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Hefley: The Secret File on John Birch

If you grew up white, male, fundamentalist and Baptist in say the Seventies you probably read at least one book by James C. Hefley. While Hefley is best known for his six-volume series on the conservative resurgence/fundamentalist takeover of the Southern Baptist Convention, he wrote at least seventy books [link], many of them quick inspirational (or even aspirational) biographies of famous Christians.

A typical James Hefley vignette would involve a stirring opening paragraph in which an athlete or a politician achieves something or accomplishes something, followed by a paragraph indicating that they are also a strong Christian and that their faith or spiritual practice and their success in the secular world are connected somehow. This vignette would be unambiguous and would also be written on about a seventh-grade reading level. Hefley’s style is lean; he makes his points overtly; his action moves at a hustling-to-breakneck pace.

This makes Hefley’s biography of John Birch, co-written with his wife Marti, doubly interesting, as it portrays Birch as a fundamentalist Baptist of the best kind, an alpha male, a nonconformist in a world gone mad, a war hero, and a martyr in the fight against Communism, almost as if these things necessarily went together, and every true Christian would be patriotic, anti-Communist, etc. Hefley’s telling of the story is so pure and so perfect that today it comes off like propaganda.

Birch’s story is compelling: he was the son of missionaries that had returned to the States from India for health reasons. He was unusually intelligent and driven, even for his family, and felt a call to a foreign mission field while still young. He was a protege of J. Frank Norris [link], was involved in a Modernist controversy at Mercer University in Atlanta, received language training in Japanese-controlled Shanghai, served inland in China as a missionary. He joined the Flying Tigers when his support stopped and served under Claire Chennault [link] when the latter joined the Army Air Corps before being seconded to the Office of Strategic Services (OSS), predecessor of the modern CIA. Shortly after the Japanese surrender he was killed in northern China by Chinese Communists while traveling with a mixed party of Koreans and Chinese nationalists. He was considered by Robert Welch Jr, founder of the John Birch Society, to be the first casualty of the Cold War [link].

And that, by and large, is the outline of Hefley’s book. There are some narrative sections with fictional dialogue added to flesh out the story, a girlfriend, etc. but that’s the bulk of the story. It’s a brisk read, and I have to admit I got sucked in, waiting to see what would happen next, and wondering how the whole tale would get to the scene where Birch is killed.

Looking at it from a 2010 perspective, though (it was originally published in 1980), there are elements of the story that trouble me. One is the blending of Birch’s identity as an American and his identity as a Christian; he freely exploits contacts he has made as a missionary for the benefit of the American war effort, putting Chinese nationals in harm’s way. Another is the way Hefley suggests that the Army was full of Communist sympathizers dead-set on undermining Chennault and putting the Communists in power. A third is the way Hefley lets Birch off the hook for leaving the mission field and joining a group of military volunteers, blurring the distinctions between patriotism, religious duty, and opportunism. Finally, he draws a pretty straight line between John Birch himself and the society named after him, suggesting an endorsement of the JDS that today sounds a bit arch. Oh and: the neat dichotomy Hefley draws between white Christians evangelizing yellow pagans hasn’t aged well.

This book is available cheap used and presents a point of view that is very much of its time, and I’d recommend reading it because it’s a gripping read, but it should be read critically and understood in its historical context rather than taken at face value. I would also recommend considering what it means that a book like this was written by someone who wrote lots of books appropriate for teenage boys.

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