Evangelicals, Fundamentalists, and Race in the Cold War Era

Randall J. Stephens

“The position of Fundamentalism,” wrote Frederick Lewis Allen in 1931, “seemed almost hopeless. The tide of all rational thought in a rational age seemed to be running against them.”[1] Half a century later a Milwaukee reporter figured that “conservative Christians always regard politics as ‘a dirty business’ unworthy of men of the cloth,” until fundamentalist preacher Jerry Falwell and the Reagan landslide victory proved otherwise.[2] That was the line that Falwell himself took in his March 1965 sermonic response to civil rights activism: “Ministers and Marches.”  “Our only purpose on earth is to know Christ and make Him known,” he counseled members of his Thomas Road Baptist Church in Lynchburg, Virginia.[3]  Of course, this was at the same time that Falwell was preaching adamantly against communism, statism, liberalism, and meddlesome civil rights agitators.
Vic Lockman's cartoon of MLK running roughshod over
law and order, Christian Beacon, June 11, 1964. Click to enlarge.

The recent scholarship of Matthew Sutton, Darren Dochuk, Molly Worthen, Uta Balbier, Axel Schäfer, Daniel Williams, Kim Phillips-Fein, and a host of others has pretty much buried this notion of political/cultural disengagement.  Things were not as they’d often been reported. No, fundamentalists did not retreat into their dark, dank church basements, to sit quietly and wait for the second coming, surrounded by walls decked out with colorful premillennial charts.  No, the saints did not throw in the political towel after W.J. Bryan’s botched 1925 exegesis in Dayton, Tennessee.  

I wanted to know a little more about how evangelicals and fundamentalists engaged with politics and culture in the 1950s and 1960s.  So, for an article I recently published in the Journal of American Studies, “‘It Has to Come from the Hearts of the People’: Evangelicals, Fundamentalists, Race, and the 1964 Civil Rights Act,” I zeroed in on believers’ reaction to and understanding of civil rights legislation and race relations during the high season of the Cold War.  What did stalwarts make of some of the most important legislation to pass through congress since the tumult of the Civil War and Reconstruction?  How did white responses range across the spectrum of center to far right?  (The cartoons I include here from the Christian Beacon represent one end of the field.) Here’s one of the takeaways from the article:

In the more than fifty years since the passage of the Civil Rights Act evangelicals have grappled in new ways with important questions concerning race, the individual and larger society, as well as local versus national political issues.  Yet in many ways certain features have remained the same.  Racism, like adultery or blasphemy, was still considered the product of a sinful heart.  Indeed, notions of personal responsibility, individual salvation, along with a suspicion of an impersonal, controlling state have continued to shape evangelical and fundamentalist beliefs and behavior.*
Vic Lockman's gendered and racialized rendering
  of state authority, Christian Beacon, May 7, 1964.

Fortunately for me, the combination of excellent primary and secondary sources provided plenty to sift through.  I mostly drew from local and national newspapers, evangelical and fundamentalist magazines like Eternity, Moody Monthly, King’s Business, various state Southern Baptist periodicals, Sword of the Lord, Christian Crusade, Christian Beacon, the sermons and press conferences of Billy Graham and a variety of other materials.  Of course, the flagship evangelical Christianity Today was a goldmine.  Editor Carl F. H. Henry (1956-1968) and his writers certainly spent a great deal of time and ink on the perils of ecumenism, communism, and the slippery slopes of modernism and theological liberalism.  But they also asked—especially in the early 1960s—about the role the church and the state should play in supporting racial and social equality.  In a typical May 8, 1964 editorial in Christianity Today, Henry wrote: “While the church should not engage in politics, it is nevertheless an inescapable obligation for Christians to take part in public affairs.”[4] If some of the faithful chose to support the cause of black equality, then so be it.  But what about a civil rights bill? asked Henry.  Without officially endorsing it, and cryptically alluding to problems of enforcement, he concluded by remarking that fellow believers had far too often lagged behind on matters of racial justice.  If conscience led men and women to support legislation, then they should do so.

This stance was confirmed by another excellent trove of sources I was able to get my hands on, thanks to the generous folks at Wheaton College.  The National Association of Evangelicals records on civil rights (1964-1965) includes numerous letters to the organization from pastors and laypeople, as well as letters back to constituents from Clyde W. Taylor, an Arkansas native who served as Secretary of Public Affairs for the organization from 1944-1963.  The NEA’s attempt to chart out a middle-to-right-of-center position was met with angry missives from across the country and especially in the South.

