The Rising Tide of American Fundamentalism in the 1940s and 50s

Aug 08 2011 Published by under Uncategorized

“There is no such thing as the Christian right. It is an invention of politicians to distract you from the real issues at hand.”

- A poster on Digg

As part of an attempt to trace the rise of Christian fundamentalism in the United States, I previously wrote about its antecedents from 1606 to 1925. People typically talk about the Republican marriage with Christian fundamentalism beginning in the 1960s but what happened in the 60s can only be explained by what went on in the 40s and 50s. In 1940 America started to see “Youth for Christ” rallies in New York, which then spread to Washington, D.C., Detroit, Indianapolis, and St. Louis. Time Magazine reported in their February 4, 1946 issue that Baptist Torrey Johnson (pastor of Chicago’s Midwest Bible Church) said after a Y.F.C. rally in Olympia Washington, “This is what I hoped would happen in America.” His hopes sound very much in lock-step with those of our modern Religious Right:

“Youth for Christ has a two-fold purpose. First, the spiritual revitalization of America, which will bring America back to God, the Bible and the Church. Second, the complete evangelization of the world in our generation. . . . “

But as Time also noted, not everybody was pleased:

But not all Americans are so sure. Some view with alarm the pious trumpeting of the Heart press on Y.F.C.’s behalf, also the support of rightish, rabble-rousing ‘nationalists’ like Gerald L.K. Smith.

Gerald Lyman Kenneth Smith might have been at home in our day and age. He was an early American exceptionalist and his political theology sounds very modern. He was a clergyman and a politician who was a leader of the Share Our Wealth movement, the Christian Nationalist Crusade, and a founder of the America First Party in 1944. He was also an anti-Semite, as was Catholic priest and fellow rabblerouser Father Charles Coughlin, who spent much of the 30s treating President Roosevelt like modern fundamenalists treat President Obama, by calling him a communist.

And look what these nascent forces of fundamentalism accomplished:

“The amazing victory of militant neo-orthodoxy over modernism, both in the seminaries and at the centers of administrative power in the great denominations, was won in only fifteen years after 1940. It fundamentally altered the pattern of Protestant thought and life.”[1]

E.V. Toy, Jr. wrote in a 1969 article,

“The rapidly changing social and economic styles of life in the first decade after 1945 strengthened interdenominational cooperation, but social change was also a catalyst of discontent at virtually all levels of religious involvement…a manifesto of the American Roman Catholic bishops on November 20, 1948, echoed the discontent of many Protestants and warned that secularism was ‘threatening the religious foundations of our national life and preparing the way for the advent of the omnipotent State.'” [2]

It’s not surprising that researchers studying the personality and social characteristic of antidemocratic movements appeared to find confirmation “of popular cultural images of Christian fundamentalists as representative retrograde and perhaps even dangerous social forces in American society” and evangelical and fundamentalist Christians to have “extremist political views” as well as “politically intolerant perspectives, dogmatic cognitive styles, and antimodernist outlooks” – antidemocratic traits all.[3]

In the 1940s and 50s the fundamentalists were mostly rural and southern. As yet there was no infiltration into the Republican Party. As Paul Krugman writes, “By the 1950s the Republican Party was in some ways a shadow of its former self.”

“The Republican survived…by moving toward a new political center” making it “for several decades, a true big tent” and rendering them far less ideological.[4]

For example, in South Carolina “The nascent GOP of the 1950s and 1960s was dominated religiously by traditional upper- and middle-status mainline Protestants such as Episcopalians, Presbyterians, and Methodists, with a leavening of better off Southern Baptists.”[5] Not at all the South Carolina GOP demographic of today.

That doesn’t mean the forces of fundamentalism were quiescent. Toy writes of the “Cold War Effect.”[6] The Cold War produced those who were willing to capitalize “on the affinity of religious fundamentalists and political conservatives for organized anti-Communism.” As Billy Graham said, “If you would be a true patriot, then become a loyal Christian” (a cry we are still hearing).

