The Crisis of Corporate Evangelicalism (Part 5 – Born Again)

William Newell
William Newell (credit: the Moody Bible Institute Archives)

Corporate evangelicals at the Moody Bible Institute had a problem in 1909: his name was William Newell. A former teacher at the school, he had become a nationally-recognized Bible teacher. Then he confessed to an opium addiction and to a sexual impropriety. MBI administrators had quietly sent him on his way. But now, on the eve of their publishing the first volume of The Fundamentals, he was back, inexplicably stirring up controversy. He called down condemnations on Moody’s school and church, told reporters that they had slandered him, and threatened to sue for damages. Only their reminder that they had sworn testimony of Newell’s indiscreet confessions convinced him to back down.

The problem with William Newell was the problem of interwar fundamentalism. Corporate evangelicals could remove troublesome individuals from their organizations, but they could not extricate them from the movement. Indeed, Newell rebuilt his religious career from central Florida in the 1930s, spinning apocalyptic predictions and diatribes against the New Deal over the radio. He was, and remained, a “fundamentalist” simply because he claimed the title. Quality control was impossible.

And so it was for the fundamentalist movement writ large. Throughout the roaring twenties and beyond, this thing called “fundamentalism” was a tangled ball of often-conflicting strands.

Charismatic figures cultivated local fiefdoms or robust regional followings. The gun-toting Texan J. Frank Norris (who murdered a man in his church office) claimed the fundamentalist label; The Los Angeles-based Pentecostal minister, Aimee Semple McPherson (accused of having an affair and staging a kidnapping to cover it up) did not, but was often branded one regardless. Neither would have countenanced the other and both caused palpitations among corporate evangelicals.

Travelling evangelists crisscrossed the country, including former baseball player Billy Sunday, right-wing firebrand Gerald Winrod, and numerous Pentecostal faith healers. Their meetings functioned like religious vaudeville shows—combining evangelism, politics, and faith-based spectacle—and stirred up plenty of controversy.

The tenor of this interwar fundamentalism favored political frameworks more than the free market models of corporate evangelicals. It was caused in part by the numerical superiority of plainfolk evangelicals and the low cost of entering into independent home-grown ministry. But a particular apocalyptic tenor also played a determinate role. Premillennialists had made specific geopolitical predictions based on biblical prophecy that the Great War seemed to fulfill. When the end is near, the house is on fire, politeness takes a back seat: you break down the door and drag the occupants out. Or if the Bolshevik wolves are at the door, as many evangelicals feared, the first priority was to defend the market, not shop it.

Thus, even corporate evangelicals were swept into conspiratorial thinking that saw liberals not simply as competitors, but interlopers for a one-world government and the phalanx of Antichrist. Corporate evangelicals had second thoughts when fundamentalist rhetoric reached fever pitch and denominations started dividing. But it was too late. The traditionalist pluralities in most denominations concluded that the radical individualism and militant premillennialism of fundamentalists was more unorthodox than the modernist alternative. Corporate evangelicals who valued their reputations also remained, but had little influence beyond their local congregations.

Structural issues also hamstrung the corporate evangelical project. They had envisioned a religious context in which every action was consciously, freely, and sincerely chosen. But the religious infrastructure they occupied was structured to facilitate stability and continuity, not variety and choice. Religious radio was still in its infancy; publishing was still dominated by denominational concerns. There were no “Christian” retail outlets.

Physical infrastructure, specifically transportation, also played a key role. A few large fundamentalist churches operated in cities like Chicago or Los Angeles with dense populations capable of supporting them. But most Americans in smaller towns had little, if any, choice outside of the major denominations. Travel times matter, regardless of how charismatic the pastor or how ardent the fundamentalist.

Thus, it seems that interwar corporate evangelicalism faltered not because it was anti-modern, but (at least in part) because it was too far ahead of its time.

The predictable low point of the corporate evangelical project was the Great Depression. At no other time in the twentieth century would the constructs of a modern consumer economy appear more suspect and contrived. Fundamentalists did not “retreat from culture.” Rather, despite their best efforts, they lost their cultural influence, along with Liberty League organizers and other free-market ideologues. The Great Depression also seems to have encouraged a (temporary) resurgence in communal patterns of living that favored traditional denominations.

But looks can be deceiving. As Lizabeth Cohen has noted, the Great Depression ironically facilitated the entrenchment of modern consumer capitalism. By wiping out the dense networks of small proprietors, it opened the way for deeper penetration of corporate retailers and manufacturers after World War II. Ethnic ties were weakened as small banks and mutual aid societies failed and the streams of immigrants from the homeland dried up. Ethnic entertainments were displaced by cheap mass media, especially radio, funded by corporate sponsors.

A similar dynamic was at work in evangelicalism. When operating margins became razor thin, those that refused corporate efficiency on principle were typically the first to fail. As a result, Pentecostal groups that survived looked increasingly like the corporate evangelicals that their early leaders once critiqued. The surviving remnants of the rag-tag faith-healing networks ultimately begat Oral Roberts, the modern prosperity gospel, and much of modern televangelism. Several Pentecostal groups formed traditional denominations. Today, a middle-class Assemblies of God congregation is barely distinguishable from a garden-variety Baptist church.

