the end of christian civilization -- 6/23/17

Today's selection -- from The Evangelicals by Frances FitzGerald. To some American church leaders, the 1917 Bolshevik revolution during World War I and the subsequent labor strikes in America led them to fear a communist assault on Christianity and the possible end of religious civilization. It was in this maelstrom that religious fundamentalism first became a major factor in American society:

"[After 53,000 American combat deaths during World War I,] and the national mobilization for war had so dislocated the American econ­omy that in the immediate postwar period there was widespread unem­ployment and bitter industrial strife. In 1919 and 1920 a wave of strikes and lockouts, involving over four million workers, shut down almost every industry from steel to textiles to the railroads. Employers charged that anarchy was taking over and launched a national union-busting campaign. Most of the major strikes were called by the conservative American Federation of Labor, but radicals were involved in some of them, and fired up by wartime propaganda, the press and much of the public attributed all of them to anarchists and Bolsheviks.

"After May Day riots in several large cities and a spate of anarchist bombings, many Americans believed that an organized attack against the government and capitalism was under way. The wartime fears about Bolshevism erupted into a 'Red Scare' and a hunt for left-wingers and foreigners with radical ideas. A number of states passed anti-sedition laws, and in December 1919 the U.S. attorney general, A. Mitchell Palmer, launched a series of lawless raids arresting several thousand resident aliens and jailing or deporting many of them. Such was the hysteria that when a distinguished Methodist bishop led a Commission of Inquiry into a steel strike, he was harassed and called a Bolshevik even by members of his own church. In November 1920 an almost unknown Republican senator, Warren G. Harding of Ohio, was elected president with 61 percent of the vote -- the largest landslide in American history to that date.

"The Red Scare ended, but a nativist reaction took its place. In 1921 the Congress passed a law limiting the number of aliens admitted annually to 3 percent of the foreign-born in the United States, based on the 1910 census; three years later a still more stringent law virtually ended immigration from anywhere except Northern Europe. Meanwhile, the Ku Klux Klan, revived by an erstwhile Protestant preacher, broadened its targets from African Americans to Catholics and Jews. Recruiting in the small towns of the North and the South, the Klan at its peak in 1923 had three million members and political power in half a dozen states. What was left of the reforming instincts of American Protestantism went into the passage of two constitutional amendments, the Eighteenth banning the sale of alcoholic beverages, and the Nineteenth giving women the right to vote. Prohibition was seen as a reform by most Protestant denomina­tions, but it was also a part of the reaction against Catholics, immigrants, and labor unions. [The high-profile preacher] Billy Sunday, who always knew what his conservative (and increasingly small-town) audiences wanted to hear, cheered on the Palmer raids, boosted the anti-immigration laws, and worked for Prohi­bition, all with equal enthusiasm, and all in the name of restoring 'pure Americanism.'

"In this period, Bible school and denominational fundamentalists aban­doned the defensive and essentially conservative position represented in [the series of conservative doctrinal books called] The Fundamentals for the militant antimodernism that characterized the fundamentalist movement from then on. Beginning in 1918, they went from more or less peaceful coexistence with the liberals in their denomi­nations to organized efforts to drive modernism out of the churches and schools. The war had turned them into activists, and the political alarms of its aftermath persuaded them that a crisis was at hand. In 1919 A. C. Gaebelein, who had seen the Bolshevik Revolution as the rise of the Beast [or the Anti-Christ as described in the Bible's Book of Revelations] in Russia, concluded that the Beast was lifting its head in America and that the world was going through a period that might end 'by giving birth to a World Communist Internationale, in which our civilization and religion will be totally destroyed!!!' According to [religious historian George] Marsden, this perception of a nation in crisis gave such conservatives a new sense of urgency about the liberal apostasy in the churches and the decline of Christianity in the culture at large. Marsden is surely right, but it also seems the case that in the period of reaction that followed the war many fundamentalists believed that they could win.

"The fundamentalist offensive included three separate endeavors. One was to build a nationwide interdenominational fundamentalist movement: another was to take control of major northern denominations; and the third was a campaign to drive Darwinian evolution out of the public schools. These projects came from different quarters and were never co­ordinated, but the offensive on all three fronts took place more or less si­multaneously, and at the beginning it took most liberals by surprise. Even in 1919 few liberals understood the extent of the fundamentalists' anger or appreciated that the stakes for them were nothing less than survival of Christian civilization in America."



Frances FitzGerald


The Evangelicals: The Struggle to Shape America


Simon & Schuster


Copyright 2017 by Frances FitzGerald


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