Commentary Magazine

The Radical Right & the Rise of the Fundamentalist Minority

Early in February of this year a group of leading Protestant ministers and laymen in Dallas, Texas, were invited to form the core of a local chapter of “Christian Citizen,” a new national organization whose announced aim is to train Christians in the techniques of practical politics. The founder of Christian Citizen, Mr. Gerri von Frellick (a Denver real estate developer and a Southern Baptist lay leader), spelled out the program of his movement as primarily an educational one whose purpose is to foster Christian principles in the nation’s government and to combat “an increasing sense of futility and apathy in America.” Qualifications for membership require only that the recruits must “give testimony of their personal experience with Christ” and must “accept the Bible as the infallible word of God.” Once having joined, the “Christian Citizen” will be given an extensive training period at the precinct level and then go to work in the political party of his choice. The organization itself, according to von Frellick, will not endorse any candidate or take partisan stands on controversial issues. Appropriate action will be left to the “graduates” who will organize Christians to vote as a bloc and thus “participate effectively in the nation’s political life.” It is von Frellick’s expectation that the movement will eventually become influential enough to “take over a majority of the precincts in this country.”

As to actual political objectives, von Frellick has insisted that these are open and unspecified, the ideology of Christian Citizen being that “the democratic process has room for all viewpoints.” When questioned about his position on certain key leaders and groups of the much publicized “radical right,” von Frellick said that Dr. Fred C. Schwarz’s Christian Anti-Communist Crusade was a “terrific” organization and “doing a fabulous job.” He also said that the John Birch Society has “made a tremendous contribution to alerting the American people to the problem of Communism.” The main difference which the Denver realtor finds between his organization and these others is that they lack “a positive approach”—whereas Christian Citizen can be “a means of launching an offensive in the ideological struggle with Communism.”

Behind the vague and pious slogans, then, what we have here is the most recent formation of a cell nucleus in the growing organism of the extreme right. Christian Citizen also offers a particularly clear example of the relation of the more extreme wing of Protestant fundamentalism to the new ultra-conservative movement—a relationship that has frequently been overlooked or scanted by writers in their haste to explain the movement in purely political terms and to find its roots in the same general rightist tendencies that produced the politics of Father Coughlin or of Senator McCarthy or Senator Goldwater, as the case may be. While it is true, of course, that Senator McCarthy is taken by the John Birch Society as its second great martyr, there are some significant differences between McCarthyism and the new radical right—one of the most decisive of which has precisely to do with the connection between this radical right and extreme Protestant fundamentalism.

Fundamentalism, when noticed at all by our popular journals, is usually patronized as a colorful fragment of an older, vanishing way of life. But the truth is that fundamentalism is a growing socio-religious force in America. While its more moderate wing has been attempting to work out a position of “classic orthodoxy” in theology and an over-all modus vivendi with liberal Protestantism (particularly of the National Council of Churches variety), its more extreme wing, defined in good part by a belligerent opposition to liberal Protestantism and deep hostility to the NCC, has by no means lost ground. It is only of this latter group that we shall be speaking in the following pages.

Fundamentalism is not a sect or a denomination or a specific church; it is a rigorously orthodox point of view which completely dominates some Protestant denominations and has adherents in many others, including even the Episcopal church. Among its basic doctrines are the inerrancy of the Bible, salvation by faith alone, and the pre-millennial return of Christ. On religious questions, it takes a stand against any attempts at revisionism and modernism. This emphasis upon literalness and purity of doctrine makes the fundamentalist look upon pragmatism in the social world with the same suspiciousness and distaste with which he views revisionism in religious doctrine. His commitment to Biblical prophecy, moreover, results in an anti-historicist perspective which readily supports the conspiracy theory of social change. Given all this, and given the association that came to be developed between the “Protestant ethic” and the ideology of 19th-century capitalism, it is not surprising that fundamentalism should always have had a strong disposition to regard the revisions of this ideology (which were partly inspired by Protestant liberals) as the work of heretics and atheistic radicals, infected with and spreading false doctrines in a conspiratorial manner.1

In fundamentalist eyes, departures from 19th-century capitalism have carried with them the corruption of virtually sanctified socio-economic doctrines and have consequently helped to undermine the Christian society. Thus, the fundamentalist’s apocalyptic conception of the world as strictly divided into the saved and the damned, the forces of good and the forces of evil, has readily lent itself to reactionary political uses. Fundamentalism today supports a super-patriotic Americanism; the conflict with Communism is not one of power blocs but of faiths, part of the unending struggle between God and the devil. The danger of Communism, therefore, is from within—from the corrosion of faith by insidious doctrines. That is to say, by “collectivism”—the modern fundamentalist’s secular counterpart of atheism.



