What Came First?: Postwar Evangelicalism or the Religious Right?

Janine Giordano Drake

I have been thinking about a fun paper assignment for an undergraduate course: What came first--postwar Southern evangelicalism or the Religious Right? If we can trace causality, which one was the parent of the other movement?

A number of recent books (which I begin to list below) speak to this question. If we look at them carefully, we find that they arrive at a number of different definitions of "postwar Southern evangelicalism." Scholars assess differently the degree to which this religious movement was inherently dispensationalist and fundamentalist in origin (theologically driven), and to what extent it was culturally and politically driven---inherently pro-business, inherently Southern, and based in a kind of traditionalist paternalism. At the heart of this great debate in the scholarship right now are several related questions. I will list a few below, not only for keeping track of the scholarly debate, but also for further prompting in this suggested undergraduate assignment.

Defining and Historicizing Southern Evangelicalism:
1) To what extent do dispensationalist/ apocalyptic ideas about the end times (including the figure of FDR and the international problem of fascism) define Southern evangelicalism?

2) To what extent should we identify Southern Protestants outside of National Association of Evangelicals (NAE)- related churches as Southern evangelicals? For example, are folks from the Southern Tenant Farmer's Union, or Highlander Folk School, Southern evangelicals? Are African Americans outside of mainline denominations Southern evangelicals? Do those labor/religious leaders who attended Union Theological Seminary in the liberal 1930s, who later returned to small churches in the South, count as Southern evangelicals? Can we find Southern evangelicals in mainline Protestant churches?

3) How directly did Southern businessmen's funding of institutes for "Christian free enterprise" influence the creation of Southern evangelicalism? To what extent was Southern evangelicalism already established before these institutes took hold?

4) **To what extent were Southern evangelicals repelled from the Federal Council of Churches' mainline churches and their programs for theological reasons, and to what extent were Southern evangelicals opposed to the Federal Council for social and political reasons?

Defining and Historicizing the New Religious Right:

1) How much can we gather about the experiences of postwar Southerners from the circulation of media, including periodicals, books, and radio programming? What are the limitations of gleaning the history of Southern evangelicals from this media? What are the strengths and weaknesses of learning about Southern evangelicalism from what pastors and other religious leaders have published?

2) What, if anything, is/was particularly Southern about "plainfolk religion" and evangelicalism?

3) ** To what extent was it possible that Southern workers might have unionized in large numbers in the 1940s, with the help of the Congress of Industrial Organizations' "Operation Dixie" organizing campaign?  To what extent was "Southern evangelicalism" as a faith tradition inherently opposed to union organizing drives?

The questions I have starred (**) have particular relevance for me right now, because they stem from the remarkable new (2015) book by Elizabeth and Ken Fones-Wolf, Struggle for the Soul of the Postwar South: White Evangelical Protestants and Operation Dixie. I wrote a review on this which will appear soon in an exciting roundtable on the book in the Journal of Southern Religion, so I won't give away too much here. But, the book considerably advances the field by synthesizing research on both the Religious Right and the Religious Left, and by adding to scholarship coveted new resources--oral histories from working class Southerners. The book investigates the important question--to what extent did the CIO have the potential to successfully organize the South in the postwar era? The authors' response is very optimistic. They find that Southern evangelicalism was not nearly as "sold" on New Right/ Conservative politics at the start of the postwar period as we might expect. The National Association of Evangelicals was not as all-powerful as we might think. In fact, they see the whole postwar period of Southern history as a "struggle for the soul of the postwar South." Heath Carter introduced the book to blog in Feburary.

And yet, I do not mean to digress. Back to our undergraduate assignment.

Here are some books and articles that I would recommend assigning alongside this question. (I know there are many more I am forgetting, and some are still in progress.) If I were assigning this paper, I would probably assign pieces of some of these books below over a period of weeks in my seminar, and make available this list for outside reading in support of writing the paper. I'd require that students make use of at least one or two of the books we did not read collectively within their papers.

- Elizabeth Fones-Wolf and Kenneth Fones-Wolf, Struggle for the Soul of the Postwar South: White Evangelical Protestants and Operation Dixie

- Bethany Moreton, To Serve God and Walmart: The Making of Christian Free Enterprise

- Darren Dochuk, From Bible Belt to Sun Belt: Plainfolk Religion, Grassroots Politics, and the Rise of Evangelical Conservatism 

- Matthew Lassiter, Ed. The Myth of Southern Exceptionalism

- Kevin Kruse, One Nation Under God: How Corporate America Invented Christian America 

-  William Sutton, American Apocalpyse: A History of Modern Evangelicalism

- Kim Phillips-Fein and Julian Zelitzer, Ed. What's Good for Business: Business and American Politics Since World War II

- Molly Worthen, Apostles of Reason: The Crisis of Authority in American Evangelicalism

- Jarod Roll and Erik Gellman, Gospel of the Working Class: Labor's Southern Prophets in New Deal America

- David Swartz, Moral Minority: The Evangelical Left in an Age of Conservatism

- Brantley Gasaway, Progressive Evangelicals and the Pursuit of Social Justice

- Doug Rossinow, Visions of Progress: The Left-Liberal Tradition in America

- Joseph Kosek, Acts of Conscience: Christian Nonviolence and Modern American Democracy

