When Some in the Church Came Down on the Wrong Side of History…and the Gospel

Gospel According to the Klan: The KKK’s Appeal to Protestant America, 1915-1930
By Kelly J. Baker
University Press of Kansas, 2011, 326 pp.

4 Stars

When most people think of the Ku Klux Klan, they think of the original, Reconstruction-era (1865-1871) Klan and its unabashed aim to stymie the advancement of Blacks in the postbellum South via intimidation and violence. The reconstituted KKK was founded on Stone Mountain, Georgia in 1915. While Blacks were still a concern to the re-born KKK, the heavy influx of “ethnically-inferior” Catholics and Jews from Eastern and Alpine Europe was also perceived as a serious threat to White, Anglo-Saxon, Protestant-American society. The 1920s Klan would largely use political means to oppose their perceived foes rather than violence.

In this book, Professor Baker examines the philosophy of the 1920s Klan through articles from its own publications. She focuses especially on the KKK’s image of itself as the defenders of the Protestant “gospel” against the onslaught of immigrant Catholic papists loyal to the Vatican and against the cosmopolitan Jew with their Christ-denying religion. But Baker unsurprisingly does not define the gospel other than a nebulous belief in Jesus Christ. According to her understanding, the Protestant and Catholic gospels were/are similar excepting Catholics’ fealty to the pope. She transfers her misunderstanding of the opposing gospels to the Klan, claiming they had no problems with Catholic doctrine except for loyalty to the papacy. That clearly was NOT the case. Some/many in the Klan were genuine Christians and were well aware of the genuine Gospel of salvation by God’s grace alone, through faith alone, in Jesus Christ alone in contrast to Catholicism’s false gospel of salvation by sacramental grace and merit.

While many Protestants of the era objected to the Klan’s postbellum legacy of violence, they strongly sympathized with the new Klan and its anti-immigrant message. Many White Protestants of the era shared the Klan’s belief in Anglo-Saxon ethnic/racial superiority and were anxious regarding the future of their daughters in a nation that was becoming a “melting pot,” with the increasing threat of “miscegenation,” the interbreeding of people of different racial (and ethnic) types.

The KKK was surprisingly popular in 1920s America and attracted a large number of members and sympathizers in the mid-Atlantic and mid-Western states in addition to the South (see chart). Many conservative-evangelical churches of the 1920s came down on the wrong side of history regarding the resurgent 1920s Ku Klux Klan. The chaplain of each chapter usually doubled as the pastor of a local, Protestant church. When did the appeal of the Klan start to wane? The scandalous news of the rape and murder of a young, single woman by David Curtiss “Steve” Stephenson, the Grand Dragon of the Indiana Klan, in 1925 precipitated the public’s loss of confidence in the organization.

Like many historians, Baker scoffs at 1920s-era Protestants’ suspicions of American Catholics’ dual loyalties, but makes no mention of papal condemnations of democratic forms of government and freedom of religion as late as pope Leo XIII’s Testem benevolentiae nostrae encyclical, written in 1890, which condemned “Americanism.” Baker feigns a lack of scholarly expertise regarding current events, but then proceeds to draw many comparisons between the Christian nationalism of the 1920s Klan and the Christian nationalism of the Tea Party (and by extension, Trump’s MAGA-ism). There certainly are parallels, but equating the Tea Party/MAGA-ism to the Klan is as slanderously inaccurate as saying all Democrats are Marxists.

Personal note: After I was saved out of Roman Catholicism and trusted in Jesus Christ as my Savior in 1983, I began collecting reference materials about the Catholic church. One of the books I purchased was “House of Death and Gate of Hell” (originally published in 1918) about the horrors of Catholic convents written by evangelist and ex-Catholic, L.J. King. To my surprise, included in the text were several positive references to the Ku Klux Klan. I was also surprised when I learned the Klan wasn’t restricted to the South as I had previously thought. In my studies of Rochester history, I learned that the local chapter of the KKK burnt crosses near the newly-constructed Monroe Community Hospital in the early 1930s because the edifice was partially designed by the area’s first Black architect, Thomas W. Boyde Jr. Boyde would later design my wife’s maternal grandparents’ cottage at Henderson Harbor on Lake Ontario in 1954. The Rochester Klan held its rallies at a large field in East Rochester. The field, only a half-mile from our home, is now part of the East Rochester Public School Campus.

