By Steve Wolfgang
That Americans have long perceived a special relationship between their country and their God is a fact obvious enough to be a truism. Historians have spent considerable time in the past 15 years explaining “the civil religion,”(1) producing reams of articles, essays, and book-length manuscripts.
The phrase “the civil religion” (used by Robert Bellah in the 1967 article which began the recent discussion) was intended “to describe the religious dimension of American political life that has characterized our Republic since its foundation and whose most central tenet is that the nation . . . stands under . . . a ‘higher law.”‘(2) Respected authors followed with books bearing titles such as Redeemer Nation: The Idea of America’s Millennial Role,(3) God’s New Israel: Religious Interpretations of American Destiny,(4) The Nation With the Soul of a Church,(5) The New Heavens and New Earth: Political Religion in America,(6) and The Broken Covenant.(7) The concepts of America as a “garden in the wilderness,” a “city set on a hill,” or “God’s chosen people” with a special destiny, have long been staples of American religious historiography. Notable Americans, from the Founding Fathers through a succession of Presidents and Senators, periodically have joined the “average American” in asking God’s blessings (if not invoking the Divine will) on diverse, even opposite, political goals of every sort. Truly, God has been perceived as “on every side of every social issue . . .; He has participated in every war on every side; He is a Democrat and a Republican, high tariff and low tariff, a fascist and a communist.”(8)
Much of the pre-Civil War millennial hope took the form of a glorious post-millennialism, which anticipated the reform of society through religious conversion on a scale so grand that the return of Christ would inevitably follow.(9) Like other Americans of their time, many of the early “Restorationists” (Alexander Campbell and his Millennial Harbinger in particular)(10) shared the enthusiastic postmillennnial optimism of their contemporaries; like their counterparts they saw their dream of an American millennium dashed by the war which sundered the nation. The aftermath of that conflict lead many who had anticipated the “marriage supper of the lamb” instead to what has been called “the Great Barbecue.”
Post-Civil War America witnessed an ever-increasing series of “prophecy conferences” which became an identifying feature of much of conservative Protestantism, later styled “Fundamentalism.”(11) According to one church historian, “dispensationalism became standard for large numbers of Fundamentalists,”(12) and still another recent work identified The Roots of Fundamentalism as “British and American Millennarianism.”(13)
Meanwhile, the remnants of whatever socio-religious optimism had survived the nineteenth century normally found expression in “the social gospel.” By the First World War some of these religious liberals found in the Fundamentalists enough of a threat to their own modernism to launch an attack (or counterattack, depending upon one’s viewpoint). It was a frontal assault across the board, not only against the conservatives’ view of miracles and verbal inspiration, rejection of higher criticism and comparative religions, but on the Fundamentalists’ millennial views as well. Shailer Matthews’ journal The Biblical World carried articles on “The Premillennial Menace,” and the Christian Century carried at least 21 anti-premillennial articles during World War 1.(14)
Naturally, the Fundamentalist response was to return fire, resulting in the full-scale warfare now known as the “Fundamentalist-Modernist controversy” of the 1920’s.(15) Though evidently retreating in disarray following the death of William Jennings Bryan immediately after the Scopes Trial, this conservative-premillennial impulse was only shallowly submerged. It remained close enough to the surface of American religion to be seen by anyone who cared to look (which few did – particularly those in the political, social, and religious “mainstream”). Though perhaps finding limited expression in the early Billy Graham campaigns, this undercurrent of extreme premillennial (“dispensational”)(16) is religious conservatism found even Graham too “ecumenical” for their taste(17) (to say nothing of the even more “worldly evangelicals”(18) who emerged after World War II).
The 1960’s and 1970’s, however, brought not only numerical decline in liberal Protestantism and Catholicism, but a renewed fervor and higher profile on the part of long-dormant dispensational religious conservatives. When the supposedly “evangelical” President, Southern Baptist Jimmy Carter, proved to be a bitter disappointment to these “modern” Fundamentalists, organized efforts were begun in earnest to exert pressure on American life through several avenues of the political process.
