Graham. According to William Martin:

"The first broadcast, on 1 June, [drew] approximately 6.4 million viewers, more than enough to convince the evangelist of television's great promise as a vehicle for the gospel. A Gallup poll taken that summer revealed that 85% of Americans could correctly identify Billy Graham, and three-quarters of that number regarded him positively" (Martin, n.d.).
Graham's homey view of the ideal individual in the idealized America fit neatly into plans by ultraconservatives to roll back the collectivist social welfare policies of the New Deal. Writers such as Ludwig von Mises wrote about the natural affinity between Christianity and Capitalism. There were also extensive mass media efforts to "teach" Americans of the benefits of a particular form of "Free Market" capitalism over communism, with material from the National Association of Manufacturers, and the Foundation for Economic Education with its magazine Freeman. Part of this plan included strengthening America against the external and internal threats of communism by increasing public participation in civic life.

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In 1956 the presidential election featured a "Get out the Vote" campaign built around the theme of "Let Freedom Ring." Thousands of Boy Scouts hooked cardboard Liberty Bells onto doorknobs in an effort to attract new voters to the polls.

Some evangelicals were convinced to re-enter the political arena; which many had avoided since the embarrassment of the Scopes trial in 1925. Still, the evangelical voting patterns that emerged were not politicized. An evangelical's preference for Republicans or Democrats was primarily determined by demographic factors other than theological belief or religious affiliation. This would change.

A series of Supreme Court decisions in the 1950s and early 1960s worried many conservative Christians, and some began to get involved in public policy debates and organizing over issues such as obscenity and pornography, and then other social issues. Groups such as Fred Schwarz's Christian Anti-Communism Crusade, the Church League of America, and the Freedoms Foundation joined other ultraconservative organizations in education and training against communist subversion by liberals in mainline Protestant denominations and even the Catholic Church. In 1959 the John Birch Society (JBS) was born. These and other institutions would form the foundation of what later emerged as the New Christian Right in the late 1970s (Diamond 1989, 1995, Hardisty; Berlet & Lyons; Goldberg)

Eckard V. Toy, Jr. explains that:

"The genesis of the JBS can be traced to a number of sources, but a meeting in New York City in early 1958 was a primary cause. Welch and several men who would later join him in the Birch Society attended a meeting held by conservative polemicist Merwin K. Hart at the University Club on February 14, 1958, to discuss ways to reverse what Hart described as the national trend toward collectivism" (Toy).
From the beginning, Roosevelt, the New Deal, and the social safety net were targets of intense criticism from the JBS and similar groups, and much of what was dismissed in the 1960s as dubious Birch Society ideological fantasy is now part of the Republican Party platform or enacted into law.


Berlet, Chip and Matthew N. Lyons. 2000. Right-Wing Populism in America: Too Close for Comfort. New York: Guilford Press.

Burch, Philip H., Jr. 1973. "The NAM as an Interest Group." Politics and Society, vol. 4, no. 1.

Diamond, Sara. 1989. Spiritual Warfare: The Politics of the Christian Right. Boston: South End Press.

Diamond, Sara. 1995. Roads to Dominion: Right-Wing Movements and Political Power in the United States. New York: Guilford Press.

Goldberg, Michelle. 2006. Kingdom Coming: The Rise of Christian Nationalism. New York: W.W. Norton

Hardisty, Jean V. 1999. Mobilizing Resentment: Conservative Resurgence from the John Birch Society to the Promise Keepers. Boston: Beacon Press.

Himmelstein, Jerome L. 1990. To the Right: The Transformation of American Conservatism. Berkeley: University of California Press.

Lyons, Matthew N. 1998. "Business Conflict and Right-Wing Movements." In Amy E. Ansell, ed. Unraveling the Right: The New Conservatism in American Thought and Politics (pp. 80-102). Boulder, CO: Westview.

Martin, William C. 1996. With God on Our Side: The Rise of the Religious Right in America. New York: Broadway Books.

Saloma, John S. III, 1984. Ominous Politics: The New Conservative Labyrinth. Hill and Wang.

Toy, Eckard V. Jr. 2004. "The Right Side of the 1960s: The Origins of the John Birch Society in the Pacific Northwest." Oregon Historical Quarterly, Vol. 105, No. 2 (Summer); http://www.historycooperative.org/journals/ohq/105.2/toy.html.

