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“Puff Graham”

I wish I could say I’m a devoted reader of The Economist, but I’m really one of those people who subscribes to its Facebook feed and scans the summaries there for uses of my name, name-checks of things I think  I understand, and fodder for ready comment quips.

Needless to say I was thrilled to the teeth to see something from that middle category recently in the form of an article titled “How the cold war reshaped Protestantism in America” [link], because I am always curious what happened to fundamentalism in America between the Scopes Trial (1925) and the Bob Jones IRS case (1970) and the way its descendant evangelicalism became the sort of backward-looking Eisenhower Christianity it was in 1980 and more or less is today.

Unfortunately the unnamed author (I have no idea who W. W. in Iowa City is) is just pushing the PBS/Frontline series God in America [link] and offering the talking points that ignore fundamentalism/evangelicalism in the period 1925-1970:

  • That the Federal Council of Churches/National Council of Churches is the true voice of Christianity in America and its dominance over religious contributions to the political discussion represents a lost ideal of some sort
  • That Billy Graham was a tool of postwar fascism in America, particularly of William Randolph Hearst

The first point only makes sense if one fails to ask where the fundamentalists were after their liberal brethren emerged from the Fundamentalist-Modernist Controversy as the only acceptable voice of American Protestantism. This is a mistake many commentators make, some consciously (see e.g. Chris Hedges declarations of his liberal Christian bona fides in American Fascists) others (here) not. I think I would have to argue that there’s no good reason to say “liberals are normative and conservatives are deviant” rather than e.g. the other way around. Especially given some of the real corkers included here; is the casual reader supposed to believe that a desire for a worldwide currency (rather than say returning the dollar to the gold standard, as was popular among conservatives until the mid-Eighties) is a core progressive issue?

The second is a bit of a simplification, even if it is a helpful one.

Here are the pull quotes:

But I hadn’t known that Billy Graham goaded President Eisenhower into getting baptised while in office, that Eisenhower led the charge to insert “under God” into the “Pledge of Allegiance”, or that “In God We Trust” didn’t become the official United States motto until Eisenhower signed a 1956 congressional resolution. Nor did I know that Billy Graham had been launched onto the national stage because of his resolute anti-communism. Impressed by the charismatic young evangelist’s fiery anti-communist message, press baron William Randolph Hearst commanded the overseers of his influential national network of propaganda broadsheets to “Puff Graham”.

Well, yes and no. Eisenhower’s relationship with public Christianity and the forging of Cold War-Era American civil religion is well worth examining, as is Graham’s role in it. But it is probably simplistic to say that Graham became a national figure because of Hearst’s papers and their shared hatred of Communism.

And later:

Before yesterday it had never occurred to me that America’s distinctive brand of evangelical conservatism—its peculiar marriage of mythic American nationalism with a personal, emotionally intense relationship with Jesus Christ—is not an entirely bottom-up phenomenon, but is to some extent the creation of Eisenhower-era government propaganda and the PR heft of William Randolph Hearst.

The archival Billy Graham Crusade television shows I’ve seen from the Fifties through the Seventies, when Graham’s influence was at its height, tend to be fairly straightforward assertions of the authority of Graham’s interpretation of Scripture, sprinkled with contemporary culture references, followed by a decision-centered Gospel message and an invitation. There just isn’t that much anti-Communism in his message.

I would, of course, welcome counter-examples. I’m always on the lookout for a smoking gun here.

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