To get a better handle on the regional dimensions of the debate, I turned to a great source from the long-running Christian Herald, based out of New York City.  It was one of the most popular religious magazines in the country, holding a massive readership of 431,000 by the early 1960s.  Martin Marty called it a sort of Reader’s Digest of conservative protestantism.[5]  In late 1964 the Herald included survey cards in one of its issues. Would you object to a neighbor who was of a different race than you? the survey asked. The poll also asked if readers would accept someone of a different race into their church if he/she met all the other membership criteria.  The editor was depressed by the stark regional divide evident in the results.  Concerning race and church membership, 68% of Alabama respondents replied with “no,” they would not accept a person of a different race into their church, even if membership requirements were met. The same percentage of South Carolina subscribers responded that way as well.  By contrast, only 5% of New Yorkers said “no” and only 8% of Californians said the same.[6]

One thing I wasn’t able to do in the article was include this map I made from the 1964/65 poll data.  I also didn’t have time to include the vicious/not-for-the-faint-of-heart cartoons from above.
Click to enlarge

Finally, with the recent news of Tony Compolo’s about face on homosexuality, I can’t help but wonder if, in thirty to fifty years from now, evangelicals will look back at our era with palm planted firmly on face.  Here’s the foghorn of literalistic biblicism Albert Mohler: “The forces driving this revolution in morality will not allow evasion or equivocation. Every pastor, every church, and every Christian organization will soon be forced to declare an allegiance to the Scriptures and to the Bible’s teachings on marriage and sexual morality, or to affirm loyalty to the sexual revolution.” It sounds like a scene from Thief in the Night.  Anyhow, in Mohler’s words I hear unmistakable echoes of fundamentalists on the race issue in the 1950s and 60s.  Here’s a relatively “nuanced” position from the Presbyterian Journal (Asheville, NC) in early 1964: "Our interest in civil rights these days makes it almost impossible to see clearly the demerits as well as the merits of every effort to 'overcome racial, social and religious prejudice.' But not every individual and not every group is worthy of support; and not every prejudice is bad."[7]  More to the right, but not at all uncommon at the time, is a comment from a disgruntled white Baptist preacher from the Mississippi Delta town of Greenville.  He was responding to an article in Eternity magazine, which suggested that integrated churches just might work: “[Christians] would act the fool and be instruments in the hands of the devil to bring spotted babies into the world.”  Apparently, he scoffed with wonder, do the editors at the magazine “think spotted babies bring honor and glory to our lord Jesus?”[8]

I don't have a crystal ball.  Still, when it comes to homosexuality and same-sex marriage, it certainly seems that decades from now evangelical grandparents and great grandparents will have some embarrassed explaining to do. 


1. Frederick Allen Lewis, Only Yesterday: Informal Treatment of the 1920s (1931; reprint, New York: John Wiley & Sons, 1997), 151. Christopher Pieper and Michael P. Young, “Religion and Post-Secular Politics,” in Handbook of Politics: State and Society in Global Perspective, eds., Kevin T. Leicht and J. Craig Jenkins (New York: Springer, 2010), 355. Arthur Emery Farnsley, Southern Baptist Politics: Authority and Power in the Restructuring of an American Denomination (University Park, PA: Pennsylvania State University Press, 1994), 65.
2. James M. Johnston, “Conservatives Shook Religious World in ’80,” Milwaukee Sentinel, January 3, 1981, 8.
3. Falwell’s “Ministers and Marches” sermon quoted in Macel Falwell, Jerry Falwell: His Life and Legacy (New York: Simon and Schuster, 2008), 96.
4. “Civil Rights and Christian Concern,” Christianity Today, May 8, 1964, 29.
5. Martin E. Marty, “The Protestant Press: Limitations & Possibilities,” in The Religious Press in America, eds., Martin E. Marty, John G. Deedy, Jr., David Wolf Silverman, and Robert Lekachman (New York: Holt Rinehart, and Winston, 1963), 58. Stephen Board, “Moving the World with Magazines: A Survey of Evangelical Periodicals,” in American Evangelicals and the Mass Media, ed., Quentin J. Schultze (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 1990), 128-129.
6. “The Poll Report: Integration and You,” Christian Herald (February 1965): 22-26.

7. (Rev) John C. Neville, Jr., Prattville, Ala, “Let’s Be Prejudiced,” Presbyterian Journal, February 26, 1964, 16.
8. “Letters: Color-Blind,” Eternity (June 1964): 2. For a typical middle-of-the-road stance, see “What of Racial Intermarriages?” Christianity Today, October 11, 1963, 26-28.


Tom Van Dyke said…
Anyhow, in Mohler’s words I hear unmistakable echoes of fundamentalists on the race issue in the 1950s and 60s.

No doubt. But the Bible is silent on race; not so much on sexual relations. Race and sexuality make for a facile comparison, but not necessarily a probative one.
Unknown said…
Tom, your imbalanced anachronism is showing: neither race nor sexuality as we understand those things today are in the Bible.

In any case, I'd like to see a similar article on white evangelical and fundamentalist responses to the Loving vs. VA decision, which I assume hasn't been done yet?

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