Tuesday, July 11, 2006

God, Calvin, and Social Welfare - Part Seven: Born Again Political Activism

After World War Two, many American evangelicals and fundamentalists thought that it was the external threat of Soviet military power and the internal threat of communist subversion that was likely to send Americans hurtling into Hell. Global nuclear annihilation, in this context, might be preferable to a Godless secular collectivist society. The strategy of Mutually Assured Destruction earned its ironic acronym.

Meanwhile, social welfare was being framed as a communist plot.

Evangelist Billy Graham began a series of revivalist crusades during this period, originally through rallies scheduled by Youth for Christ. Graham struck off on his own and in 1949 a hugely successful Los Angeles crusade boosted him into public prominence, in part because anticommunist tycoon William Randolph Hearst instructed the newspapers he owned to "puff Graham."

Graham started a national radio program in late 1950, The Hour of Decision, which in turn led to sporadic and rather dull television specials beginning in 1951. Graham in person and on the radio was a more charismatic and persuasive figure. In 1957 Graham went to Madison Square Garden in New York City to lead a crusade; and J. Howard Pew, who funded a variety of anticommunist groups, offered a financial guarantee to bring the crusade to network television.

Both Hearst and Pew viewed the New Deal social welfare programs as a form of collectivism that would lead to socialism and communism, and further saw that a particular brand of Christian evangelicalism rooted in libertarian Calvinist themes could provide a bulwark against further slippage down the slope from social welfare to communist totalitarianism, in their view.

Hearst and Pew had backed a winner with their support of Graham. According to William Martin:

"The first broadcast, on 1 June, [drew] approximately 6.4 million viewers, more than enough to convince the evangelist of television's great promise as a vehicle for the gospel. A Gallup poll taken that summer revealed that 85% of Americans could correctly identify Billy Graham, and three-quarters of that number regarded him positively" (Martin, n.d.).

Graham's homey view of the ideal individual in the idealized America fit neatly into plans by ultraconservatives to roll back the collectivist social welfare policies of the New Deal. Writers such as Ludwig von Mises wrote about the natural affinity between Christianity and Capitalism. There were also extensive mass media efforts to "teach" Americans of the benefits of a particular form of "Free Market" capitalism over communism, with material from the National Association of Manufacturers, and the Foundation for Economic Education with its magazine Freeman. Part of this plan included strengthening America against the external and internal threats of communism by increasing public participation in civic life.

Liberty Bell front

In 1956 the presidential election featured a "Get out the Vote" campaign built around the theme of "Let Freedom Ring." Thousands of Boy Scouts hooked cardboard Liberty Bells onto doorknobs in an effort to attract new voters to the polls.

Some evangelicals were convinced to re-enter the political arena; which many had avoided since the embarrassment of the Scopes trial in 1925. Still, the evangelical voting patterns that emerged were not politicized. An evangelical's preference for Republicans or Democrats was primarily determined by demographic factors other than theological belief or religious affiliation. This would change.

A series of Supreme Court decisions in the 1950s and early 1960s worried many conservative Christians, and some began to get involved in public policy debates and organizing over issues such as obscenity and pornography, and then other social issues. Groups such as Fred Schwarz's Christian Anti-Communism Crusade, the Church League of America, and the Freedoms Foundation joined other ultraconservative organizations in education and training against communist subversion by liberals in mainline Protestant denominations and even the Catholic Church. In 1959 the John Birch Society (JBS) was born. These and other institutions would form the foundation of what later emerged as the New Christian Right in the late 1970s (Diamond 1989, 1995, Hardisty; Berlet & Lyons; Goldberg)

Eckard V. Toy, Jr. explains that:

"The genesis of the JBS can be traced to a number of sources, but a meeting in New York City in early 1958 was a primary cause. Welch and several men who would later join him in the Birch Society attended a meeting held by conservative polemicist Merwin K. Hart at the University Club on February 14, 1958, to discuss ways to reverse what Hart described as the national trend toward collectivism" (Toy).