Carl McIntire
Carl McIntire (Wikimedia)

A similar consolidation among the plainfolk-evangelicals-turned-fundamentalists gave rise to figures like Bob Jones, John Rice, and Carl McIntire. They commanded extensive national networks of followers through publications, radio broadcasts, and educational institutions. They were strongest in the south, but their followers also migrated to California and to the urban north. Often labeled “sectarian” fundamentalists, their distinguishing feature was the political frameworks that structured their belief and practice. They were defenders, not purveyors, of the faith. And it was a politics of purity, often entwined in the racist assumptions and sexist hierarchies common among both the white working classes and middle classes.

Free market ideology animated their anti-communist politics, but not their understanding the religious world; it was powers and principalities, authority and spiritual warfare at work, not market principles.

Corporate evangelicals were well-positioned to benefit from Depression-era consolidation. With established bureaucracies, well-cultivated donor bases, and mass media outlets, they had a substantial head start over their plainfolk competitors. Organizations like the Moody Bible Institute regularly absorbed struggling magazines and ministries. And when the World’s Christian Fundamental Association (WCFA) imploded, they were ready to fill the vacuum.

The spirit of Depression-era corporate evangelicalism was captured by radio preacher Charles Fuller, whose “Old Fashioned Revival Hour” was beamed nationwide. Trained at the Bible Institute of Los Angeles, under the tutelage of MBI transplant Reuben A. Torrey, Fuller favored nostalgia and gentle invitations to salvation over haranguing listeners about potential doctrinal errors or the latest manifestation of Antichrist. It was sometimes difficult to keep his core fundamentalist supporters happy while remaining accessible to outsiders, but he managed it with considerable skill.

Of course, Protestant liberals were the truly ascendant group of the mid-twentieth century. They were administrators in denominational hierarchies and professors in seminaries. But we should not overestimate their influence. “Mainline” denominations were theologically heterogeneous and governed by traditional democratic and consensus-oriented principles.

The greater impact of liberals came by outside channels. Some had strong connections to leading secular publishers and wielded significant influence over their religious book divisions. Others had connections to the Roosevelt administration. But liberal influence was mainly channeled through the Federal Council of Churches (FCC), an ecumenical organization that served as the public voice of Protestantism. When government officials or secular media needed “Protestant” input on movie censorship, or military chaplaincy, or selecting radio preachers for free religious programming, they called the FCC.

Fear that the FCC was exerting undue liberal influence spurred corporate evangelicals to try, once again, to organize their movement. The end result was the founding of the National Association of Evangelicals (NAE) in 1942. Like early plans for the WCFA, the NAE was to be the public face of conservative Protestantism. But the new organization had a key difference: the plainfolk fundamentalist wing that had caused so much trouble in the 1920s was boycotting the effort. In fact, after early talks with Carl McIntyre broke down, they became among the NAE’s most vocal critics.

This opposition was a blessing in disguise.  No longer tied to their disruptive religious twin, corporate evangelicals used both sectarian fundamentalists and liberals as negative referents to bolster their moderate and respectable image.

Over the next two decades, corporate evangelicals followed the same pattern, founding a series of organizations that reaped the rewards of a moderate reputation. Almost every major neo-evangelical institution from the 1940s and 50s can be traced directly to earlier corporate evangelical networks. This included:

  • Fuller Seminary – designed as the new intellectual headquarters that would make neo-evangelicalism respectable
  • Youth for Christ – the ministry where a young southerner, Billy Graham, got his start
  • the National Religious Broadcasters – coordinating lobbying efforts for evangelical radio stations

Some organizations were frankly profit-driven. The Christian Booksellers Association organized “Christian” publishing and retail that liberals had inadvertently handed over to evangelicals (and entrepreneurial Dutch publishers in Grand Rapids who knew a lucrative market when they saw one). Meanwhile, Christianity Today (as close to an official mouthpiece for the movement as you can find), borrowed many of its founding strategies from the original Fundamentals project. It too had a wealthy donor who funded free distribution for a year to every minister in the country.

Almost all these organizations, and the leaders who came out of them, were attacked by sectarian fundamentalists for some minor point of compromise or association with the wrong people. But on nearly every major issues of substance—whether theological, social, economic, or political—neo-evangelicals stood shoulder-to-shoulder with their “hardline” opponents. In many ways, these were differences in style, not substance.

Thus, corporate evangelicals managed to create the respectable conservative evangelical identities they had first envisioned in the 1910s. By the 1970s, evangelicals were producing a torrent of parachurch organizations, religious businesses, and independent, non-denominational churches.

Ironically, all this was made possible by a well-funded federal highway program and other intrusive government policies that encouraged suburbanization. But no matter; middle-class Protestants were finally free of denominational control. By the 1980s, our present corporate evangelical moment had become a reality: one where denominational influence is waning and independent mega-churches and parachurch organizations are the dominant institutions in American Protestantism.

What’s left to explain is how the political story—the rise of the Religious Right—relates to the story of corporate evangelicalism. How did the evangelical factions come together and what does this say about the future of evangelicalism in the age of Trump and Clinton? Find out next month.

[Note: You can catch up on the whole series here.]

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