Texas Roots of the Religious Right
I am going to attempt to tell some stories that some folks don't want circulated, but as the saying goes, truth is stranger than fiction. Sometimes it has more humor. I want to begin with the notorious pastor of First Baptist Church in Fort Worth early last century by the name of J. Frank Norris. Norris was one of the early leaders of the Religious Right in the nation as one who attempted to blend right-wing politics with the Christian faith. Norris was presented a wristwatch in front of his congregation for his efforts in helping to deliver votes for the Republican presidential candidate in Texas.1 J. Frank wrote in his autobiography that anyone who went against him either went broke, died or caught VD. He had an interesting way of drawing a crowd. Norris would hold Sunday evening services promising to name the ten worst sinners in Fort Worth, and even allowed the accused to be present to defend themselves. Norris would ask the sheriff to be present for obvious reasons. The pastor even had the Klan in his church to lead services. He had Klan backing, which is not surprising knowing some of the racial positions he took.
Another method Norris used to draw a crowd was to announce through the media to come on Sunday to First Baptist Church, to find out which prominent banker in town was having an affair with his secretary.2 These stunts once led to a confrontation in his office from a friend of the mayor who had been accused of a scandal by Norris. Most of us would think that in a pastor's desk was a Bible, maybe a prayer book or church calendar. J. Frank carried a pistol for obvious reasons. A scuffle resulted from the confrontation with the mayor's friend. Norris pulled out his pistol and killed the man. Norris was tried for murder and acquitted. Norris was also tried twice for arson. He was accused of torching the church parsonage and also the church. He was also acquitted on those two charges. The following story appears to be a summary and capsule of the ministry of J. Frank Norris: One of the District Attorneys who had brought charges against Norris was driving his Cadillac in downtown Fort Worth when he strikes a street car and kills himself. Rumored to be in the car was some whiskey bottles and a young woman. That Sunday Norris goes to the pulpit at First Baptist placing a broken whiskey bottle on the pulpit. Norris claims that the contents of the broken bottle contains some of the brains of the deceased lawyer. He then preaches a sermon titled, "Weighed in the Balances and Found Wanting."3
Norris had a great deal of influence on the pastor of First Baptist Church in Dallas named W.A. Criswell. Preceding Criswell, the former pastor of Dallas First had been Norris's arch enemy - a man who believed in religious liberty and a great advocate of the First Amendment. Criswell had no such leanings. Criswell would get on the steps of his church and announce which GOP candidate he was endorsing for President. Unlike some modern pastors who do this from the pulpit, Criswell was more subtle. He once used the church newsletter to send out a photo on its cover of a GOP presidential candidate. Chandler Davidson, a Rice University historian, claims Criswell was a symbol, if not one of the major forces, behind the Republican Party resurgence in Texas. Davidson saw race as one of the key ingredients.4
Criswell was at one time an arch segregationist. He adhered to the "curse of Ham" theory which was a strange, Old South myth that taught Blacks were cursed by God to be servants to Whites according to the Bible.5 The myth was never backed by Biblical scholars. He once boasted that he would not allow any Black person into his church in Dallas. Criswell, like Jerry Falwell, believed that school integration rulings by the Supreme Court were evil. Criswell was once invited to speak to South Carolina state legislators on the virtues of segregation. He delivered an hour discourse on the topic reminding the audience that integrationists were fellows who were dead from the neck up. Public pressure caused Criswell to back down on some of these views. Some writers suggested that in his heart of hearts he still clung to these strange racial systems of thought. As late as the nineties, an Alabama reporter recorded W.A. referring to the members of his Mexican mission affectionately as "little greasers". Criswell's influence spawned a new generation of Religious Right activists.
One of Criswell's church members during this time was the wealthiest man in the world, according to some sources. His name was H.L. Hunt. Hunt claimed to be attracted to W.A. because he did not have a liberal bone in his body. Hunt got on board with the Religious Right thing funding many early attempts to mobilize the movement in the nation. In Texas ranchland vernacular, Hunt believed he was the head stud bull on the range. This meant you were under obligation to spread around the DNA as much as possible. He had two secret families that sprang out of the closet at his death to claim the inheritance. Hunt once offered a million dollars for aids to find a blond German woman who would help pass on the superior family genes.6 The member of First Baptist Dallas was reported to still be gambling away thousands a week at his death, a vice most Baptists deplore. H.L. did not like drinking water in Dallas for fear the Jews had poisoned it. He once wrote a novel about his utopian society which he advocated. In the novel, folks like Hunt got to vote more than others because he paid more taxes. Those who didn't pay taxes were refused the right to vote. Hunt once paid for a mail-out across the Lone Star State of one of Criswell's anti-Kennedy sermons.
