Did Premillennialism Drive Political Conservatism? Why it matters.

Janine Giordano Drake

Some of us are currently engaged in a fascinating and important debate about whether the apocalyptic theologies of premillenialism drove evangelicals into alliance with political conservatives. More particularly, did premillenialism drive evangelicals away from pro-labor politics? We have a number of heavy contenders in this debate (especially Jarod Roll and Kevin Kruse) whose work is not featured in this post, but hopefully will be in future posts. For now, let's think about this with some new books by Matthew Avery Sutton, Ken and Elizabeth Fones-Wolf, and Tim Gloege. I lay out each of their approaches to this question and then comment on why this debate is so very important.

Matthew Sutton, American Apocalypse: A History of Modern Evangelicalism

First, there is Matthew Avery Sutton, who, both in his 2012 Journal of American History article, "Was FDR the Antichrist?" (98:4) and in his recent book American Apocalypse, argues that premillenialists sometimes had critiques of capitalism and big business, but the expectation of imminent armageddeon led them to place little emphasis on reforming it. Instead, premillennialists invested their energy in what they understood as more imminent matters of evangelism and end-times prophecy. In his chapter on the early twentieth century, he draws from Fundamentalist commentators who connected labor organizing in the 1910s with communism and the coming Anti-Christ. He argues,
[Some Fundamentalists were critical of big business.] Few premillennialists, however, marched with workers. They interpreted growing economic inequality as an inevitable sign of the last days, but they did not see it as something they should work against. (182)
He connects Fundamentalists' rejection of labor struggles with their rejection of the League of Nations, and concludes that this was a major reason for premillenialist Fundamentalists to vote with the Grand Old Party. He writes,
Over the course of the 1920s, premillenialism helped frame the way many fundamentalists understood politics. (205)
Later on, he clarifies that their political conservatism did not necessarily mean they were Republicans:
Since the 1920s, fundamentalists and then evangelicals had made their conservative, anti-statist, free market political sympathies clear. However, they had been cautious about affiliating with either political party but rather championed particular policies and particular candidates. (353)
But, he does consider Fundamentalists during this era to gravitate very strongly toward the Republican Party because of this expectation of imminent armageddeon.

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

Second is the Fones-Wolf team, which concludes that apocalyptic premillennialism did not necessarily drive political affliliation. It sometimes correlated with conservative politics because of the the numbers of business leaders and and evangelical leadership who worked together within the National Association of Evangelicals. But, that alliance between working class evangelicals and conservative politics was not a sign of something inherent to premillenialist theology.

As they put it,

Darren Dochuk, Bethany Moreton, Darren Grem, Kevin Kruse, and the late Sarah Hammond have unearthed the evangelical underpinnings of the free-enterprise ideology that spawned not only Billy Graham and Jerry Fallwell but also Reaganism and the Walmartization of the economy. However, while these busienss-backed evangelicals seized the pulpits of key Protestant churches, their work leaves out the working people who ostensibly internalized Christian free enterprise and became the foot soldiers of the transformation of America's political economy. We need to know a great deal more about what in their understanding of evangelical Protestantism either bolstered or rejected a conservative, antistatist political economy adn union membership. (3)
Their book explores the Congress of Industrial Organizations' awareness of a need to dialogue with Southerners' Christianity, including the popular apocalypticism of the era. However, the Fones-Wolfs ultimately determine that this dispensationalist apocalyptic preaching (which Sutton describes) did not automatically determine working class Southerners' political affliations.

In contrast to Sutton's conclusions, the Fones-Wolfs find evidence of many working class evangelical Southerners who attended Fundamentalist-leaning churches but were still supporters of FDR, especially during the New Deal. They see the postwar era as a moment of serious contest over the future of working class Southern evangelicals' politics. After all, there was also a palpable left in the American South. As the Fones-Wolfs explain it,