The inherently conservative bent of fundamentalism has been further reinforced in America by regional factors. The fundamentalist population has always been located predominantly in the South, the border states, the Middle West, and in several Western states. It was partly as a spokesman for this population that William Jennings Bryan could talk of the East as “enemy territory,” and express their economic plight in the fundamentalist imagery of the “cross of gold” speech. In Bryan, as later in Huey Long, the hatred of finance capitalism, or “Wall Street,” by a rural population could produce the reforming spirit of Populism without appreciably liberalizing the impacted prejudices of fundamentalist social attitudes. As H. Richard Niebuhr has said:

The fundamentalist movement was related in some localities to . . . intense racialism or sectionalism. With them it shared antagonism to changes in the mores which the war [World War I] and its consequences, the rise to power of previously submerged immigrant or racial groups and other social processes, brought forth. The political effectiveness of fundamentalism was due in part to this association and to the support which it gave to political leaders, who found in it a powerful symbolism representative of the antagonism of political and economic minorities against the eastern or northern urban industrial majority.

The influence of fundamentalist ideas on the political and social life of these regions is seen in the fact that the states in which the movement predominated were the ones that passed—or nearly passed—statutes forbidding the teaching of evolution in the schools and that first enacted prohibition laws. Similarly, fundamentalism’s ancient and unregenerate hostility to Catholicism was in good part responsible for the heavy losses which the Democrat Al Smith suffered in 1928 in these regions.



The states that repudiated Darwinism and Al Smith are today prominent among those nineteen that have passed “Right to Work” laws. Since World War I the social base of fundamentalism has shifted markedly, though few political writers have apparently noticed the shift. Its constituency is no longer mainly made up of sharecroppers and poorly educated villagers. Many fundamentalist churches are modern and imposing, financed by wealthy oilmen from Texas and Oklahoma and prosperous farmers in the wheat and corn belts. Rich and influential lay leaders such as J. Howard Pew and von Frellick now make their influence felt in the power structure of the community and state. The fundamentalists also operate a vast network of colleges, training schools, Bible institutions, Bible prophecy conferences, prayer meetings, and study groups. They have many large publishing houses which blanket small towns with conservative tracts and pamphlets. An increase in Protestant orthodoxy has added members to their churches at a more rapid rate than the liberal churches have been able to show. Though still more numerous in the small sects and local churches such as the Pentecostal and Seventh Day Adventists2 and among the Southern Baptists, the fundamentalists, in some areas, are also found in the Presbyterian and Methodist churches, and to a lesser degree, in the Episcopal and Congregationalist ones. For example, the members of a Congregationalist church in Los Angeles and an Episcopal church in Fort Worth, both cities with powerful fundamentalist traditions, are likely to have a stronger affinity with these traditions than with those practiced by their sister church memberships in the large New England cities.

Population movements, affluence, and mass culture have all, of course, obscured some of the distinct regional features of fundamentalism. But it would be a mistake to view the more prosperous and integrated surfaces of contemporary fundamentalism as indicating any real loss or modification of its identity. Though it has become increasingly middle class, this has not changed its profoundly conservative character, and its vast wealth and growing respectability have mainly served to broaden the base of its traditional antagonism to modern reform capitalism. Its local and regional character has insulated it from the influence of religious pluralism; still mainly Anglo-Saxon, it has preserved—unlike Catholicism and liberal Protestantism—an ethnic homogeneity that shields it from the liberalizing social adjustments invariably created by contending ethnic interests.



With the continuing world crisis, fundamentalism is finding a new political relevance for its doctrines and an arena in which it can exert its growing influence. As Christian Century, the leading organ of liberal Protestantism, observed recently: “Now the fundamentalists have apparently decided that the time has come to break out of their isolation and to contend for the soul of American Protestantism.” A special target of theirs has been the National Council of Churches—the citadel of modern Protestantism. On the whole the attacks have come in the rural areas rather than the large cities, by means of local media rather than national. (One exception was an Air Force manual charging that the National Council of Churches was infiltrated by Communism, which had the effect of driving the Fourth Baptist Church of Wichita, Kansas—the largest local church in the Baptist convention—to withdraw from the convention in protest of its affiliation with the Council.) In those regions populated with churches, schools, publishing houses, and study groups that are dominated by fundamentalists, liberal Protestantism has been subjected to an avalanche of bigotry and calumny exceeded in intensity only by the worst period of anti-Catholic propaganda.