From the beginning, Roosevelt, the New Deal, and the social safety net were targets of intense criticism from the JBS and similar groups, and much of what was dismissed in the 1960s as dubious Birch Society ideological fantasy is now part of the Republican Party platform or enacted into law.


Berlet, Chip and Matthew N. Lyons. 2000. Right-Wing Populism in America: Too Close for Comfort. New York: Guilford Press.

Burch, Philip H., Jr. 1973. "The NAM as an Interest Group." Politics and Society, vol. 4, no. 1.

Diamond, Sara. 1989. Spiritual Warfare: The Politics of the Christian Right. Boston: South End Press.

Diamond, Sara. 1995. Roads to Dominion: Right-Wing Movements and Political Power in the United States. New York: Guilford Press.

Goldberg, Michelle. 2006. Kingdom Coming: The Rise of Christian Nationalism. New York: W.W. Norton

Hardisty, Jean V. 1999. Mobilizing Resentment: Conservative Resurgence from the John Birch Society to the Promise Keepers. Boston: Beacon Press.

Himmelstein, Jerome L. 1990. To the Right: The Transformation of American Conservatism. Berkeley: University of California Press.

Lyons, Matthew N. 1998. "Business Conflict and Right-Wing Movements." In Amy E. Ansell, ed. Unraveling the Right: The New Conservatism in American Thought and Politics (pp. 80-102). Boulder, CO: Westview.

Martin, William C. 1996. With God on Our Side: The Rise of the Religious Right in America. New York: Broadway Books.

Saloma, John S. III, 1984. Ominous Politics: The New Conservative Labyrinth. Hill and Wang.

Toy, Eckard V. Jr. 2004. "The Right Side of the 1960s: The Origins of the John Birch Society in the Pacific Northwest." Oregon Historical Quarterly, Vol. 105, No. 2 (Summer); http://www.historycooperative.org/journals/ohq/105.2/toy.html.

• For Billy Graham, see:

Martin, William C. "Billy Graham Crusades: U.S. Religious Program." The Museum of Broadcast Communications, http://www.museum.tv/archives/etv/B/htmlB/billygraham/billygraham.htm.

Martin, William C. 1991. A Prophet With Honor: The Billy Graham Story. New York: William Morrow.




• Pew continued to worry about liberalism in the church: http://www.wheaton.edu/bgc/archives/GUIDES/192.htm#2

• On von Mises networking economic libertarians and 1940s-1960s Christian evangelical right-wing groups, see:


See specifically:

Ludwig von Mises, 1950, “The Alleged Injustice of Capitalism,” Faith and Freedom. 1:7(June), pp. 5-8. Included as Part 3, Chapter 4, in The Anti-Capitalistic Mentality. Reprinted in 1952, Reflections on Faith and Freedom, Los Angeles: Spiritual Mobilization, pp. 39-45.

Ludwig von Mises, 1960, “The Economic Foundations of Freedom,” Christian Economics, 12:2(January 26, 1960)1-2; online here.

Ludwig von Mises, 1960, “The Economic Foundations of Freedom,” The Freeman, (Irvington, N.Y.) 10:4(April), pp. 44-52; von Mises, “The Economic Foundations of Freedom,” in Essays On Liberty, VII.

• There is a longstanding relationship between the Freedoms Foundation and the anti-union National Right to Work Committee and its Foundation. See: here and here

• For a list of various "public service" campaigns in this period, see


God, Calvin, and Social Welfare: A Series

Part One: Coalitions

Part Two: Calvinist Settlers

Part Three: Roots of the Social Welfare Debate

Part Four: Apocalypse and Social Welfare

Part Five: Fundamentals, Prophecies, and Conspiracies

Part Six: Godlessness & Secular Humanism

Part Seven: Born Again Political Activism

Ported from Talk to Action
Post comments on this article at www.Talk2Action.org.

Based on the Public Eye article "Calvinism, Capitalism, Conversion, and Incarceration"

Chip Berlet, Senior Analyst, Political Research Associates

The Public Eye: Website of Political Research Associates