As Toy says, “This appeal to the flag and to the cross made justification by faith alone a virtual national necessity as well as a Protestant tenet, and political conservatives of many religious beliefs cautioned Americans to avoid mixing religion with social welfare programs, which they condemned as socialistic.”[7]

Graham himself has been seen as “a product of this realignment in Protestantism and of the postwar tension which transformed the nation’s outlook from liberalism to conservatism.”[8]

Smith discusses the role of the “red scare”, saying that “In the popular mind, the conflict between communism and capitalism was clearly reducible to a ‘spiritual’ interpretation. That Christians on this account often ignored the economic facts of international life in their preoccupation with the so-called ‘battle for the minds of men’ does not diminish the significance of this factor in the current wave of religious concern.”[9]

It’s perhaps not surprising therefore that in the 1950s (the age of McCarthyism) we begin to see a wave of conservative Christian legislation:

In 1952, the National Day of Prayer (36 U.S.C. § 119)was made into law as an annual day of observance held on the first Thursday of May, designated by the United States Congress, when people are asked “to turn to God in prayer and meditation”

Then on June 14, 1954 the words “under God” added to pledge of allegiance and in 1956 In God We Trust adopted as national motto and signed into law by President Eisenhower.

As a frightening high water mark of this increasing anti-communist “Christianization” of America came the “Christian Nation” amendment proposed by Vermont Senator Ralph Flanders in 1954, which read “This Nation devoutly recognizes the authority and law of Jesus Christ, Saviour and Ruler of nations, through whom are bestowed the blessings of Almighty God.” As Time Magazine reported in their March 24, 1954 edition, this measure was designed “to make the Constitution acknowledge ‘the authority and law of Jesus Christ.'”

The America Republican political theology demands they take back is not the America of the Founding Fathers but a mythical America based on the 1950s. All these things we keep hearing about – “National Day of Prayer”, “In God We Trust”, “One Nation Under God” etc, all have their origins then, not in the founding days of our nation.

It’s almost as if fundamentalists want us to believe the Founding Fathers operated in the 40s and 50s of the last century. But they did not, and projecting the attitudes of the 1950s back in time to the 18th century is dishonest and unrealistic. The Founding Fathers did not share the attitudes of 1950s Republicans which arose out of the Cold War and the modernism, let alone those of today’s fundamentalists. The context of America’s founding is not located in modern political theology but in the cares and concerns and experiences of the late 18th century.

Re-writing America’s history to transpose the Founding Fathers into a mid-20th century context grossly distorts the actual history of the United States, converting it into a monstrosity that was never imagined by our enlightened Founding Fathers.

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I wish to thank Leah Burton’s senior researcher, Alex Bird for her helpful suggestions in the writing of this article

[1] Timothy L. Smith, “Historic Waves of Religious Interest in America,” Annals of the American Academy of Political and Social Science, Vol. 332, Religion in American Society (Nov., 1960), 17

[2] E. V. Toy, Jr. “The National Lay Committee and the National Council of Churches: A Case Study of Protestants in Conflict” American Quarterly Vol. 21, No. 2, Part 1 (Summer, 1969), pp. 190-209

[3] Louis Bolce and Gerald De Maio, “Religious Outlook, Culture War Politics, and Antipathy Toward Christian Fundamentalists” The Public Opinion Quarterly 63 (Spring, 1999), 31,

[4] Paul Krugman,  The Conscience of a Liberal  (New York: 2007), 72-73

[5] James L. Guth, “South Carolina: The Christian Right Wins One” PS: Political Science and Politics
Vol. 28, No. 1 (Mar., 1995), pp. 5-8.

[6] Toy (1969), 92.

[7] Toy (1969), 193.

[8] William G. McLoughlin, Modern Revivalism: Charles Grandison Finney to Billy Graham (New York, 1959): 482.

[9] Smith (1960), 18.

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