March 12, 2018 Editor

Billy Graham & The Cold War Before the Culture War – White evangelical voters, Donald Trump, and the evolution of the religious right

The Cold War before the culture war

March 6, 2018

by Fred Clark

WN: What emerges with great clarity in the two articles highlighted below is the extent to which the “Red Scare” and the Cold War in the early years of Graham’s preaching dominated his message — at least implicitly. The further insight is that the Christian Right today with its hot-button issues is fully heir of Graham’s Crusades of bygone decades, when Communist Russia was the Great Boogeyman, not the liberal embrace of abortion and free sexual expression.

For a different take on the burning issue for today’s Christian Right, there is this from “Amazing Disgrace“:

For more than a generation, the Christian right has sought to portray itself as a movement motivated principally by opposition to abortion and the defense of sexual purity against the forces of secularism. According to its own creation myth, evangelicals rose up and began to organize in opposition to Roe v. Wade, motivated by their duty to protect “the unborn.” …

In fact, it wasn’t abortion that sparked the creation of the religious right. The movement was actually galvanized in the 1970s and early ’80s, when the IRS revoked the tax-exempt status of Bob Jones University and other conservative Christian schools that refused to admit nonwhites. It was the government’s actions against segregated schools, not the legalization of abortion, that “enraged the Christian community,” Moral Majority co-founder Paul Weyrich has acknowledged.

What is clear is that the American Christian Right is far less “pro-Life” (how could it be given its overwhelming support of American Empire wars?) than it is pro-Empire and fundamentally racist. Nor was abortion always considered wrong by the Christian Right prior to Roe v. Wade. Profound political motivations (vying for hegemonic cultural power) explain religious anti-abortion far more than compassionate concern for the fetus.  And the Christian Right is direct heir of Billy Graham’s profound antecedental influence. (For a nuanced understanding of Billy Graham’s attitudes/actions in response to racism, see Billy Graham’s Record on Race Was Both Ahead and Of His Time”.)

Further from Amazing Disgrace:

“The overwhelming support for Trump heralds the religious right coming full circle to embrace its roots in racism,” says Randall Balmer, a historian of American religion at Dartmouth College. “The breakthrough of the 2016 election lies in the fact that the religious right, in its support for a thrice-married, self-confessed sexual predator, finally dispensed with the fiction that it was concerned about abortion or ‘family values.’ ”


One of my favorite pieces on the legacy of Billy Graham also has one of the best titles — “Billy Graham and the Hell Bombs.” You now have the name for your next rockabilly and/or Mojo Nixon tribute band. You’re welcome.

This is from Philip Jenkins over at the Anxious Bench. Graham’s death has Jenkins revisiting some old research of his into 1950s-era anti-Communist politics in Pennsylvania. “As part of that,” he writes, “I explored Graham’s historic 1952 crusade in Pittsburgh, which was then a primary battlefield of anti-Red campaigning.”

What follows is a terrific little history lesson — one that focuses in on some granular specifics that I think help us to understand broader themes. Despite the Pittsburgh setting, this story hits closer to home for me here on the other side of the commonwealth — with unflattering cameos from my former home town (Ardmore) and my alma mater (EBTS).

[Graham’s] Pittsburgh crusade of 1952 coincided with the public panic over so-called “hell-bombs” – hydrogen bombs – and of nuclear warfare more generally. (The first full hydrogen bomb test would occur in November 1952, but the concept had been widely discussed for some years, and there had been several partial tests). Graham consistently presented world-events in this eschatological framework. He declared that “All of the trouble with Russia began in the Garden of Eden.” Only a religious revival could prevent what was ultimately a spiritual rather than a political menace: “Unless this country has a revival of both morals and religion, it can’t survive the onslaught of Communism.”

Graham represented the apocalyptic strain in the evangelical approach to Communism, the diabolical inspiration of which was proved by the destruction of Christian missions in China and elsewhere. The imminence of the end times might well be signaled by historic events like the recent return of the Jews to the land of Israel – and of course, the development of larger and larger nuclear weapons. If you did not recognize that these were the end times, you weren’t reading the headlines.

