Ed Blum on New Twentieth-Century Religious Biography

Shall We Crusade or Shall We March?
New Twentieth-Century Religious Biography

by Ed Blum

I should be grading; I should be wading through essays on how “radical” was radical Reconstruction, on how my students would teach the Civil War, and on the historiography of the Emancipation Proclamation. But I just cannot help myself; when not playing Wii tennis, I have been reading the many good books in American religious history coming out left and right. So I decided to gratify my mind. Instead of term papers, I read John Turner’s Bill Bright and Campus Crusade for Christ and Cynthia Taylor’s A. Philip Randolph: The Religious Journey of an African American Labor Leader. Thank goodness for such pleasures.

I could be wrong, but my guess is that Bill Bright and A. Philip Randolph never met. Both were from the South (Bright from Oklahoma and Randolph from Florida); both founded and led crucial twentieth-century movements (Bright founded Campus Crusade for Christ and Randolph founded the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters and was the driving force behind the first plans for a national March on Washington). Both have relatively new religious biographies with John Turner’s Bill Bright and Campus Crusade for Christ and Cynthia Taylor’s A. Philip Randolph: The Religious Journey of an African American Labor Leader. Bright and Randolph’s differences probably outweigh their similarities. Bright was white and politically conservative; Randolph was black and politically on the left. If they had met, what would they have said to one another? Would Bright have tried to impress his four spiritual laws on Randolph? Would Bright have asked if Randolph had accepted Jesus Christ as his lord and savior? Would Randolph have asked Bright why his organization was largely segregated or why Campus Crusade had nothing to say about racial violence or discrimination? We can imagine that Randolph would have confronted Bright’s questions before, that Randolph himself had wondered about the state of his soul, and that he had these conversations with African American Christians and church leaders. We can also imagine that if Bright would actually have listened to Randolph, Bright might have been spiritually troubled. He may have wondered why he and his organization opposed certain forms of “spiritual evil,” such as abortion or Communism, but had little to say about other forms. Probably, he would have brushed aside the questions, said that this is an imperfect world and that when Jesus returns (which would be soon, Mr. Randolph, and you should think upon these things) all would be set straight. This is the power of good religious biography – that after reading them we can imagine the characters interacting.

John Turner’s Bill Bright and Campus Crusade for Christ fills a huge void in the scholarship of twentieth-century evangelicalism. Anyone who has participated in evangelical America knows the power of parachurch organizations like Campus Crusade for Christ. Perhaps one attended a Bible study in one’s dorm. Perhaps one felt a compulsion to choose between Campus Crusade and its main rival Intervarsity Christian Fellowship (and one did not even know why there was a compulsion to select one or the other). Perhaps one has received the seemingly unlimited mailings of requests for prayer and for money (in the spirit of uncoverage here, let me say that my prayers go to these religious ministries and my donation money goes to the NAACP). Groups like Campus Crusade are crucial to the shape, form, and continuation of evangelicalism, and we have Professor Turner for this new biography and institutional history. Turner focuses on three facets of Campus Crusade: (1) its founder Bill Bright, a man who at one time sold candy who then created an international power that carried the message of evangelicalism to college campuses as “secular” as UC Berkeley, Harvard, and the University of Michigan; (2) the relationship between evangelicalism and conservative politics in the twentieth century; and (3) Crusade’s relationship with gender roles within evangelicalism and the broader nation.

Turner is at his best when analyzing the similarities and differences between Crusade’s tactics and those of the New Left. Both spoke for a discontent among college-aged white Americans in the mid and late 1960s; both offered new approaches to the old ways. Moreover, Turner does a nice job using the language of the religious marketplace to investigate Bright’s labor.

Hopefully, Turner’s study is merely the beginning of significant analysis of Crusade in American society and culture. Future scholars could examine the place of the Civil Rights movement in their organization. As I read Turner’s work on Crusade, Bill Bright and his legions seem unaware that the nation was being rocked by the moral, economic, cultural, and social critique of civil rights activists. They seem deaf or blind to the religious critique of the United States made by Martin Luther King, Jr., James Forman, W. E. B. Du Bois, Ella Baker, or Fannie Lou Hamer. Perhaps Turner’s subjects never spoke about the Civil Rights movement; perhaps they did not care what was happening in schools, at lunch tables, or in black churches. Perhaps they didn’t care that white supremacists were bombing African American churches. If they did not, then this is a moral and historical problem. What can we make of their absence? It is possible that their focus on the four spiritual laws, or their struggles with the New Left, enabled Crusade members to avoid the politics of the black freedom struggle? Is it possible that they have more in common with nineteenth-century evangelist Dwight Moody than they ever realized – that just as he led a national revival in 1876 and 1877 that minimized political issues in a moment when the politics of civil rights were paramount in “this world,” Campus Crusade’s focus on saving souls facilitated the continued damning of the souls of black folk? Perhaps someone will follow Turner and take up this challenge.