In analyzing the motives behind these attacks, Dr. Truman B. Douglas, formerly vice president of the Board of Home Missions of the Congregational Churches, has explained that “what they really want is to silence the witness of the Church on all social problems and issues. . . .” That is to say, on all social issues and problems other than Communism. However, as we began by indicating, the fundamentalist mentality and temperament—in the extreme, unregenerate forms that we are discussing in this article—is unable to view the threat of Russian or Chinese Communism in pragmatic and realistic ways. For the fundamentalist mind the great menace of Communism is less in its military power than in its doctrines, and the main threat of these doctrines is not that they operate abroad but at home. Like the “papists” of America who, the fundamentalist continues to believe, have never ceased in their insidious and cunningly concealed attempts to undermine the faith and institutions of Protestant America and to deliver the nation up to Rome, the Communists today are everywhere at work disseminating under such subterfuges as “liberalism” and “middle-of-the-road progressivism” the heretical doctrines of collectivism that are poisoning American faith and subverting its social order. Instead of a puissant and pure Christian America marching resolutely toward its apocalyptic encounter with the Soviet anti-Christ, the nation, drugged with false doctrines and blinded by traitorous leaders, is being carried down the road to appeasement and, eventually, capitulation.

It is not surprising to discover, then, that Robert Welch, who has built his organization to fight a conspiracy which numbers President Eisenhower among its members, should have come from a strong fundamentalist background, or that John Birch himself first prepared for his martyrdom in China by being suspended from college because of the extremist zeal of his fundamentalist activities. Much of the affinity of fundamentalism for what is today called the radical right derives from the attempt to wed Protestant zeal and reactionary animus which developed and took shape during the New Deal years. The leader of one such group, the Christian Freedom Foundation, wrote a diatribe which was titled The Menace of Roosevelt. During the same period of the middle 1930’s, an organization called Spiritual Mobilization was established “to check the trend toward pagan statism.” In coming out of their “isolation,” as the Christain Century puts it, the fundamentalists are not only “competing for the soul of Protestantism” but are also trying to reassert the traditional cultural and political supremacy of conservative Protestantism. Its leaders—men like the Reverend Billy Joe Hargis, the Reverend Fred C. Schwarz, the Reverend James Fifield—are no less aware than the late Senator McCarthy was of the demagogic possibilities inherent in an anti-Communist crusade. But they enjoy an advantage that McCarthy did not have: a massive potential following which is prepared to accept the belief that a restoration of the influence of the old-time religion must be accompanied by a return to the pre-New Deal era of free enterprise and isolationism if the country is to be purged of its disabling doses of collectivism and internationalism. Thus the fundamentalist movement provides both potent political images and popular support to rally other disaffected Americans of different backgrounds who nonetheless feel that they, as well as the nation as a whole, have been losing power, and who are united not only in their hostility to Communism but in their anti-minority, anti-city, anti-labor, and anti-international attitudes.



The election of a Catholic to the Presidency has signalled the change in America from a Protestant nation with a prevailing Anglo-Saxon tradition to a pluralistic nation with a Protestant tradition. The defeats that the South has been suffering in civil rights mark the demise of white supremacy in its own sectional stronghold. Given current population trends, increasing urbanization, the organizational growth of minority groups, these changes are not likely to be reversed. Not long ago a leading figure in Spiritual Mobilizers, who also heads a large and wealthy Los Angeles church, articulated part of what the fundamentalist position amounts to in socio-ethnic terms when he reportedly said, “We are not going to give the city away to the Jews, Negroes, and Mexicans.” Such cities as Houston, Miami, and Los Angeles were always fundamentalist strongholds, but the fact that they are now also centers of rightist politics is at least partly to be explained in terms of local responses to a growing Catholic minority, a growing Jewish community, and rapidly increasing Negro or Spanish-speaking minorities.

While the election of Kennedy reflected a decline in bigotry in some quarters, his campaign stimulated a recrudescence of it in others; and his career as President is likely to provoke an increase in self-consciousness among our religious communities and a heightened awareness of their sources of contention—in other words, it is likely to deepen the pattern of religious pluralism in America even further. The fundamentalists’ reaction to the ascendancy of pluralism is double-sided. As Anglo-Saxon Protestants, in the main, they are reacting to the loss of the political dominance that came from their majority position. As fundamentalist Protestants, however, they are a particularly fervent and committed religious minority and one growing in wealth and numbers and ambition. As such, they are behaving more and more like other important minorities in America—demanding more time and space in the media, and devoting more energy to organizing their constituencies for social and political action. Whatever else may develop, it is abundantly clear that the Protestant fundamentalists have now taken their place among the other distinct groups—the Catholics, liberal Protestants, Jews, Negroes, and secular humanists—that make up the pluralistic socio-religious pattern of America.