Graham’s anti-Communism also made his evangelistic outreach implicitly political. The Cold War was not a partisan political issue, but Graham’s apocalyptic approach aligned him with the conservative side of the spectrum.

Though overt political references were not part of Graham’s sermons, news coverage of the event was steeped in apocalyptic and anti-Communist rhetoric, and the organizing committee included such firm enemies of the Communist challenge as Governor John Fine and Sam Shoemaker, and a roll-call of the region’s most conservative evangelicals. The astonishing response was influenced by fears of nuclear apocalypse, which resonated so closely with religious concerns and predictions. As Graham remarked at that time, “The advent of the atomic bomb and push-button warfare has silenced those who once scoffed at talk of doom’s day.”

Graham was a “Rapture” Christian. He believed in the fatalistic, otherworldly premillennial dispensationalist system that became popular in the early 20th Century when the more hopeful strain of postmillennial Christianity began to lose a bit of its Glory, glory, hallelujah. He believed that “doom’s day” was prophesied, predestined, and inevitable, yet he wasn’t giddy about the prospect of it the way so many later PMD “Bible prophecy” enthusiasts seemed to be. I’m still trying to suss out how this influenced his politics. (The influence of eschatology on politics is confusing because it isn’t usually coherent. See, for example: Tim LaHaye.)

My main point here, though, is that as Jenkins notes, Graham’s anti-Communism was an essential aspect of his message, his persona, and his popular appeal from the start of his ministry on up through the 1980s. This is why it won’t do to portray Graham as less partisan in his politics than his successors in the religious right. He was a Cold Warrior rather than a culture warrior, but Cold War politics shaped his message and his identity just as much as culture-war politics shapes theirs. That politics provided him with a politically conservative base of financial support and thus bound him in turn as a supporter of political conservatives.

In any case, the culture-war partisanship of contemporary white evangelicalism is not a radical break from the Cold War conservatism of Billy Graham. It’s a direct result of it. To understand how that happened, I’ll want to return again to the 1981 manifesto that Richard John Neuhaus wanted us to forget.

Please click on:The Cold War before the culture war

 [Title and excerpts below are from the article highlighted immediately above.]

White evangelical voters, Donald Trump, and the evolution of the religious right

August 25, 2015

by Fred Clark


The current Republican field of 17 candidates seeking the presidency includes two preacher’s sons, one ordained minister, and several other devoutly religious officials who can speak the Christianese dialect of white evangelicalism with the fluency of a native. Yet the candidate now leading the field, by a wide margin, is Donald Trump — a brash, foul-mouthed, thrice-married billionaire who seems unable to mention any form of non-Mammon religion without saying something painfully awkward (“When I drink my little wine … and have my little cracker, I guess that is a form of asking for forgiveness”).

Trump is blurring many of the lines for the way conventional wisdom is used to thinking of factions in the Republican Party. The GOP has long been understood — mostly accurately — to include a Wall Street wing of mainly secular, anti-regulation big-business/small-government types and a separate wing of religious right “values voters” who think of America as a “Christian nation” and think of Christianity as a faith centered on legal opposition to abortion, feminism and LGBT existence. So it wouldn’t be surprising to see a barely nominally religious businessman like Trump riding a wave of support among Wall Street types over against the religious-right faction whose support is scattered among a half-dozen emphatically religious candidates.

But that’s not what seems to be happening with Trump. He seems to be getting more support from the “values voters” than from the anti-worker, anti-consumer, anti-SEC-EPA-FDA-OSHA Wall Street crowd. He is, at least for now, the preferred candidate of the white evangelical voting bloc.

My sense is that this is — horrifyingly — due to Trump’s policies and his rhetoric. It seems like an ugly accusation, but I think we should take these white evangelical voters at their word and accept what they’re telling us: They really do like Trump’s ideas, his tone, and his language.

But before we get into that, I want to discuss Amy Sullivan’s interesting suggestion that Trump’s popularity among white evangelical voters also reveals something else. It shows us that these voters might actually prefer a candidate who is not one of their own. “Why are white evangelicals supporting Trump?,” Sullivan asks. “It goes back to Jimmy Carter.”

Well, to Jimmy Carter and to George W. Bush. Carter, Sullivan argues, was Strike One. W. was Strike Two.