The emphasis on local autonomy and independence, Biblical authority and inerrancy, premillennialism and holiness--these elements of working-class Christianity could be a powerful barrier against the CIO's message of class unity and a modernist, New Deal-style liberalism. But social and religious upheaval also created spaces where dissident voices clamored for change. Competing against conservative evangelicalism were the prophetic gospel teachings of radicals like Claude Williams and liberal clergy in the Fellowship of Southern Churchmen who had their own working class followers. These voices had laid the groundwork for considerable optimism among veteran labor movement activists that the South was ready for change, secular and spiritual. (4)
In their incredible book, the Fones-Wolfs interpret working class theologies as fluid and changeable. They show workers who had been members of mainline Southern denominations (broadly within the postmillenialist, Social Gospel tradition) switch to join evangelical and premillenialist churches for reasons relating to culture, Southern identity, and politics, all at once. In their framing, a change in theological convictions did not necessarily drive conservative politics. Rather, some evangelical leaders' collusion with big business leaders within the National Association of Evangelicals inspired their theological convictions. Some working class Christians followed these new ideas of Southern pastors, and others did not. The Fones-Wolfs found that the cultural incliation for Southern working class Christians to prioritize Southern identity did not necessarily mean that working class folks would heed the political or theological convictions of the business class, but it did lead them away from mainline churches after World War II. This transition toward the theologies of apocalypticism was not a theological decision or even a political decision, but primarily a cultural rejection of "Northern" religion within the National Council of Churches. Some Southerners joined cross-class evangelical churches and others were more comfortable within predominantly working class Holiness-Pentecostal churches. Yet, throughout the postwar chaos of the American South, many working class Southerners (particularly whites) retained memories of how the New Deal helped them through the Depression. While many rejected the National Council of Churches, they did not reject all support for organized labor.

They reach the conclusion that the political alliance between working class evangelicals and the Right was largely the result of the failure of the New Deal democratic coalition (particularly the CIO's "Operation Dixie") to mobilize the Southern "prophetic" traditions in order to gain working class adherence. In failing to recruit Southern evangelical (including premillenialist) organizers within their Southern organizing campaign, Northern labor leaders effectively lost the opportunity to be heard by Southern evangelicals. Southern evangelicals, they find, identified more strongly with their Southern religion than they did with their political party.

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

Finally, Tim Gloege concludes that the essential, political element within Fundamentalism was not quite apocalypticism but the Fundamentalist focus away from congregational life (13). Within mainline Protestant denominations of the nineteenth century, congregants understood their pastoral leaders as interpretive authorities on matters of theological and Biblical truth. Yet, between 1880 and 1910, the Fundamentalist movement recentered religious authority within the Fundamentals and particular, national leaders' interpretation of Biblical teaching. Not only were Fundamentalist leaders like D.L. Moody favorable to the growth of profitable businesses. But, their experience in running businesses and working with businessmen inspired them to defend the regime of big business and use the contemporary advertising strategies of big business to promote their ministries. That is, Fundamentalists created their "brand" of evangelicalism by using direct marketing and advertising about "purity" and "authenticity" in order to construct denominational leaders as "middle men." Fundamentalism ultimately succeeded because it functioned like a big business, using the very latest (vertical and horizontal integration) business principles of the day.

To Gloege, as to the Fones-Wolfs, premillennialism was not a driving force behind evangelical conservatism. Premillennialism was not even a driving force behind evangelical participation in Fundamentalist churches. The Fones-Wolfs see working class Southerners' gravitation toward Fundamentalist churches as an expression of their Southernness, while Gloege sees this national and cross-class movement as the product of effective, national marketing techniques.

But, however we determine Fundamentalist churches took off, both Gloege and the Fones-Wolfs agree that widespread belief in the theology of premillenialism was not the cause but the effect of Fundamentalist leaders' power within evangelical communities. Widespread belief in pro-business and anti-labor politics, too, was not the cause but the effect of Fundamentalist leadership. Within Fundamentalist advertising campaigns, religious and political commentary were interwoven: socialist labor organizing was condemned as antithetical to Christ. Yet, for both Gloege and the Fones-Wolfs, this was a political posture trickling down from the Fundamentalist-business-syndicate and not a political posture inherent to the theology itself.

Why is this debate important? Where will it get us?

For me, this debate matters quite a bit. It is a small example of a major question that many of us deal with right now in religious history: How should religious historians analyze the personal papers of Protestant leaders and the massive print culture of evangelicalism? When we read in a premillennial prophecy magazine that organized labor is identified with the Anti-Christ, what does that tell us and what does it not tell us? What does that magazine article conceal about the wealthy gatekeepers which produced and preserved it? What does that article tell us about the readers who may or may not agree with it? If we find evidence that a Fundamentalist minister is colluding closely with a set of business leaders, what does that relationship tell us? Can that relationship tell us anything about the congregants in small, working class churches? What sources must we use to get at the history of church members?

As the field of religious history comes closer to the field of social history and takes more seriously the fact that churchgoers have not always believed the same things as their ministers, we need to talk about how we shift our historical methodologies. That is, we need to borrow more from social history. We need to talk about how religious publications and statements by ministers do not tell the whole story because they cannot tell the whole story. Shifts in theology, as represented by ministers, have never told the whole story. As Gloege's and the Fones-Wolfs' books make clear, we need to analyze the conditions which produced those ministers. We need to analyze why congregants listened, or half-heartedly listened, to their religious leaders. We need to think about when religious leaders have led political leaders, and when political leaders have led religious leaders. I don't have any real answers here. But, sometimes, historiographical debates are really worth dwelling upon.