Negro and White: Desegregation – Right or Wrong? How Much? How Soon? Principles and Problems in the Light of God’s Word
By John R. Rice, D.D., Litt. D.
Sword of the Lord Publishers, 1956, 22 pp.

1 Star

What a coincidence that this pamphlet was next in line in my reading queue following “Gospel According to the Klan.” As the publisher of The Sword of the Lord newspaper from 1934 to 1980, John R. Rice was one of the main leaders of the independent fundamental Baptist movement in this country. In this pamphlet published in 1956, Rice upbraids the Federal government for mandating the desegregation of public schools in the South. Rice concedes that the Jim Crow laws were problematic, but argues that it was up to each state to work out its own racial policies. He argues that Black folks were not yet ready to assume the rights and responsibilities that communist and socialist “agitators” were demanding. Rice also expresses his anxieties regarding the threat to the purity of White womanhood and the racial miscegenation that would inevitably follow radical desegregation, especially given what he posits as the voracious and unbridled sexual appetite of the Black man. Rice’s preacher father was a member of the violent, Reconstructionist-era KKK, a fact you won’t find in his authorized biography. The Sword of the Lord still publishes many of Rice’s pamphlets, but not this one. It’s an embarrassment. John R. Rice and the independent fundamental Baptist movement came down on the wrong side of history…and the Gospel…in regards to race and segregation. Rice asserts in the title of this pamphlet that his pro-segregationist views would be presented “in the Light of God’s Word,” but he actually presents no Scripture passages to support his racist views. This pamphlet is a good example of what happens when Christians become subservient to the surrounding culture rather than being obedient to Jesus Christ and the Gospel.

Postscript: Note the lofty (honorary) academic credentials appended to Rice’s name, a very common practice of pastors in the IFB. Rice’s honorary academic credentials weren’t much help in the writing of this racist diatribe.

Billy Graham, the disappointing enigma

Billy Graham: Prayer, Politics, Power
Directed by Sara Colt and written by Keven Mcalester
American Experience Series, PBS, 2021, 1:51:41

4 Stars

Billy Graham (1918-2018) is widely revered and beloved as the “greatest” Christian evangelist of the 20th Century. Any criticism of Graham is considered blasphemy by most evangelicals, but I’m definitely NOT a fan for several reasons that will be detailed below.

“Billy Graham: Prayer, Politics, Power” first aired on PBS on May 17th. This biographical documentary spans Graham’s entire life. In 1944, Graham began his career as an evangelist affiliated with Youth for Christ. He eventually branched out on his own and his 1949 Los Angeles tent crusade received a tremendous boost from Roman Catholic media mogul, William Randolph Hearst, who ordered his newspaper editors to “Puff Graham.” Graham alienated his fundamentalist supporters when he ignominiously accepted the backing of liberal clergymen in organizing his 1957 New York City crusade, part of a calculated strategy by Graham and allies, Carl Henry and Harold Ockenga, to create a more ecumenical “New Evangelicalism” movement. Graham eventually enlisted the support of local Roman Catholic bishops in organizing his crusades. Catholics who came forward at Graham’s crusades were referred back to Catholic workers who counseled the seekers that their acceptance of Christ was only a reaffirmation of their infant baptism and confirmation.