Bush invaded Iraq for no good reason, creating one of the worst military debacles in the history of this or any other nation. And Bush let go of the reins on Wall Street, creating the reckless, unregulated era of speculation that crashed the global economy in the worst economic calamity since the Great Depression. Those disasters define the Bush presidency, and Bush created those disasters with the full and specific support of white evangelical voters.

Even worse, white evangelical voters still support those same positions. They want the next Republican president to do the same things, twice as hard — repealing Dodd-Frank and going to war with Iran. These voters don’t resent Bush for his wanton invasions or his reckless deregulation of big business. They resent him for making wanton militarism and reckless deregulation look bad.

This is Donald Trump’s sales pitch. He’s not telling these voters that he would pursue a different agenda from the one George W. Bush pursued. He’s telling them that he will somehow do all those same things and, this time, make it all work this time because he’s Donald Trump and he’s a winner and it’s gonna be classy and yooge [huge] and America.

Which brings us to Sullivan’s discussion of white evangelical voters’ disappointment with Jimmy Carter. That disappointment was real, but the reasons Sullivan suggests for it are simply anachronistic  — a projection of the present back onto the past to see things there that did not yet exist.

She suggests that white evangelical voters in 1980 were disappointed in Carter due to his support for abortion rights and civil rights for LGBT people. But neither one of those Big Deals was yet a Big Deal. White evangelicals in 1980 were not yet the genital-issue culture warriors they would be transformed into during the following decade. They were Cold Warriors, not culture warriors.

Carter’s support for abortion rights was not a surprise or a departure. The white evangelical voters who supported him in 1976 knew where he stood and never expected that to change. It just wasn’t a thing yet. Culture-war issues were very much second-tier concerns for those voters, but even at that lower-level of concern those issues were not the ones that would come to preoccupy and define the voting patterns — and the very substance of religion itself — for white evangelicals a decade later. In 1980, school prayer and the Equal Rights Amendment were both a far bigger deal in the culture wars than abortion had yet become.*

But, again, white evangelicals’ disappointment in Carter wasn’t mainly about that. It was about the Russians. They worried that Carter made America look weak against the Soviet Union. The Iran hostage situation played out as a metaphor for that concern. And even Carter’s greatest triumphs — like the Camp David Accords or the Panama Canal treaty — reinforced the sense that this was a president who preferred diplomacy and conciliation to the muscular militarism and expansion of power abroad that these voters preferred (and that Ronald Reagan promised to deliver).

I’ll just offer one example here — “Christianity and Democracy,” the 1981 manifesto/declaration written by then-Lutheran minister Richard John Neuhaus. It’s about the Cold War, not the culture war. It’s an argument that everything should be about the Cold War — an argument and a conclusion widely hailed and endorsed by white evangelical leaders at the time.

Neuhaus’ journal, First Things, reprinted the declaration 15 years later. By that time, the Cold War had ended and the culture war had risen to such central prominence for its constituency that some apologetic introductory explanation had to be offered for that now-strange-seeming emphasis: “At that time the Cold War was the dominant fact in international affairs and largely shaped domestic politics.”

In 1996, as in 2015, it seems strange to read a religious right manifesto that never mentions abortion or feminism or The Gay — a manifesto that insists something else was far more important, something else was of paramount importance. But there was nothing strange at all about such a document in 1981 or in 1980.

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* There was one other culture-war issue that had a far greater impact on the 1980 election — the one Ronald Reagan made the central subtext of his campaign from day one. And on that point, Jimmy Carter really was perceived to have not just disappointed, but betrayed, the white evangelical Christianity of white evangelical voters. But that’s too large a topic to include here, so let’s come back to that later.

Please click on: Evolution of Religious Right

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Wayne Northey was Director of Man-to-Man/Woman-to-Woman – Restorative Christian Ministries (M2/W2) in British Columbia, Canada from 1998 to 2014, when he retired. He has been active in the criminal justice arena and a keen promoter of Restorative Justice since 1974. He has published widely on peacemaking and justice themes. You will find more about that on this website: a work in progress.

Always appreciate constructive feedback! Thanks.