One of the things I think gets overlooked when describing American fundamentalist Christianity between 1925 and 1976 is the rise of a kind of conservative nationalist Christianity that tends toward civil religion; the best term I’ve heard for this is “Eisenhower Christianity,” because it places it in the right period of time and puts a pretty accurate face on it.
This was the period of time when “In God We Trust” became a second national motto and got stamped on currency, when “under God” was added to the Pledge of Allegiance, when the Cold War became a war against godless Communism, and when American prosperity became the birthright of the righteous.
I don’t know if this was a time when the pre-existing American civil religion began to take on more explicitly Protestant elements, when rising standards of living brought more devout fundamentalist-leaning Protestants into the national discourse on national identity, or what exactly. I suppose it’s possible that increased mobility and homogeneity in mass media in the postwar era made it possible for fundamentalism to leave its various enclaves and participate in the national conversation, too.
Regardless, I have yet to find a good description of Eisenhower Christianity in the press or even in books about American fundamentalism and evangelicalism, but it always seems to be lurking in the background by the time Jimmy Carter arrives on the national scene; after all, it’s really the Eisenhower era the conservatives want to get back to, despite their lip service to the Founding Fathers.
One of the great mysteries of the history of modern fundamentalist Christianity is the gap between roughly 1925 (the Scopes Monkey Trial) and 1976 (the election of Jimmy Carter). Most histories of the Religious Right mention these two events and say nothing about the fifty years in between; some mention the rise of Billy Graham and the 1957 New York Crusade, but that’s about it.
It was during this time that my family became Baptists of a particularly fundamentalist stripe.
All of this takes place against the backdrop of the Fundamentalist-Modernist Controversy, but that also came to a head about 1925. As near as I can tell, many churches in our area in rural central Virginia ended up with little to nothing to say, and gradually became places people went to out of habit, but where virtually nothing was said from the pulpit. Or so I understand from our perspective. It’s not like there are any tapes of sermons from these churches from the period. But after the Great Depression and World War II came and went, a cluster of fundamentalists developed around an unschooled former circuit-riding preacher named Elbert Yeatts in the Bedford/Franklin/Botetourt County areas of central Virginia. I don’t have all the names of these preachers, but some of them became active in existing Southern Baptist (SBC) churches in the area and either took the churches in a fundamentalist direction or split off and formed independent Baptist churches.
Around this time as well there were preachers coming into the area who were graduates of Bob Jones University, which had recently moved to South Carolina. It’s a common misconception that BJU is Southern because the school itself is in the South; the school was not historically Southern per se, and the preachers who came into the area from BJU were a mix of men from the South and Midwest.
But that’s more or less how we became Baptists (and by implication fundamentalists), at least from our perspective: churches that had become glorified social clubs were either taken over or split by men who stood in the pulpit and read and interpreted the Bible.
When I pick this up again I’ll try to explain how we turned the corner again and got involved in politics. Hint: it wasn’t as simple as Roe v. Wade.