In trying to convince the community that America’s interest will best be served through their leadership, many fundamentalist religious and lay leaders have been moving into the seats of power which have opened on the radical right. Insofar as militant anti-Communism today has a socio-religious cast, fundamentalism has replaced Catholicism as the spearhead of the movement.3 None of this is to say, of course, that the radical right has become identified with the aspirations of a single group—it would hardly have got off the ground if it had. The radical right cuts across all groups in varying degrees, and no doubt there is still a hard core of Catholic McCarthyites who have followed his sanctified image into the radical right movement. Father John F. Cronin, the author of the pamphlet issued last month by the NCWC attacking the new “extremists of the right,” was indeed quoted by the New York Times as saying that “quite a few Catholics” belong to the John Birch Society.



But supporters of Senator McCarthy were, on the whole, a much more variegated and dispersed group than the constituency of the radical right today seems to be. Though many Catholics found in the Senator an expression of their militant anti-Communism, McCarthyism never became a “Catholic movement.” It drew the bulk of its support from the traditional “isolationist bloc”—pro-German and anti-British—who had opposed an alliance with Communist Russia against Nazi Germany. McCarthy also had a sizeable following in the large cities, in the national veterans’ organizations, and in working-class groups—particularly those with roots in countries now behind the Iron Curtain.

From his famous first speech in Wheeling, West Virginia, McCarthy clearly played up to the minority groups, who were attracted by his hard anti-Communism, which they saw as posing no threat to the economic gains they had made during the New Deal. For the most part, McCarthy managed to attack New Deal liberalism for allowing itself to be infiltrated by Communists, without directly challenging the policies and practices of reformed capitalism that had been achieved by the Democratic coalition and had come to be supported by the middle-of-the-road consensus in America. Seen in historical perspective, McCarthyism was the final phase in the repudiation of our wartime alliance with Russia; the charges of treason and disloyalty were aimed vengefully by those who had always considered Stalin a greater menace than Hitler against those who had taken the opposite position and engineered the alliance with Russia, and who might therefore be held responsible for the postwar predicaments which had flowed from that alliance. However, McCarthyism was virtually devoid of social and economic content as well as religious inspiration, and so lacked stable bases of local, popular support. With an all but inevitable logic, McCarthy was forced to play out his role in the national arena where his main concerns lay. Once his performance there had been discredited by the changes in international policy that were already in progress when his star appeared on the horizon, and by his unchecked hostility to the Executive branch that was now in the hands of his own party, McCarthy collapsed. And with no further issues and grass-roots support which his followers could exploit, McCarthyism, in effect, collapsed with him.

The radical right, as we have been seeing, is a very different affair, one with a definite political, economic, and social purpose, and able to capitalize on the growing power of an important religious group which has long felt the denial of its rightful share in shaping the policies of the nation. To be sure, fundamentalist conservatism is today by no means a monolithic ideology. Even as von Frellick was attempting to recruit prominent ministers and lay leaders in Dallas for Christian Citizen, a leader of the Baptist General Convention of Texas was publicly reminding them of the recent recommendation of the Convention that “Baptists . . . exercise caution when asked to support efforts to mobilize Christians into a political power.” But despite this recommendation, and despite warnings by other Baptists and moderate fundamentalists, it remains clear that large numbers of fundamentalists are being “mobilized” and that their religious and regional conservatism is converting readily into the ideology of the radical right and swelling the chorus of reactionary and apocalyptic voices in the land.



The main strength and appeal of fundamentalist conservatism lies in its nativist nationalism. In the “gray atmosphere” of America’s tense, cautious international power struggle with the Soviet Union in a nuclear age—an atmosphere made even more troubled by the rise of the minorities within the society—its program of “Americanism” becomes a way of explaining the nation’s loss of supremacy and autonomy; it also provides a set of crusading directives for the road to Armageddon that dispels uncertainty and discharges both national tensions and local frustrations. On the international scene, it identifies America’s “decline” and the Communist ascendancy with the loss of the West’s four-hundred-year monopoly of power and with the passing of Anglo-Saxon dominance. The immense strengthening of America’s world position since the war counts for nothing in the light of our failure to assume the world dominance which Great Britain has relinquished. The shock which followed Sputnik has doubtless helped to bring on the somewhat delayed discovery by certain people in the hinterlands that the American century had been lost, just as the Supreme Court decision on desegregation and the election of Kennedy woke many of the same people to the fact that political power in America was also passing out of their hands.