The general outlines of the latter-day dispensationalists’ political involvement have been fairly well outlined in the popular press.(19) During the 1970’s, with changes in FCC regulations and the development of new technology such as satellite programming and the proliferation of cable TV networks, a coterie of independent evangelists extended the invitation to their “electronic church.”(20) Out-flanking an older corps of preachers such as Graham, Oral Roberts, and Rex Humbard, the new group which emerged in the seventies included Jerry Falwell (an independent Baptist minister whose “Old-Time Gospel Hour” originates from his 18,000 member Thomas Road Baptist church in Lynchburg’ VA),(21)
and James Robison (a Ft. Worth-based Southern Baptist TV evangelist). The “charismatic” wing of the electronic church is represented by men such as Pat Robertson (a Yale-educated attorney and son of a former U.S. Senator from Virginia, whose “700 Club” is produced by his own Christian Broadcasting Network in the Virginia Beach/Norfolk, VA area; and by his former employee, Jim Bakker (an Assemblies of God preacher whose “PTL Club” originates from Charlotte,NC). Both Falwell and Robertson have strong doctrinal inclinations of a dispensational sort which cause them to favor millennialistic backing for moral support (if not military spending/ for the State of Israel. Robinson and Bakker have both experienced difficulties with the FCC and other governemental agencies which may be partly responsible for their entry into and support of political activity by religious conservatives.(22)
A second element in the influence of the religious “New Right” was the linkage of these TV evangelists with their large audiences,(23)computerized mailing lists, and huge ministry incomes(24) with a potent set of conservative political lobbyists who shared similar concerns on moral issues if not other political ideology. A former Colgate-Palmolive marketing executive, Ed McAteer, was familiar with a number of the TV preacher, being a member of a Southern Baptist church “pastored” by Adrian Rogers (past SBC president). As field director for the Conservative Caucus (headed by Howard Phillips, who is Jewish), McAteer was able to make apparent to a “triumvirate” of conservative lobbyists the power of the electronic church (and the willingness of the TV evangelists to become politically involved. The “triumvirate” consisted of Paul Weyrich, head of a conservative lobbying school in Washington and of the Committee for Survival of a Free Congress’ Richard Viguerie, a direct-mail wizard and editor of the Conservative Digest; and Terry Dolan of “Nicpac” (National Conservative Political ‘Action Committee). It was Weyrich (a Catholic) who reportedly coined the term “Moral Majority” in a meeting with Falwell, encouraging him to head it and supplying an aide (Robert Billings) as its operational director. Billings “later became Ronald Reagan’s religious affairs advisor, before establishing his own organization in 1980 called the National Christian Action Coalition.”(25) Two other organizations grew out of the interrelated workings of these men: the Religious Roundtable (at whose meeting in August of 1980 candidate Reagan gave an endorsement of the group and made his widely-reported anti-evolutionary statement); and the Christian Voice (founded in California in 1979 by Robert Grant, a Fuller Seminary and California Graduate School of Theology student) which is perhaps best-known for its Congressional “hit lists” of members with unacceptable voting records.
It is through such organizations that the views of Jerry Falwell (and those of his ilk) regarding the State of Israel have become publicized. Certainly there are other issues (abortion, women’s and homosexuals rights, evolution, school textbooks and the whole question of public and private education, etc.) which bind a number of religiously diverse elements together very loosely, but we are concerned here with the premillennial aspects of the current religious ferment. It should also be pointed out that the focus of God’s promises to his chosen people and indeed the promised land itself have shifted according to dispensational thinking, from America to the modern state of Israel (begun as a political entity in 1948) though the two are still linked in Falwell’s mind. Describing himself as a “premillennialist, pretribulationist sort of fellow” and an “ardent Zionist” at the same time, Falwell “preaches that one reason God favors America is that America ‘has blessed the Jew His chosen people.”(26) The reason he considers not only Rabbi Marc Tanenbaum but Menachem Begin to be “personal friends”(27)is his publicly stated support for Israel. “I support the Jews,” he says, “for Biblical reasons. I take the Abrahamic covenant literally. God has blessed America because we have blessed the Jews.”(28) Asserting that “If Hitler could rise up from hell today, he would say ‘Amen’ to that,” Falwell continues:
The Jews look on conservative Christianity as the right wing that has been their enemy in years past. It is only a modern phenomenon that conservative Christianity is pro-Jewish. Socalled Christians wiped them out during World War II, and all of them were right – wingers. It has just been in this generation that mature, Bible-believing Christians have stood up and said, ‘Hey, we are for the Jews because God is for the Jews.’ The leadership in conservative Christianity today is solidly behind the state of Israel; there is no question about that.(29)
However, addressing a rally in Richmond, VA, Falwell noted that “some in his audience might still be antiSemitic. ‘And I know why you don’t like the Jew,’ he went on. ‘He can make more money accidentally than you can make on purpose.”‘(30)
Thus, even though some major features of the premillennial scheme have had to be rearranged (just as premillennial date-setting ala Hal Lindsey has been revised on numerous occasions), Falwell and other dispensationalists still cling to their false doctrines on this issue as well as on others.