[For a little more on this debate, see the long discussion of Matthew Sutton's new book over at Syndicate Theology.]


Tom Van Dyke said…
In contrast to Sutton's conclusions, the Fones-Wolfs find evidence of many working class evangelical Southerners who attended Fundamentalist-leaning churches but were still supporters of FDR, especially during the New Deal.

Excellent argument.

And these things don't happen in a vacuum: What's often missing in these discussions is how the party that nominated William Jennings Bryan three times eventually became the party of "acid, amnesty and abortion." There would be no place for Bryan in the party today, although he might have some electoral viability with the other guys [think Michele Bachmann].
Unknown said…
As a 73 year old southerner who grew up in a small mill town with many relatives scattered across NC and who attended southern churches of several denominations for decades, I can offer some personal observations not completely covered in this article. To assume the opinions of members of congregations are accurately reflected by opinions of ministers is a big mistake. People attend church for many reasons and multiple reasons; social pressure, family pressure, business connections etc. I found in the 50’s, 60’s, 70’s 80' and 90’s a huge divide in positions taken by ministers vs values of congregation members.
Unknown said…
Even in fundamentalist or evangelical churches opinions differed. However, the general trend was conservative and became steadily more so across the time span I cite. In the 50’s and 60’s the majority of southerners were factory workers and were overwhelmingly supportive of the “New Deal” policies of FDR. They were generally supportive of sympathetic social policies also. Abortion was illegal then and I believe the majority of southerners supported legal abortion because the prevailing media story was the horrible risk and health price paid by over a million young women who sought abortions would be helped greatly by making abortions legal. There was a general acceptance of the idea that young women in trouble would seek abortions regardless of its legality or it’s risks. Likewise, since many people worked in factories in a very authoritarian environment, their support, or at least understanding of the benefits of organized labor was a popular concept. Most who opposed unionization did so from fear of job loss because of heavy factory management messages. These ideas were not vigorously opposed in the churches they attended.

Unknown said…

The steady, relentless shift to the right in the southern churches really began in the 60’s. The opposition to integration of blacks into the South’s economy and society was very strongly opposed in most churches. This was preached in most pulpits and accepted by most congregations. Also the “hippie” cultural revolution of the 60’s and 70’s had a profound impact on southern fundamentalist and evangelical churches. These movements were railed against vigorously within southern churches and by ministers of national reputation including Graham, Falwell and others. Since the ideas of civil rights and social freedom and equality were cornerstones of those movements the inclination of churches to oppose anything those movements espoused including women’s rights, civil rights, acceptance of other races, cultures and values and any “liberal” ideas, the churches, both ministers and congregations, were pushed relentlessly to opposition. Ministers found convenient biblical quotes to justify their position while ignoring other biblical messages. During the 70’s and 80’s the US economy and the southern economy was going through profound change. American factory jobs were disappearing. The textile and apparel industries had over 4 million employees in the 70’s. Today, less than 200,000. Likewise many other industries had similar declines in employment. The economies of southern states has made profound shifts to accommodate these changes resulting in many more diverse jobs, much smaller companies and a higher percentage of self-employment. The impact of this economic shift has had a profound effect on churches by driving them to ever more right wing and conservative philosophies. Many southern workers, instead of seeing themselves as pawns for big monolithic companies, began seeing themselves as self-sufficient job holders able to be flexible and make their own career decisions. Careers made dramatic shifts from working for one company your whole life to changing jobs as necessary. This has allowed individuals to identify with businesses and as businessmen with more in common with huge corporations than those people of society they identify as "lazy" and "drains" on the public coffers.

Since fundamentalism and evangelism tend to promote the ideas of elitism and self-righteousness, members of those religious movements today see themselves as the “hardworking, clean living and good” members of society deserving of its rewards.
It’s just a small step from that self-image to “prosperity gospel” “right wing opposition to all social progress" and a “let the world go to hell, I’m waiting on the rapture” attitude.
Evan said…
I haven't read these works yet, but it would seem to me that some of the answer lay in figuring out a way of measuring how strong premillennialism was as an article of faith and subject of preaching in various denominations and even local churches.
Unknown said…
Great post! Alison Greene's new book, _No Depression in Heaven_ , is a crucial new contribution to this conversation, especially when it comes to figuring out what the heck really happened in Southern churches in the 1930s:

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