I seldom distribute my comments about the daily newsletter from historian Heather Cox Richardson to a group. Instead, I restrict my comments to a few individuals. But her newsletter on Jan. 4 prompts me to share these thoughts to a wider audience.
I agree with Richardson (who teaches American history at Boston College and has focused her scholarly interests on the Civil War era) that the current dysfunction of the Republican Party is obvious as shown by the party’s inability to even organize the House of Representatives after winning a slim majority of seats in the November 2022 general election. I also agree with her view that the dysfunction is not solely caused by 20 far-right Republican representatives who are followers of former President Donald Trump.
However, those holdouts defied Trump’s appeal that they support Republican Caucus Leader Kevin McCarthy for House speaker.
Richardson’s observation that the present plight of the Republican Party is traceable to the anti-governmental views and methods of former President Ronald Reagan also has merit. I am glad she reminded people that Reagan began his campaign for the GOP presidential nomination near Philadelphia, Miss., by saying he believed in states’ rights.
“White capitalists began bankrolling white evangelical preachers in what became a multi-generational movement that is now bearing fruit as the dysfunctional face of U.S. empire.”
However, her analysis did not go far enough because Richardson did not mention the role of the “Hateful Faithful” — meaning white evangelical people who claim to be Christians — in the dysfunctional state of the Republican Party, the U.S. House of Representatives and across the United States. Long before Donald Trump and Ronald Reagan won their respective campaigns for the U.S. presidency, white capitalists began bankrolling white evangelical preachers in what became a multi-generational movement that is now bearing fruit as the dysfunctional face of U.S. empire.
Billy Graham was the most recognized preacher in the world during his lifetime. His role in the growth of the Christian evangelical movement during the second half of the 20th century is not disputed. Yet Graham did not address the issue of empire across his many years of public ministry.
The following account by Samuel DeWitt Proctor, a Black theologian who worked with Bill Moyers and Sargent Shriver to advance President Lyndon Johnson’s war on poverty initiatives, provides an example. The account is found in Proctor’s memoir, The Substance of Things Hoped For, as follows.
One day Bill Moyers called from the White House and asked me to leave fast, go to the airport, and fly to Charlotte, N.C., with Billy Graham. We were helping a lot of poor mountain people near where he lived, and we wanted to get his support.
All through the flight down we talked church, religion and social change. When we reached his mountaintop home, we had a delicious lunch and more conversation. It all settled down to a stalemate: Dr. Graham felt that his business was to preach the gospel and change the hearts of individuals. Changed persons would then change society.
I countered with the teachings of Jesus in chapter 25 of Matthew’s Gospel, in which he admonished that at the day of judgment we would all be separated into sheep and goats. One got to be a sheep by feeding the hungry, giving water to the thirsty and clothing to the naked, visiting those in prison and taking in the stranger. The sheep entered into the Master’s joy. Goats did not do such things and were consigned to a burning hell.
Rev. Graham smiled and said that I was making Jesus a “liberal.” It was odd, though, that while he officially avoided political involvement, he often boasted of advising several presidents.
“He refused to apply the gospel of Jesus to elimination of societal inequities and imperial aggression.”
Billy Graham is correctly remembered for his “crusades” across the United States and throughout the world and his preaching about human sin, divine grace and eternal life. However, he refused to apply the gospel of Jesus to elimination of societal inequities and imperial aggression.
In chapter 2 of his 2021 book, Decolonizing Christianity: Becoming Badass Believers, Miquel De La Torre exposed the root of Graham’s disregard for the love and justice imperatives Jesus proclaimed. De La Torre observed that proponents of the Social Gospel had told the nation and business leaders that capitalist greed caused the 1929 economic collapse that produced the Great Depression. When President Franklin Roosevelt used “religious jargon to sell his New Deal, which was picked up by liberal ministers throughout the nation and preached from their pulpits,” business leaders were inspired during the 1940 National Association of Manufacturers conference by Rev. James W. Fifield, who preached against the sins of the New Deal and that salvation could be found through free enterprise and deregulation.
According to Fifield, business leaders were not responsible for the Great Depression but were saviors. De La Torre then adds the following historical perspective.
During his talk, Fifield — nicknamed “The Apostle to Millionaires” — suggested clergy would be the key to regaining the upper hand in the capitalist struggle against Roosevelt’s liberal policies and dictatorial tendencies. This watershed moment made Christianity and capitalism soulmates in white America’s imagination under the phrase “under God,” which they then set out to popularize. Moving forward, the United States would henceforth be known as a Christian nation.