To further increase his popularity and influence, Graham forged a close relationship with President Dwight Eisenhower. At the height of the Cold War standoff with atheist Russia, Graham influenced Eisenhower to meld patriotism and religion by directing that “In God We Trust” be stamped on currency and that “…under God” be inserted into the Pledge of Allegiance. American Civil Religion was/is antithetical to Jesus Christ and genuine Christianity because it presents God as a nebulous “Supreme Being” that’s palatable to all American religionists – Catholics, nominal “Protestants,” Muslims, Hindus, Jews, etc. It was the glue that bound patriotic Americans together in the face of advancing Soviet communism. Even today with the steady rise of atheism, Americans of all religious persuasions still join together at ball games and other public events and sing, “God Bless America.” Graham would go on to have an even closer relationship with another president, Richard Nixon, but would afterwards distance himself from politics following the ignominy of the Watergate scandal and Nixon’s resignation. However, Graham’s hobnobbing with presidents set the table for the Christian nationalists who followed, including Jerry Falwell and Pat Robertson.

Graham began drifting into Universalism in the mid-1970s. At a September 1977 interview session with McCall’s magazine journalist, James Michael Beam, Graham candidly revealed that he no longer believed people in foreign lands who had not heard the Gospel were going to hell. Incredulous? Hear Graham for yourself below in this 1:30 video snippet from 1997 tell “positivity gospel” propagator, Robert Schuller, that he believed all religions and even atheism were legitimate pathways to God.

I appreciated this PBS documentary for its critical examination of Billy Graham. Yes, many souls trusted in Jesus Christ as Savior through Graham’s ministry, however, Graham had several major flaws, including his strong desire for popularity, prestige, and political influence, his trailblazing propagation of ecumenism with Roman Catholicism, and his drift into Universalism. After trusting in Jesus Christ as Savior and leaving Roman Catholicism and its false salvation system of sacramental grace and merit in the early-1980s, I was shocked to discover that Billy Graham, evangelicalism’s favorite son, fully endorsed the Roman Catholic church with its false gospel as a Christian entity. Graham betrayed ex-Catholic evangelicals and Roman Catholics who needed to hear the genuine Gospel. The legacy of Billy Graham is that of a beloved evangelist who actually undermined and betrayed the Gospel on multiple levels. It’s not surprising that Satan would use Graham’s lust for numbers and popularity to subvert the Gospel.

See the PBS Graham documentary for a limited time here.

Postscript: Influential evangelical pastor, Martyn Lloyd-Jones, declined to support Billy Graham and his crusades in the U.K. because of Graham’s ecumenism with liberal, nominal “Protestant” Bible-deniers and Roman Catholic prelates. Lloyd-Jones also objected to Graham’s use of “decisionism” (i.e., the use of the “sinner’s prayer” to affect conversions). Millions of people who attended Graham’s crusades undoubtedly had false conversion experiences based on coming forward at Graham’s invitations without true repentance.

Pandemic Denial and Political Conspiracy Mongering

The thoughts in the following post have been percolating in my head for several weeks.

We’ve lived through eleven months of the COVID-19 pandemic in this country and it’s been a very long haul. It’s estimated that 27 million Americans (8%) have caught the virus and 463 thousand have died to date.

Looking back, there were serious shortcomings in the effort to “fight” the pandemic. There wasn’t much leadership at the national level, as President Trump generally downplayed the virus in an effort to minimize disruptions to commerce. The lack of health safety protocols at White House gatherings and at Trump’s political rallies were noticeable and influenced many. Individual states were left to mandate their own public health policies and they varied widely, often according to political affiliation.

Clergy were understandably frustrated by their services being limited or locked down. Some even claimed that COVID-19 was a big hoax, an alleged diabolical scheme meant primarily to restrict religious freedom. Pandemic-denial and refusal to follow health safety protocols became a badge of “true faith” among the credulous. Some sheepishly went along with the denial nonsense due to social pressure despite their own, personal misgivings.