• For Billy Graham, see:

Martin, William C. "Billy Graham Crusades: U.S. Religious Program." The Museum of Broadcast Communications, http://www.museum.tv/archives/etv/B/htmlB/billygraham/billygraham.htm.

Martin, William C. 1991. A Prophet With Honor: The Billy Graham Story. New York: William Morrow.


• Pew continued to worry about liberalism in the church: http://www.wheaton.edu/bgc/archives/GUIDES/192.htm#2

• On von Mises networking economic libertarians and 1940s-1960s Christian evangelical right-wing groups, see:

See specifically:
Ludwig von Mises, 1950, “The Alleged Injustice of Capitalism,” Faith and Freedom. 1:7(June), pp. 5-8. Included as Part 3, Chapter 4, in The Anti-Capitalistic Mentality. Reprinted in 1952, Reflections on Faith and Freedom, Los Angeles: Spiritual Mobilization, pp. 39-45.

Ludwig von Mises, 1960, “The Economic Foundations of Freedom,” Christian Economics, 12:2(January 26, 1960)1-2; online here.

Ludwig von Mises, 1960, “The Economic Foundations of Freedom,” The Freeman, (Irvington, N.Y.) 10:4(April), pp. 44-52; von Mises, “The Economic Foundations of Freedom,” in Essays On Liberty, VII.

• There is a longstanding relationship between the Freedoms Foundation and the anti-union National Right to Work Committee and its Foundation. See: here and here

• For a list of various "public service" campaigns in this period, see

God, Calvin, and Social Welfare: A Series
Part One: Coalitions
Part Two: Calvinist Settlers
Part Three: Roots of the Social Welfare Debate
Part Four: Apocalypse and Social Welfare
Part Five: Fundamentals, Prophecies, and Conspiracies
Part Six: Godlessness & Secular Humanism
Part Seven: Born Again Political Activism
Part Eight: The Child, The Family, The Nation, & the World
Based on the Public Eye article "Calvinism, Capitalism, Conversion, and Incarceration"
Chip Berlet, Senior Analyst, Political Research Associates
The Public Eye: Website of Political Research Associates
Chip's Blog

I'm reasonably sure this exists, but I'm curious if there's any decent documentation on the laying of blame - by Birchers and similar ideological groups - for the various trends of societal pathology which peaked in the 1930's : murder for example.

by Bruce Wilson on Mon May 22, 2006 at 07:16:20 PM EST
Ribuffo, Leo P. (1983). The Old Christian Right: The Protestant Far Right from the Great Depression to the Cold War. Philadelphia: Temple University Press.

Anyone else have ideas?

<dogemperor> has some great information in one of the replies here.

_ _ _

Chip Berlet: Research for Progress - Building Human Rights
by Chip Berlet on Mon May 22, 2006 at 09:27:54 PM EST

The article I've done on dominion theology in pentecostal circles notes that the literal equasion of Communism and Satanism in these groups is old indeed.

In fact, some of the literal demonisation of communism--and social welfare programs as a form of "communism lite"--date back from before World War II, among groups like "The Fellowship" (still in existence; it and the Full Gospel Businessmen's Fellowship, two of the most "deep in" groups promoting dominionism, also have the longest recorded histories of any dominionist groups).  Labour movements, Roosevelt's "New Deal", women's sufferage, and other social welfare programs of the 1920's-1930's were regularly condemned as "Bolshevist plots" by the radio-preachers of the era.  

In another scary parallel, some of both the radio-preacher groups and the very early dominionist movements--like William Branham's early promotions of dominion theology, as well as some documented material re the Fellowship--had links to racist groups, including not only the Klan but also, more notoriously, literal Nazi sympathiser groups (who were also anti-labour, anti-women's-lib, and anti-communist).  There were actually a few radio preachers who ended up being investigated as "aiding the enemy" during World War II as a result--including one of the more notorious radio preachers and red-baiters, "Father" Coughlin.  In fact, some of Coughlin's speeches about the League of Nations being a "Bolshevist" institution almost exactly mirror claims made by dominionists about the UN and EU being controlled by communists.  Coughlin wasn't alone in mixing the "Red Conspiracy" with older stories of "Jewish conspiracies"--other pamphlets from the era indicate it was relatively common.  (The problems with radio-preaching became so bad that by 1944 the four major networks of the time banded together to set regulations that heavily restricted radio-preacher demagoguery; in direct response, and an early example on how dominionists regroup, the radio-preachers founded the National Religious Broadcasters as a lobbying group to force their way back in.)