- Elesha Coffman, The Christian Century and the Rise of the Protestant Mainline

- John Salmond, Miss Lucy of the CIO: The Life and Times of Lucy Randolph Mason, 1882-1959

- Wayne Flint, Dixie's Forgotten People: The South's Poor Whites

-  Timothy Gloege, Guaranteed Pure: The Moody Bible Institute, Business, and the Making of Modern Evangelicalism 

- Elizabeth Fones-Wolf, Selling Free- Enterprise: The Business Assault on Labor and Liberalism, 1945-1960 

- Kim Phillips-Fein, The Businessmen's Crusade Against the New Deal

- Joseph Crespino, In Search of Another Country: Mississippi and the Conservative Counterrevolution

Again, there's so much more that could be added here, especially on the New Right. I think this is a good starting place because it includes books that focus on Southern evangelicalism and the South in particular, alongside others that focus on the Religious Left and the mainline, and others that focus on the conservative movement for big business apart from Southern evangelicalism. To me, this wide perspective is an absolutely necessary context within which to grapple with this question.

The more I read these books and think about them myself, the more I sincerely wonder at the question of how "theological" the Southern evangelical distaste for the Federal Council of Churches really was. Especially after reading the Fones-Wolfs' new book, that's the question that has been percolating the most, lately. When Southerners got angry that Harry Ward was a Communist sympathizer and a leader within the Federal Council of Churches, were they most angry at his politics or his theology? Can we separate the two? Ought we understand the Social Gospel movement and the theological movement toward "liberalism" as an instigator of Southern evangelicalism?

I'd love to discuss and refine this assignment further, in the comments below. Suggestions for revision welcome!


Tom Van Dyke said…
Ought we understand the Social Gospel movement and the theological movement toward "liberalism" as an instigator of Southern evangelicalism?

Could be. And of course the frustration of evangelicalism to explain itself in the secular milieu, or even to itself. Was William Jennings Bryan really arguing for literal Biblical truth to be the law of the land--as that stupid movie depicts him--or against modernity and what THAT entails?

Days after the trial ended, Bryan died in his sleep. Shortly before, he wrote:

"Science is a magnificent material force, but it is not a teacher of morals. It can be perfect machinery, but it adds no moral restraints to protect society from the misuse of machinery. ... If civilization is to be saved from the wreckage threatened by intelligence not consecrated by love, it must be saved by the moral code of the meek and lowly Nazarene."

Unknown said…
excellent review and summary remarks. I look forward to reading this book, and I appreciate the bibliography. I have been thinking a great deal about dispensationalism, the relationship between apocalyptic thought and forms of political activism, etc. as I have been working my way through Matthew Sutton's American Apocalypse. This has led me back to older works such as Ernest Sandeen's book and scholarship on the emergence and development of fundamentalism (and the significance of premillennialism).
You pose a number of very important questions and topics that demand fuller answers than we already have.
I thought I'd make a few general comments about the FCC and why southern evangelicals were "repelled" from it. I think it is almost impossible to distinguish nealty between theological, political, and cultural reasons for their hostility to the FCC. I have been examining how certain local church leaders were responding to a report commissioned by the FCC (around 1932) under the leadership of Broadus Mitchell, who at the time was a professor of political economy at Johns Hopkins (I will give the short version since I am working on the details of this and have not published any of this material, though I have presented versions of this chapter at conferences). Mitchell later was a Socialist candidate for mayor of Baltimore. The lynching took place in Salisbury, MD. To make a detailed story really short, the objections by local pastors not only focused on Mitchell's "communistic leanings," which in part were based on awareness of his membership in the ACLU, but also the criticism was that the FCC did not know the customs of local church people. It was portrayed as an elite, New York organization that looked down upon southern religious folk. So regionalism, proximity and location were all factors in this criticism. But the local pastors also asserted that the FCC was not an exponent of true Christianity, though the aspersions in this regard were hardly detailed and seemed to be based on more generalized claims that it espoused "modernistic" theology. Some of these theological criticisms seemed inextricably linked to the place of the FCC (big bad New York City), its misguided theology (which caused it to fail to discern that a socialist could not "get" southern folk religion as a genuine expression of Christian faith), and its highly educated folk who were distanced by their learning from everyday people.
On the more general issue of regionalism, not all Southern religious folk, evangelical and others, were opposed to the FCC. The Southern Presbyterians were in and out of the FCC as full members, leaving when they felt the FCC took too public a stance on some social issue, which for them violated the independent stance of the church as a corporate body. At least the women's division of the Southern Methodists threw their support behind the FCC's campaign for a federal anti-lynching bill in 1934. I think that was a remarkable development, given the heated rhetoric around state's rights regarding lynching. I could go on because I am teasing out the particular denominational affiliation of members of the FCC's Department of Race Relations, but I will stop here. I have found some evidence for the active membership and work of southern white women, especially Methodists. So your question makes me think that it is all the more important to dig deeper as I think about the FCC's relationship to the South and to southern evangelicals in particular. But that only deals with one of your many queries!
danielsilliman said…
Typo: you mean Matthew Sutton, not William.

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