Added to this very challenging pandemic situation were the BLM protests (which included looting, destruction, and violence) and the political turmoil of the 2020 presidential election and the aftermath, with many claiming voter fraud and that the election was stolen from Trump. The anger and frustration culminated in the violent attack upon the U.S. Capitol Building by overzealous Trump supporters (not by bused-in, disguised, Antifa counter-MAGA-ers as some have suggested) on January 6th.

The internet is rife with “Christian” conspiracy-mongering provocateurs* who stoke hatred, fear, rebellion, and violence. I know of a few “Christian” bloggers here at WordPress who specialize in these types of posts. They’ll publish some Bible passages on Monday to cloak themselves in spiritual “legitimacy,” but on Wednesday they’ll publish ultra-nationalistic, conspiracy-touting, hateful, us-against-them, pandemic-denying posts. Their undiscerning readers readily eat up this garbage with a hearty “Amen!” and ask for second helpings.

The thing is, when I read the Acts of the Apostles and the epistles in the New Testament, I don’t read anything promoting hatred, fear, rebellion, or violence. There is nothing resembling conspiracy-mongering or deeply-rooted civic/national chauvinism/exceptionalism (i.e., “I’m from Ephesus and you’re not!”). The early Christians lived in circumstances within the Roman Empire MUCH MORE challenging than our own, initially facing hostility from unbelieving Jews and subsequently from the Roman authorities. But Paul and the other apostles taught the early church to focus on the spiritual rather than on the temporal circumstances.

Shame upon all of those so-called “Christ-followers” who stoke hatred, paranoia, sectarian pride, and violence, which are antithetical to the Gospel. They should all spend a week at their local hospital’s pulmonary ICU before writing their next pandemic-denying, anti-vaccine posts. Some rail that the C-19 vaccine/s is the “mark of the beast” of Revelation 13 while other provocateurs hedge their bets and label it the “precursor” to the mark of the beast. So I suppose the polio vaccine was a precursor to the precursor of the mark of the beast? This is all flat-earth-style quackery and brings ridicule upon the Gospel (see photo above). While Christians shouldn’t bury their heads in the sand, neither should we allow ourselves to be carried away by conspiracy-mongering provocateurs who are “overcome by evil” and delight in stoking fear, hatred, rebellion, and violence.

14 Bless those who persecute you; bless and do not curse them. 15 Rejoice with those who rejoice, weep with those who weep. 16 Live in harmony with one another. Do not be haughty, but associate with the lowly. Never be wise in your own sight. 17 Repay no one evil for evil, but give thought to do what is honorable in the sight of all. 18 If possible, so far as it depends on you, live peaceably with all. 19 Beloved, never avenge yourselves, but leave it to the wrath of God, for it is written, “Vengeance is mine, I will repay, says the Lord.” 20 To the contrary, “if your enemy is hungry, feed him; if he is thirsty, give him something to drink; for by so doing you will heap burning coals on his head.” 21 Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.” – Romans 12:14-21

Postscript: In contrast to today’s pandemic-denying, anti-vaxxers, the Bible has a lot to say about containing contagious diseases (e.g., Lev. 13-14). I imagine there were deniers back in those days as well. Be considerate of your neighbor and get vaccinated. If it seems like I’m disproportionately harsh with politically-conservative, Christian nationalists, the old adage, “You’re always hardest on the ones you love” comes to mind. I don’t share many values with pro-abortion, pro-LGBT political progressives, although they need the Gospel, too!

*RE: conspiracy-mongering provocateurs
Some people relish playing the role of the gnostic, “hidden knowledge,” conspiracy-trafficking insider, “educating” the rest of us poor, gullible lemmings as to what’s allegedly “really going on” behind the scenes.

A strange sight

In the photo above, U.S. Capitol Police Officers aim their firearms at protesters attempting to break into the House Chamber at the U.S. Capitol on Wednesday, Jan. 6, 2021.

I’m trying to cultivate a Biblical mindset of being a pilgrim and a sojourner in this temporal world rather than a deeply-rooted nationalist. That said, it was disturbing to see the assault on the U.S. Capitol Building by protesters today. I’ve been around for 64 years and have seen a lot of things, but nothing quite like what I saw today.