It is difficult to assess the impact that dispensationalism has had on even conservative politics. One would surmise that it has had little effect other than allowing Falwell to be pictured in intimate discussion with world leaders such as Begin(31) or former Egyptian leader Anwar Sadat, and to be able to say, selfimportantly, to one’s audiences, “I talked with Prime Minister Begin today, and he told me . .”
The relatively unstable nature of the current Middle East situation may produce problems for dispensationalists, however. If concern over oil resources prompts a continued courting of the Arab nations by the U.S., then another major re-writing of premillennial doctrine may have to accompany a new round of datesetting. Secondly, the loose coalition of business and political leaders now allied with the religious right may fracture if hard political decisions over who to best ally ourselves with begins to take precedence over doctrinal premillennial speculation.
Two interesting questions should be addressed in conclusion. First, if this strain of pro-Israel, pretribulational dispensationalism has been with us for to these many years, why has it only recently become so radicaly politicized? Why would members of religious bodies which while dispensational, are also thoroughly otherworldly in their basic ideology, become invoved in political reform campaigns? Several reasons suggest themselves. The first is the dominance of an increasingly secular, antireligious flavor in our society, produced in part by the political and social radicalism of the past two decades. Secondly, as both brother Ed Harrell and liberal Christian Century editor James M. Wall(32) have pointed out, the kind of prosperous times we have been living in have traditionally produced voters preoccupied not only with personal moral considerations but with what they perceive as the imminent collapse of society itself. Finally, as my favorite columnist, George Will astutely observed, the answer to the question of “why so many people are aroused … is they have been provoked”(33), Brother Harrell put it this way when dealing with the same question of why
Millions of religious Americans, inspired by their evangelist leaders, swarmed to the polls in 1980. It was because they had been attacked. Liberal religion and liberal politics put tremendous pressure on conservative Christians in the years immediately before 1920 and 1975 and then recoiled in shock and indignation when the fundamentalists fought back. If you don’t want to fight, don’t hit a fundamentalist. Though the parallel is not exact, it brings to mind Commodore Vanderbilt’s remark after being outfoxed by Daniel Drew in their war over the Erie Railroad. Moralized the subdued Commodore: ‘Never kick a skunk.’(34)
Thus, it would appear that rather than being led into politics by the demands of their theology, even though dispensational, the fundamentalists were drawn into the political fray for larger reasons, though their doctrinal preconceptions have surely governed the manner in which they have expressed themselves or rationalized their participation in political affairs.
Finally, what has any of this to do with New Testament Christianity; and, by the same token, what can New Testament Christians have to do with the movement? The answer to both questions, it seems to me, is “Nothing!” Certainly it can be established that premillennialism (whether pre- or post-tribulational, or the “Bollite” variety more common among Churches of Christ) is as unscriptural as either Calvinism or Catholicism. Thus, in order to have “fellowship” with the Religious Right, a true New Testament Christian would need to strain his convictions as far or farther than Jerry Falwell has had to do (rather torturously, it seems) in order to accommodate himself to Jews, Catholics, and Mormons with whom he may be united on diverse and isolated issues such as Zionism, abortion, or women’s rights. True, one might agree with Falwell (or with Jews, Catholics, or Mormons) about these or other politico-religious issues. But those whose allegiance is to New Testament Christianity have no more business allying themselves with Falwell and his dispensational perversion of prophecy (or Pat Robertson’s biblically false charismatic notions) than they do in making “common cause” with the Roman Catholic Church or the Latter-Day Saints. While one may look favorably upon their efforts in areas such as school textbooks, the evolution issue, etc., those who follow Christ and his word cannot afford to make unholy alliances with those who will label such attempts as “Campbellism” and oppose a “Campbellite” as viciously as they will an evolutionist or a homosexual.
During the Scopes Trial of 1925, when William Jennings Bryan was looked upon by some even in the Lord’s church as the next thing to an apostle of Christ, a gospel preacher from Albertville, Alabama reminded Christians that “it is no worse to deny the Bible act of creation than to set aside the New Testament plan of salvation, and not one of the denominational~preachers will preach it as it is.”(35) One of his compatriots, considering the relative demerits of an evolutionist and a premillennialist, offered this colorful analysis:
Many preachers are clapping their hands for the Bible at the Monkey Trial at Dayton, but at the same time they “can’t see any harm in Bollism.” Truly people are “blind and can’t see afar off” . . . so “annoint your eyes with eye salve . . .” Bollism is more dangerous to mankind than monkeyism because Bollism claims Bible for what they teach and monkeyism does not.(36)
In these times when the likes of the Moral Majority not only confuses the minds of the general public about what the Bible actually does teach, but entices Christians to join hands with it, we would do well to heed the admonition.