The appeal of the new nativist nationalism, however, need not remain confined to the rabid—as McCarthyism, being a form of revenge politics, necessarily was. The redistribution of power both abroad and at home has disheartened many moderate people—those who gladly might have settled for less than a monopoly if they could be sure that the Russians (and the Chinese) would do likewise, and who might have accepted the claims of the racial, religious, and ethnic minorities (and of labor), so long as these did not encroach upon their own lives, and so long as their own interests continued to be dominantly represented. Feeling that all of this is no longer the case, the nativist segment of the Protestant population becomes a prey of those who would like to replace the pluralistic orientation which has led America to a precarious co-existence by a doctrinaire, chauvinistic Americanism seeking to achieve a “Pax Americana.” In Protestant fundamentalism, imbued with nationalism—not unlike the case of pre-World War II German Lutheranism—many formerly moderate people find a powerful rationale and symbolism for this complex of attitudes. The practical program to support the “Americanist” effort in foreign affairs has the further attraction of asking for the abolition of the welfare state, which the Protestants in question see as benefiting mainly the minorities whose rise to prominence has begun to threaten their control within the society and reshape their America in a different image. Thus they are susceptible to a program which by calling for a return to a 19th-century type of capitalism and an end to collaboration with our allies on an equal basis, will bring into power those native groups who can restore their traditional position in the scheme of things. It is on such anxieties and impulses that the radical right has battened.

Whoever has taken the radical right as amounting to nothing more than the fulminations of a few crackpots, or the temporary prominence of the lunatic fringe achieved mainly by publicity, would do well to ponder the matter further. More thought had better be taken, also, by those who have concluded that since the radical right is unlikely to take over America, it can be disregarded as a growing power bloc and a potential influence for harm.



While it is probably true that the new-found strength of reactionary ideas cannot be said to indicate a turn toward conservatism in the population at large, it does seem to indicate that American conservatism is being pulled to the right. This in itself represents a gain for the ultras. But what gives them an even greater potentiality for influence is the fact that they operate at the local and state levels, where a minimum of pressure can exert a maximum of effect, and where there is no necessity for taking the risk of an all-or-nothing gamble—as McCarthy, working at the national level only, was forced to do. This does not mean that the new ultras are interested only in local affairs. On the contrary, as a distinct and now politically self-conscious minority within the pluralistic pattern, they are demanding a greater voice in the shaping of national policy, which they hope to achieve through a strategy of interlocking local pressures. (The effectiveness of such a strategy can be seen from the enormous amount of attention Manager Mitchell attracted through his attack on public welfare programs in the city of Newburgh; a similar attack in Congress would probably have fallen flat.)

So far as foreign policy is concerned, there is even an advantage to the ultras in being an out-of-power faction: they can conduct their programs with wild irresponsibility, blanketing the country with small undercover cells, repressing free discussion, and imposing a doctrinaire conformity. The effect of all this is to reduce the government’s opportunities for a flexible handling of delicate problems such as we now face in Germany, in the UN, in Africa. Perhaps most important of all, the ultras make it very difficult for the country to dissociate itself from the imperialism and white supremacy in which the Anglo-Saxon world has figured so prominently in the past. It is ironic, if not yet tragic, that having more or less united the Western world around the belief that the best way to oppose Communism is through the promotion of social reform and the development of international pluralism, America should now be the scene of a nativist movement which would substitute for this idea a belligerent nationalism, one whose socio-religious mystique is not very different from that with which certain European nations recently experimented and in so disastrous a fashion.



1 In his History of Fundamentalism, Stewart Cole speaks of fundamentalism as “the organized determination of conservative churchmen to continue the imperialistic culture of historic Protestantism, within an inhospitable civilization dominated by secular interests and a progressive Christian idealism.”

2 Many of these small sects are affiliated with the National Association of Evangelicals which claims a total membership of about ten million.

3 Father Robert A. Graham, among others, has called attention to this change in a recent issue of America: “It was not so long ago that Catholics were regarded as the most active foes of Communism. This can no longer be said today. Dr. Fred C. Schwarz’s anti-Communist Christian Crusade is of predominantly Baptist inspiration. The National Education Program of Dr. George S. Benson [of the Church of Christ], is another fundamentalist operation. It is no accident that the key centers of the John Birch Society are in the fundamentalist South and Southwest.” An even more authoritative indication of the fact that the new radical right does not lean on a predominantly Catholic base is the campaign begun last month by the National Catholic Welfare Conference—the central administrative body of the American Bishops—to discourage participation by Catholics in extreme anti-Communist movements.


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