Hunt decided the world was getting too immoral and needed correction. He sent money through two fictitious churches in Florida to found his own personal radio program. The program, known as Facts Forum, made Rush Limbaugh look like Dan Rather. It was way out in right field land often having segregationists and several times hosting Joseph McCarthy as a guest.7 He once promoted a book on the program claiming Hitler was a liberal. The programming was so slanted and partisan that then-Senator Lyndon Banes Johnson got involved. LBJ did not like being attacked by the programs which claimed to be religious in nature and tax exempt. Thus, LBJ was instrumental in getting the 501(c)(3) ruling that sought to stop churches from engaging in electioneering and retaining their tax exempt status. I might also mention that a grandson of H.L.'s has been one of the point-men instrumental in getting the Bush Library at S.M.U. This grandson has made a lot of money from the Iraq War.
I recently received a Baptist Seminary newsletter with an article from a lawyer in First Baptist Dallas seeking to denounce this legislation Johnson helped secure. Several Religious Right figures in the nation are currently seeking to overturn this legislation to allow churches to engage the state directly in electioneering, even using church budgets for such.
I arrived in Texas, having moved from Oklahoma to attend seminary in Fort Worth. At the time of my entrance into the state, Cullen Davis was making media headlines by his escapades. Cullen, who had also made-for-TV movies about his muddled life, was a media bonanza. The oil rich Aggie received great financial success, and decided it was time to check-in the earlier model for a new updated version of a wife. The choice was a voluptuous showcase. The wife, according to a church member and reporters, wore low-cut blouses that exposed several items. One of those items was a necklace with the words "rich bitch" spelled out in diamonds. The romance she and Mr. Davis had fell on rocky ground. A separation occurred and word on the street was that she was taking the player to the cleaners. She had the mansion to live in staffed with her own boyfriend, an ex-TCU football player. While the divorce was pending, a strange figure dressed in black broke into the home and capped a few rounds off into the residents. The result was a couple of deaths, including the wife's daughter. Witnesses claimed the intruder was Davis. What was billed as a trial of the century took place, and Davis solicited the services of attorney Race Horse Haynes to defend him. Davis is acquitted. Within a few months Cullen is charged with trying to hire a hit man to take out the judge, a brother and a few other folks. Again, Cullen is taken to court. Again, Racehorse Hayne's services are requested. Again, Davis is acquitted.8
Enter into the picture Religious Right leader preacher James Robinson. James used to hold area crusades seeking to win converts to the Christian faith. Now you can find James on late night TV. If you can't sleep, you can surf and find Robinson and wife selling vitamin B12 pills to cure what ails you. Back in the early seventies, James was still interested in calling people to repent. Some folks thought if anyone needed to repent it was Cullen Davis. Later on, James seemed more interested in getting Ronald Reagan elected than in holding revivals. Cullen joins up with Robinson about that time - traveling around the state. Davis is working with Robinson hosting breakout sessions on how to be a Christian family man. (Truth is stranger than fiction.)
Sometime during this period, Davis decides he hasn't done enough for family values in his lifetime. He gets together with two other men to start up what will become the most powerful Religious Right organization in the world. The organization he births is named the Council on National Policy. The secretive organization is chocked full of Texans like Second Baptist Houston's pastor, as well as the President of Southwestern Seminary in Fort Worth. Most recently, the clandestine group had President Bush as its speaker, and the organization has still kept a lid on what was said at the meeting. The group was founded by a common connection to the John Birch Society, and was made up of Klansmen, South African apartheid folks and a vast assortment of right wing fringe leaders.9
Cullen solicits the help of two other men to help found and fund the group. He gets together with a man from the Dallas area named Nelson. Nelson is best known for the ad he took out in the Dallas Morning News. On the last day of his life, John Kennedy got up in the motel in Fort Worth and picked up the Dallas paper and read the ad. After seeing the ad, he commented to his wife that they were headed into nut country.10 The ad was a wanted poster which implied someone needed to take out the President. Nelson's last name is Hunt. He is the famous son of H.L. Hunt.
