Week 9 Notes

Those of you who have been waiting for us to talk about the Religious Right and how the diaspora whites helped it develop, your wait is about to end. It took a while for the churches established by the white migrants to get traction in their new surroundings. Fundamentalism had been driven underground in the aftermath of the Scopes trial, and never did make a comeback as a rural phenomenon. When it reemerged in the 1940s it was dressed up in a suit and tie instead of overalls, a more inclusive, suburb-centered doctrine than the one Williams Jennings Bryan showed the world in 1925.

The post-war era brought with it a heightening of America’s religious impulses: all religions were affected, but the new evangelicals, with their social conservatism and anti-communist emphasis, were best positioned to gain adherents. They took advantage of that favorable position by forming groups like Youth for Christ, and hit paydirt when Billy Graham held a wildly successful rally in Los Angeles and became the public face of the movement. Graham not only brought in unprecedented numbers of converts, he carried an aura of respectability to evangelism. He was no Frank Norris – while religiously rigorous, his sermons were moderate and inclusive. Graham was still by most standards quite conservative, but it was his image as a kinder, gentler conservative that kept drawing people into the movement.

But there was another side to the evangelicals that Graham downplayed: many of the new churches benefited from white racism. Many of the new church members (and many of the churches themselves) left inner cities to escape blacks. Mainstream protestant denominations often had deeper roots in the community, and stayed behind, but the more disengaged fundamentalists were quicker to pack up. As the suburbs housing these new churches began to fill, the evangelicals faced diversity again, but with nowhere else to go, stayed and became more politically active: this time in opposition to those who seemed to challenge their religious and social views.

Marsden sees this new activism mainly as a reaction to the white evangelicals’ loss of the political dominance they enjoyed in the south. Churches could afford to be politically disengaged in the south, since politics were under the monolithic control of like-minded people. Once these conditions no longer held, as they did not in the fast-growing western and northern suburbs, the church was the likeliest institution to take up the battle.

This reaction was accelerated and amplified in the 1960s when the “southernized” northern and western churches confronted (and were confronted by) the Civil Rights Movement, sexual permissiveness, a new feminism, and anti-war activism. These cultural issues had a nationwide impact, and provided momentum for the merging of regional factions into the beginning of what came to be known as the Religious Right.

The Religious Right was not, in its early days, as closely identified with the Republican Party as it was later to be. But the new evangelists, and especially the fundamentalists (the distinction would be important) saw the encroachment of government as part of a secularizing trend, and this aligned them more closely with the G. O. P. agenda. The nascent Religious Right feared the nation’s abandonment of its religious roots and its traditional values: it was time to “take America back,” and eventually the Republicans became the political vehicle for what was essentially a cultural battle. We’ll read more about this in Week 11.

We’ll spend the second hour watching Episode 2 of the 1995 BBC/Discovery Channel documentary miniseries, The Promised Land, inspired by Nicholas Lemann’s book of the same name. We’ll see the third episode on November 16th. The series (as did the book) deals mostly with those migrants who came to Chicago after having worked as Mississippi sharecroppers, a few of whom appear in the film to tell their own stories. They are unfailingly articulate, moving and (more often than you’d expect) funny. It’s very well done.

The readings this week fit together nicely. Gregory starts us off with a brief biography of the newly awakened evangelical impulse in American religious life. Marsden gives us some historical and philosophical perspective on the movement’s political motives, anticipating our discussion in Week 11. Williams introduces us to a few of the pioneers of the religious right: some names will be familiar, some perhaps not, but each made his own important contribution to the movement’s progress. Williams’s book is essential reading for anyone wanting to understand the development of the Christian Right as a force in the Republican Party.

I had planned to show a video from Billy Graham’s Los Angeles crusade during the Gospel Highway class, but could not fit it in. We’ll see it this week.

I have been neglecting white gospel music in this course. I have my excuses. but rather than burden you with them, I’ll give you The Stanley Brothers’ wonderful Angel Band. This isn’t a live performance, just audio from the old Mercury Records 78 (as featured in the O Brother, Where Art Thou soundtrack), but it’s beautiful nonetheless. Please enjoy.

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One Response to “Week 9 Notes”

  1. Marion D. Aldridge Says:

    I am interested in liberal or progressive white diaspora. My casual research (and my memory–I was born in 1947) is that some white pastors and other liberals were run out of the south for their views on race. I wonder if there are stories out there which people are willing to share that I could use in a book or articles. My email is mariondaldridge@gmail.com My phone is 803-413-2734. Thanks. Marion Aldridge, Columbia, SC

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