A. Philip Randolph, I would imagine, would not only want a racial critique of Campus Crusade, but also an economic one. For Randolph, Bright would have been one of the minions of economic, racial, and religious discrimination. Cynthia Taylor’s A. Philip Randolph: The Religious Journey of an African American Leader follows the spiritual and religious insights of Randolph through his long career of labor and civil rights activism. Unlike Turner, Taylor has to contend with a scholarly tradition that claims that Randolph was an agnostic and hence uninterested in religion. For some reason, there is a penchant among some American historians to revel in the lack of faith in historical characters and then pay no regard for religion in their lives. It is much easier to say that faith did not matter to an individual and then pay it no heed. I never find this confusing from my historian colleagues; I always find it surprising when I hear it from religious historians (and, interestingly enough, I hear religious historians oftentimes claiming that “religion” really wasn’t important to an individual or a movement). Taylor doesn’t really care what Randolph believed; instead, she places him in a variety of religious contexts, including African American church life, the spiritual contents of American socialisms, the fundamentalist-modernist debates, and the origins of black liberation theology.

Taylor’s study shows how Randolph always carried with him the African Methodism of his youth. His father was both a minister and a tailor. Randolph imbibed the notion that God was on the side of African Americans and the working class. He took these lessons with him to New York in the early twentieth century as part of the “Great Migration.” In Harlem, Randolph co-edited The Messenger, one of the many new African Americans magazines and newspapers of the era. Within The Messenger, writers chastised ministers who failed to support organized labor; they applauded the clerics who did; and they attacked fundamentalism as backward, unscientific, and close minded. These were progressive black Christians, interested more in heaven on earth than heaven in heaven.

In 1925, Randolph transformed The Messenger into the organ for the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters. He conceived of the trade union as a spiritual community, one which God would bless and use to transform American politics. Then in the early 1940s, Randolph led the charge for a March on Washington. Interestingly, one could compare the language of the “march” on Washington with the language of campus “crusade” for Christ, but I’ll leave that to another, more able interpreter. In preparation for the March, Randolph coordinated a series of prayer protests that prefigured the civil disobedience of the Civil Rights movement of the 1950s and 1960s. Finally, Taylor ends her study with Randolph’s embrace of King’s leadership and his return to the AME church.

It should be impossible to describe Randolph as merely an agnostic and then disregard his religious insights after Taylor’s book. It will happen; there will be studies that mention Randolph as an agnostic or discuss the irreligiosity of American labor movement (and cite Randolph as an example), but that will be because of a failure to read Taylor’s fine work.

I wish that Randolph had met Bright and that Bright would have heard what Randolph had to say. I wish that Billy Graham would have spent even more time with Martin Luther King, Jr., because maybe, just maybe, Graham and Bright would have realized that they could have learned much from these men and their insights. Thank goodness that we, as readers today, can not only imagine what they might have learned, but hear the lessons ourselves.


rjc said…
Fantastic post and juxtaposition, Ed. Thanks!
John G. Turner said…
Does Wii tennis suggest that you also play outdoor, non-electronic tennis? If they ever have the AHA, etc. in a warm weather location, let's play.

Thoughts on evangelicalism and the civil rights movement:

- Steven Miller has a forthcoming book on Billy Graham and politics, esp. civil rights. I read it as a dissertation, and it goes a long way toward explaining Graham's tortured moderation on civil rights.

- I surprised to have one CCC staff member tell me that Bright specifically forbade him from participating in the Civil Rights Movement. Eventually, by the early 1970s, evangelical organizations like CCC began to wake up to the need to specifically reach out to minorities. At the time, this didn't involve a real engagement with race and racism in America, but I think younger evangelicals more recently have made tremendous strides in coming to grips with such issues. I entirely agree with Ed's lament about Graham and Bright.
Anonymous said…
I thought I remembered reading that anecdote about Bright advising a CCC staff member to not get involved with Civil Rights in your book, John.

Thanks for the post, Ed. Taylor's book on Randolph looks fascinating.

p.s. I blame Wii tennis for slowing down my thesis research this summer. :)
I believe the Blums should give Mario Kart Wii a chance. As competitive as even fantasy football got, well, let's just say this could be fun, though not terribly conducive to work.

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