1. Robert N. Bellah, “The Civil Religion in America,” Daedalus (Journal of the American Academy of Arts & Sciences, Boston, MA), Winter 1967. Reprinted in a “Daedalus Library” Volume, Religion in America, ed. Robert N. Bellah & William G. McLoughlin (Boston: Beacon Press, 1966, 1968), pp. 3-23; and in Russel E. Richey &Donald G. Jones, eds., American Civil Religion (New York: Harper & Row, 1967), pp. 21-44.
10. See Steve Wolfgang & Ron Halbrook, “Alexander Campbell & The Spirit of the Revolution, I & II,” in Truth Magazine, 22 /February 16 & 23, 1978/, pp. 123ff. & 137ff. See also Richard T. Hughes, “From Primitive Church to Civil Religion: The Millennial Odyssey of Alexander Campbell,” Journal of the American Academy of Religion, 44 (March, 1976), pp. 87-103; and Earl Kimbrough, “How the Restorers Dealt With Prophecy,” in The Restoration Heritage in America (Florida College Annual Lectures, 1976), pp. 57 ff.
13. Ernest R. Sandeen (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1970); reprinted in paperback edition by Baker Book House, Grand Rapids, MI, 1978). Other recent studies of Fundamentalism include C. Allyn Russell, Voices of American Fundamentalism: Seven Biographical Studies (Philadelphia: Westminister Press, 1976); and the excellent recent book of George M. Marsden, Fundamentalism & American Culture: The Shaping of Twentieth-Century Evangelicalism, 1870-1925 (New York: Oxford University Press, 1980), cited below.
15. For an excellent documentary of some aspects of the conflict, see Willard B. Gatewood, Controversy in the Twenties: Fundamentalism, Modernism, & Evolution (Nashville: Vanderbilt University Press, 1969).
16. The following books may be useful in separating the various strands of millennial thought (postmillennial, premillennial, amillennial, dispensational, pre-tribulational, post-tribulational, etc.): Robert G. Clouse, ed., The Meaning of The Millennium: Four Views (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1977), with chapters by George Eldon Ladd (Historic Premillennialism), Herman A. Hoyt (Pispensational Premillennialism), Lorraine Boettner (Postmillennialism), and Anthony A. Hoekema (Amillennialism); Anthony A. Hoekema, The Bible and the Future (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1979); Millard J. Erickson, Contemporary Options in Eschatology: A study of the Millennium (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker, 1977); For some historical backgrounds see Clarence B. Bass, Backgrounds to Dispensationalism (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1960), and C. Norman Kraus, Dispensationalism in America: Its Rise and Development (Richmond, VA: John Knox Press, 1958).
17. For development of this interpretation of Graham, see David Edwin Harrell, Jr., “The Roots of the Moral Majority: Fundamentalism Revisited,” Occasional Papers (No. 15), Institute for Ecumenical and Cultural Research, Collegeville, MN (May, 1981), pp. 2-3. See also the chapter on Graham by William C. Martin in Harrell (ed.), Varieties of Southern Evangelicalism (Atlanta: Mercer University Press, 1981).
18. The phrase is the title of one of Richard Quebedeaux’s two books on the Evangelicals (see Steve Wolfgang, “Neo-Evangelicals: Shift Toward Modernism,” in Truth Magazine, 22:43 (November 2, 1978), pp. 694-696, especially note 6). The distinction between the “old-line” Fundamentalists and the post-World War II “Neo-evangelicals” cannot be emphasized too strongly if the movements are to be understood. George M. Dollar’s History of Fundamentalism in America (Greenville, SC: Bob ones University Press, 1973), for instance, characterizes the Neo-Evangelicals as “The Enemy Within” (chapter XII).
19. The following is only a partial bibliography. On earlier manifestations of conservative political religionists see Arnold Forster & Benjamin R. Epstein, Danger On the Right (New York: Random House, 1964), which includes a chapter on George Benson and the National Education Program at Harding College; Daniel Bell, ed., The Radical Right (New York: Vintage Books, 1967); and John H. Redekop, The American Far Right: A Case Study of Billy James Hargis and the Christian Crusade (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1968). For a study of some social views of various small sects see David Edwin Harrell, White Sects and Black Men in the Recent South (Nashville: Vanderbilt University Press, 1971).
There have been several noteworthy articles on the Evangelicals, Fundamentalists, and related groups in the popular news magazines in the past decade or so. Some of these include ”U.S. Evangelicals: Moving Again,” Time, September 19, 1969, p. 58; Harold O.J. Brown, “Restive Evangelicals, “National Review, February 15, 1974, p. 192;’ “The New Evangelicals,” Newsweek, May 6, 1974, p. 86; “A Born Again Faith,” Time, September 27, 1976, p. 87; cover story and related articles, “Born Again!” Newsweek, October 25, 1976; “The Evangelicals: New Empire of Faith” (cover story & related articles, Time, December 26, 1977.