Nelson and Cullen find a third party to get the group started whose name is Tim. Tim is a graduate of the infamous Bob Jones U. in South Carolina. It was at this same school where the current-President Bush spoke, and later apologized for his speaking there. Bob Jones U. had a peculiar policy forbidding interracial dating. This would have meant the President's own brother, being married to someone of Latin descent, would have been banned. If the media had checked, they would have discovered this was one of the mildest racial views held by the school.
The school taught the "curse of Ham" theory, as well as having strong connections to the Klan through its trustees and presidents. The school handed-out several honorary doctorates to Ole South segregationists like Jesse Helms, Strom Thurmond and the controversial Lester Maddox. Lester was the Georgia politician (former Governor) who would autograph ax handles he was famous for using to drive Blacks away from his restaurant.11
Around the time Tim matriculated at Bob Jones, there was another famous student by the name of Rev. Phelps. Phelps, who founded www.godhatesfags, is the noted pastor of the fire-and-brimstone Westboro Baptist Church in Topeka, Kansas. Rev. Phelps takes his church members to the gravesides of American soldiers who are killed in Iraq. The church members hold up posters mocking the death or implying the troops died senseless deaths promoting homosexuals. Some state legislatures are currently seeking to outlaw such activity. Phelps's crew often goes to the funerals of deceased HIV victims holding up posters that read, "no tears for queers."
Tim graduated from Bob Jones and journeyed to California to begin work in the ministry. While in California he spent a good deal of time organizing John Birch Society chapters.12 Society members believed integration was a Communist plot. Some Religious Right monitors I have met coined a name for the Religious Right. They call it "sons of Birchers." The John Birch Society put up posters around Dallas of President Kennedy's head in the crosshairs of a rifle scope when he came to town. Birchers believe the world is secretly controlled by European banker-types who run elections, economics and media. One of their latest versions of reality is that current-President Bush started the war with Iraq to allow the U.N. to take over the United States.
If you adhere to such bazaar and conspiratorial views of reality, it lends itself to influence your eschatology. Eschatology is the study of the Second Coming of Christ. Now you know what Tim's last name is, LaHaye. He, along with Jerry Jenkins, is the famous author of one of Wal-Mart's bestsellers called the "Left Behind" series. The work is a Steven Spielberg version of the end of times. Understanding the background of said authors, lends insight to their viewpoints. It was these three men who put together the organization devised to deal with the moral decline of Western Civilization.
The story ends with Texarkana's own Billy Hargis. Billy's friend, Carl McIntire, who was defrocked by the Presbyterian Church for being a racist and anti-Semite, said Billy was the modern founder of the Religious Right. Author Walter Martin listed Billy in his work dealing with the foundation of the movement. Billy got an honorary doctor's degree from Bob Jones U. Billy went around the South with Carl McIntire claiming that integration was a Communist plot. (Sound familiar?) Billy also received an honorary degree from Gerald Winrod, who was known as the Jayhawk Nazi. Winrod ran for the senate from Kansas under the platform: We got to do something about the Jews.
Hargis was the main-man in the early seventies.13 He published a newspaper and hosted radio programs. Joe McCarthy was a frequent visitor to Billy's home. Billy raked in millions of dollars to save the country from moral bankruptcy and Communism. Billy believed Mexico was secretly a Communist state and illegal immigration from the country was a plot to take over the U.S. Hargis did what many in the movement do - he started his own college. After all, to these folks you cannot trust government schools - even denominational ones - to get it right. So, Billy founds a college in Tulsa.
Newspaper editor Frosty Troy told me he got around $25 for breaking this story that brought down Billy's empire. According to accounts, a young man and woman met on Billy's campus as students. They fell in love, got engaged and then married. On their wedding night, the woman tearfully confessed that her husband was not the first. She had slept with brother Billy. The husband is distraught and retreats to another room. He returns to confide in her that she was not his first, he had slept with brother Billy!14 Needless to say, Billy did not get nominated for James Dobson's man of the month that year.
The accounts of the foundation of the modern Religious Right have a lot of roots in Texas. Much of the roots connect some dots to rather interesting stories that few folks know about, and maybe fewer really care. Many people in the state would sleep more soundly if they felt the "Ole Blues" who knew these stories did not know how to talk.
Texas Roots of the Religious Right | 7 comments (7 topical, 0 hidden)
Texas Roots of the Religious Right | 7 comments (7 topical, 0 hidden)