In a move almost exactly paralleling dominionist tactics today, Herbert Hoover--widely acknowledged as the worst President the US has had, at least until the time of George W. Bush--was largely elected based on radio preachers smearing his opponent's Catholicism and pointing out Herbert Hoover was against socialism and was for continuing Prohibition.  Herbert Hoover's policies during the Depression were an unmitigated disaster--the "Hooverville" tent cities set up by the "Bonus Army" (unemployed World War I veterans who were homeless and still awaiting awards money promised them) is an eerie parallel on how the Gulf War veterans are getting the shaft now.  

(Interestingly, as early as  the 1920's Hoover had investigated if there was any way to regulate religious radio--in part because of the radio antics of Aimee Semple McPherson (noted below).  He found no way to legally do so at the time; it was in part because of proto-dominionist broadcasters crowding out non-religious broadcasters (in a parallel of what is happening today with noncommercial frequencies) that the Communications Act of 1934 was passed to allow penalties for things like interference--McPherson and others were refusing to do things like remain on their station's authorised frequency, McPherson in particular stating she would broadcast "at whatever frequency and power the Lord told her to use.")

Also, one of the groups that has consistently been associated with both telepreaching and dominionism since its very beginnings--the Assemblies of God and its descendent denominations including International Foursquare and the multitude of "independent" neopentecostal churches--was also anti-Communist from its very beginnings.  No less than Aimee Semple McPherson (who was an Assemblies radio-preacher who later founded International Foursquare as a "radio church" after the Assemblies threatened to revoke her preaching credentials because her husband divorced her for abandonment, one of the first two radio-preachers period (the other being the "fundamentalist Baptist" Billy Holiday) and being the first telepreacher to be involved in a major scandal (involving her faking her own kidnapping)) was notably anti-communist.  (McPherson is also noted in my own essay on the history of dominion theology as setting some of the fundamental base.)  Reagan actually noted her as an influence in anticommunist speech,  and in fact Aimee Semple McPherson is  one of the earliest documented persons to have demonised a promoter of socialist and social works programs as a "closet Communist":

Religious Right broadcasters long ago learned an important lesson: Repeat almost anything often enough and many people will believe you -- even if it leads them to act against their own interests. Starting with radio evangelism in the 1930s, media-evangelists have perfected the use of each new technology to influence elections and legislation, hammering home reactionary theology with the clear aim of gaining political power.

Aimee Semple McPherson pioneered the approach in the 1930s on a powerful Los Angeles' radio station. Broadcasting from her "temple," McPherson styled herself a modern-day Joan of Arc in a titanic struggle against communism. Her crusade reached the boiling point in 1934 during the insurgent Democratic gubernatorial campaign of Upton Sinclair. The socialist author had pledged to "end poverty in California," but the evangelist, in an alliance with Republican leaders, Hollywood propagandists and political consultants, redefined the race in apocalyptic terms.

"Someone has cast in the poison herb," she bellowed on the Sunday before Election Day, "and if we eat thereof we shall all perish and the glory of our nation as it has stood through the years shall perish with us." At first the front runner in an era of mass unemployment and hard times, Sinclair had become the target of the nation's first "media campaign," and ultimately lost by 200,000 votes. McPherson had seized on growing fears of revolution, convincing her flock -- many of them poor -- that the real enemy was satanic communism and its Democratic messenger.

Of particular note, at least one person has noted strong similarities between McPherson's activities and the activities of dominionist groups in the 1950's.

On the non-radio-preacher end of things, at least one party that tried to split the SBC in the 1920's (because he felt the eastern branches of the church were too "liberal") was also vociferously anticommunist, also having tied "socialism" to communism.

by dogemperor on Mon May 22, 2006 at 09:00:09 PM EST

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