From a spiritual perspective, the vast majority of the protesters don’t know Jesus Christ as Savior and neither do their political rivals. This world system with ALL of its institutions is a foundation of sand. The world system offers no lasting security or stability.

24 Everyone then who hears these words of mine and does them will be like a wise man who built his house on the rock. 25 And the rain fell, and the floods came, and the winds blew and beat on that house, but it did not fall, because it had been founded on the rock. 26 And everyone who hears these words of mine and does not do them will be like a foolish man who built his house on the sand. 27 And the rain fell, and the floods came, and the winds blew and beat against that house, and it fell, and great was the fall of it.” – Matthew 7:24-27

11 Beloved, I urge you as sojourners and exiles to abstain from the passions of the flesh, which wage war against your soul. 12 Keep your conduct among the Gentiles honorable, so that when they speak against you as evildoers, they may see your good deeds and glorify God on the day of visitation.” – 1 Peter 2:11-12

“For here we have no lasting city, but we seek the city that is to come.” – Hebrews 13:14

Jesus and John Wayne?

Jesus and John Wayne: How White Evangelicals Corrupted a Faith and Fractured a Nation
By Kristin Kobes Du Mez
Liveright Publishing, 2020, 356 pp.

2 Stars

Readers of this blog know I’m not a supporter of the still-popular “America the Christian Nation” paradigm. The conflation of faith and fervent nationalism by American Christians has led to a multitude of wrong turns, errors, and abuses ever since the Pilgrims landed at Plymouth in 1620.

The unusual title of this book caught my attention, so I borrowed a copy from the library. The author documents the preliminary origins and rise of militant Falwellian Christian nationalism in the 1970s, which has continued in various permutations into the Trump presidency. Where does Hollywood actor, John Wayne,* fit in? The author posits that post-WWII-era Christians substituted Wayne, or rather the über-masculine and nationalistic ethos that the actor symbolized, for Jesus Christ and the genuine Gospel. The main propagators of Christian nationalism receive plenty of mention, including Pat Buchanan, James Dobson, Jerry Falwell Sr., Jerry Falwell Jr., Bill Gothard, Billy Graham, Franklin Graham, Robert Jeffress, D. James Kennedy, Al Mohler, Oliver North, Tony Perkins, Doug Phillips, Pat Robertson, Rousas Rushdoony, Phyllis Schlafly, and Doug Wilson, among others.

The author, Kristin Kobes Du Mez, a professor of history at Calvin University** (Grand Rapids, MI) and a self-described “Christian feminist,” is at the opposite end of the spectrum of the Christian nationalists she critiques. Throughout the entire book, the reader must endure her shrill rants against “white patriarchalism.” I’m definitely not a supporter of Christian nationalism or inflated machismo, but Kobes Du Mez also frequently takes aim at doctrines that are basic to Biblical Christianity. According to her view, evangelical Christian nationalists are also misguided because they preach against homosexuality, desire to evangelize Muslims, and believe the Bible is the inspired and inerrant Word of God.

I would have awarded this book only 1-star due to its theological heterodoxy, however I bumped it up to two stars because I did appreciate the author’s critical examination of the history of Falwellian Christian nationalism. Evangelical scholars are not apt to tackle this subject material either because (A) they’re sympathetic to Christian nationalism themselves or (B) they don’t want to alienate the bulk of American Christians who still hold to that paradigm in some form or fashion. However, the author’s own ax grinding on behalf Christian feminism and theological liberalism draws its own abundant criticisms.

I’ll be focusing on a very recent example of misguided Christian nationalism in the upcoming Weekend Roundup.

*John Wayne was a nominal Presbyterian before “converting” to Roman Catholicism two days before his death.

**Christian parents send their teens off to some “Christian” colleges such as Calvin University mistakenly assuming the faculty believes and teaches Biblical orthodoxy.