J. Howard Pew, president of Sun Oil, along with his brother Joseph N., despised Roosevelt and their former business competitor John D. Rockefeller, whose brand of ecumenism, interdenominationalism and internationalist Protestantism that prioritized science and reform, was leading the nation, they believed, toward secularism. Committed to Fitfield’s work by the mid-1940s, outsourcing the task of persuading citizens to embrace capitalist ideology to the church. Later, they would back an obscure tent-revivalist preacher and fiercely pro-capitalist named Billy Graham. Called by Pew, not God, Graham railed against all liberal social programs — the New Deal, the Fair Deal, the New Frontier, and the Great Society — during his crusades. Social ills such as racism would not be remedied by government, Graham preached. Their solution could be manifested only with the Second Coming of Christ.
De La Torre writes that Graham and other white Christian nationalist “visionaries” “cemented a nationalist Christianity that merged the state with the growing power of a group of wealthy white male capitalists who were steadfastly opposed to the Social Gospel” and whose goal “was the Christianization of government, business, education, media, family, entertainment and religion through the creation of a quasi-democratic theocracy.”
Golden age of white Christianity
The result of their efforts to achieve that goal is shown by the events of the final decades of the 20th century. As De La Torre writes:
The 1950s until the start of the new millennium was the golden age of white Christianity within the United States. The tentacles of nationalist Christianity spread and flourished under the tutelage of Billy Graham, Abraham Vereide and Doug Coe — avatars for white capitalist men. These early religious superstars were called to strengthen a quasi-religious ideology that ensured the profit, power and privilege of the few. With the Nixon administration of the early 1970s, a move away from Eisenhower’s civil religion was in full force. Nixon, with Billy Graham’s support, used Christian nationalism to divide rather than unite people by branding antagonists to his war in Vietnam or his administration as foes to Christian values. The cultural wars that would consume the 1980s, bringing about national discord still being felt today, found their footing when Nixon and Graham separated the faithful (those committed to their cause) from the ungodly, secular unfaithful. Basically, white conservative Christians began to flex their political muscles to ensure the phrase “under God” referred only to them.
The present state of the United States and the world is the result of the unholy union between the free-market fundamentalism and Christian nationalism mentioned by De La Torre and the “giant triplets” of racism, materialism and militarism that Martin Luther King Jr. denounced as heresies to divine imperatives of love and justice. We are now witnessing one product of those heresies and the marriage of white supremacy, imperialism, patriarchal authority and neo-fundamental free market capitalism, and domestic and global militarism on the floor of the U.S. House of Representatives.
The party that deliberately courted white supremacists, religious nationalists, misogynists, domestic terrorists, capitalist scoundrels and sociopaths to seize power to disenfranchise voters, discriminate against women, LGBTQ persons, immigrants, workers, impoverished persons and oppress other vulnerable people now cannot choose anyone to lead the House of Representatives.
“Sooner or later, empires and tyrants pay for disregarding prophets of justice.”
It is more than slightly ironic to see the consequences of that almost 75-year process exposed for the world to see in the face of Kevin McCarthy as we approach the birthday of Martin Luther King Jr., the world’s greatest apostle of social justice. Heather Cox Richardson did not make that observation.
Nor did she observe the irony of those consequences being played out on the eve of January 6 — the day followers of Jesus observe as the Epiphany of our Lord — and two years after Hateful Faithful followers of Donald Trump, Ronald Reagan, Billy Graham and Strom Thurmond attempted an armed insurrection on the U.S. Capitol, tried to stop the peaceful transfer of presidential power and held a blasphemous prayer meeting in the name of Jesus in one chamber of the Capitol.
The price to pay
Sooner or later, empires and tyrants pay for disregarding prophets of justice such as MLK. Sooner or later, they pay for following the aims of religious nationalists such as Billy Graham, Jerry Falwell, James Dobson and Phyliss Schlafly. But Kevin McCarthy and Donald Trump are paying a price defined by mere political disappointment.
Our society is paying a much more painful price. And as I observed during the first month of Trump’s presidency, things will get worse.
Heather Cox Richardson, a historian, did not make that moral and ethical observation. That is the work of public theologians, pastors and other people who understand that justice is more than a game about holding political power. Justice is about doing right by people, with a preference for people who live with their backs against the wall, not people who are privileged.
That is why I wrote this message.
Wendell Griffen is a recently retired circuit court judge in Arkansas who serves as pastor of New Millennium Baptist Church in Little Rock.
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