The recent space of articles on the resurgence of Fundamentalism and related political involvement includes the following. From Newsweek: “Born Again Politics” (cover story & related articles), September 15, 1980; “Churches, Politics, & the Tax Man,” October 6, 1980, p. 46. From Time: “Politics from the Pulpit,” October 13, 1980, p. 28; “To the Right, March!” (Cover story & related articles, September 14, 1981). From U.S. News & World Report: “Preachers in Politics: Decisive Force in ’80? (September 15, 1980), p. 24; “Bigger Game for Religious Right,” (November 17, 1980), p. 42; “As Religious Right Flexes Its Muscles,” (December 29, 1980/January 5, 1981), p. 69). Also informative have been the following: Martin E. Marty, “Fundamentalism Reborn: Faith & Fanaticism,” Saturday Review (May 1980), p. 37; Clint Confehr, “Jerry Falwell’s Marching Christians,” Saturday Evening Post (December 1980), p. 58; Bob Johnson, “Evangelical Conservatives Are Planning Future Battles,” Louisville Courierjournal, October 19, 1980, p. D-1; Sid Moody (Associate Press), “Moral Majority,” AP feature, Sunday, October 25, 1981; William F. Buckley, Jr., “The Moral Majority Will Get You,” (syndicated column, On the Right, November 30, 1980).
Religious news publications, notably the Christian Century, have also given the New Right considerable coverage. Among the many article appearing in the Century have been the following which I have found informative: “‘Christian Voice’: The gospel of Right-Wing Politics,” (August 15-22, 1979), p. 781; James M. Wall, “God’s Piece of Cheese,” Feburary 27, 1980, p. 219; Ted Moser, “If Jesus Were A Congressman, ” (April 16, 1980/, p. 444; Martin E. Marty, “Christian Voice’s Rating Game,” (June 8-15, 1980), p. 687; James M. Wall, “The New Right Exploits Abortion,” (July 30-August 6, 1980), p. 747; John Scanzoni, “Resurgent Fundamentalism: Marching Backward Into the ’80’s?” (September 10-17, 1980), p. 847; Robert Zwier & Richard Smith, “Christian Politics and the New Right,” October 8, 1980, p. 937; “What’s Wrong With Born-Again Politics? A Symposium,” (October 22, 1980), p. 1002; James M. Wall, “The New Right Comes of Age,” (October 22, 1980), p. 995; “New Right Tops 1980 Religion News” (December 31, 1980), p. 1283; “The Decade Ahead in Church-State Issues,” by John M. Swomley (February 25, 1981), p. 199.
James M. Wall, “What Future for the New Right?” (November 25, 1981), p. 1219.
Finally, in addition to the articles cited elsewhere in this article, I have found the following to be helpful in sorting out the confusing welter of New Right personalities and organizations: Bruce Buursma, “The 700 Club,” Louisville Courier Journal, June 4, 1976, p. B-1; Philip Yancey, “The Ironies and Impact of PTL,” Christianity Today, September 21, 1979, p. 28; and “Is Morality All Right?” (Christianity Today, November 2, 1979), p. 76. See Ed Harrell, “Roots of the Moral Majority,” footnotes for still other references.
20. For a lengthy and well-written analysis of the New Right in general and the TV evangelists and Falwell in particular, see Frances FitzGerald, “A Disciplined, Charging Army,” The New Yorker (May 18, 1981), pp. 53ff.
21. For detailed information regarding Falwell’s organizations, see Steve Wolfgang, “Evangelicals & The Moral Majority,” printed outline in Bible Lectures, Church of Christ, 2222 Wendell Avenue, Louisville, KY 40205 (November 1, 1981).
23. “An estimated 130 Million Americans tuned in a religious program each week (in 1980), approximately 47 percent of the population, while only 41 percent attended church services” (Harrell, “Roots,” p. 3).
36. J. G. Allen, “Our Messages,” Gospel Advocate, 67 (July 25, 1925), p. 705. See also A.A. Bunner, “Bryan as a Bible Teacher,” Gospel Advocate, 67 (October 29, 1925), p. 1034; Ed Harrell, “Fundamentalism Again,” Vanguard, 5 (August 1979), p. 1; Steve Wolfgang, “The Moral Majority?” Guardian of Truth, 25 (February 12, 1981), p. 1.
Guardian of Truth XXVI: 4, pp. 54-58
January 28, 1982