The sins of the fathers

The sins of the fathers May 19, 2016

Randall Balmer’s essay on Billy Graham sent me down a Google-hole trying to sort out the various Bells of the Graham clan. It was Clayton Bell — Billy’s brother-in-law — who participated in Graham’s proto-religious-right meeting that helped to launch the culture wars and the 1980 candidacy of Ronald Reagan. Given the nature of Reagan’s campaign — “states rights” and Philadelphia, Mississippi, and “welfare queens” and “strapping young bucks” on food stamps — I had to double-check that it wasn’t Nelson Bell, Billy’s father-in-law.

Because the thing about Nelson Bell is that he was a segregationist.

And he wasn’t just, like, a little bit segregationist. It’s not like, oh, he was a guy who did some stuff, but he also once or twice, when someone asked him about it, said some things that were sympathetic to segregation. It was the man’s vocation. He founded journals and institutions to promote segregation. He toyed with denominational schism in defense of segregation. It was, for years, his mission in life.

But that’s not what we usually hear when we encounter the name of Nelson Bell. There’s no mention of it at all in his Wikipedia entry.

Lemuel Nelson Bell (July 30, 1894 – August 2, 1973) was a medical missionary in China and the father-in-law of famous evangelist Billy Graham. Few people had more influence on Billy Graham than Bell.

That second sentence would be disturbing if that entry made any reference to what Bell spent most of his second career advocating, but the entry glosses over that entirely:

The Bells returned to the United States before Pearl Harbor in 1941 and retired in Montreat, North Carolina, across the street from their daughter Ruth and Billy Graham.

No. He did not “retire.” He was only 47 years old and he was just beginning the work to which he would devote his energy for the next 30 years.

In 1942, Bell founded The Southern Presbyterian Journal, a publication which championed conservative Presbyterianism within the denomination that had sent Bell and his family to China as missionaries. After Bell’s death, and the subsequent founding of the Presbyterian Church in America, this publication would eventually evolve into the God’s World News line of children’s magazines, founded in 1981 under the direction of Joel Belz, and later lead to the 1986 founding of a parallel news publication for adults, WORLD Magazine.

Bell was also the one who suggested to Billy Graham the idea of the periodical that would eventually be named “Christianity Today.” He became its executive editor, commuting regularly to Washington from his home in Montreat and writing “A Layman and His Faith,” a regular column in the magazine.

He seems nice. I mean, from that description, he seems genuinely nice — not Internet-sarcastic “he seems nice.”

But he wasn’t actually nice. And to appreciate that, you have to look more closely at that “conservative Presbyterianism” Bell championed in his Southern Presbyterian Journal. It wasn’t nice at all.

You can catch a fleeting glimpse of that in this hagiographic blog post by a PCA pastor from Mississippi, which is typical of most white evangelical assessments of Bell in its delicate dismissal of the segregationism that Bell himself was never so delicate in advocating:

Bell had grown concerned about the spread of theological and social liberalism in American Protestantism generally and in the PCUS in particular.

In order to combat this he helped start the Southern Presbyterian Journal in 1942. Although listed as the associate editor, Bell was the mainspring: he wrote more than anyone else, solicited articles, committed financial resources, and guided the policy of the board of directors. The magazine offered a blend of American religious and political conservatism. From the first issue, Bell and the other writers hammered American religion for replacing the gospel of redemption with a program of social reform. He believed that if the church would simply preach the good news faithfully, it could provide “the spiritual and moral stamina which is essential for world stabilization.” The result would be spiritual awakening and revival.

Alongside this longing for revival he was determined to buttress American civilization, which was being undermined by a range of social and political enemies. One great enemy was global communism: Bell would write countless articles attacking the advance of communism in Russia and especially in China and castigate American political leaders for their policy of containment. Another enemy was racial integration: in numerous articles Bell laid out a case he considered racial moderation — no one should force integration; at the same time, within the boundaries of a segregated society, individuals should be treated equally before the law and violence should be eschewed. (One wishes that Bell’s love for gospel expansion around the world had translated to a more multiethnic vision for the church in the States.)

Another example of Bell's "moderate" views, from the Southern Presbyterian Journal. (click pic for link to source)
Another example of Bell’s “moderate” views, from the Southern Presbyterian Journal. (click pic for link to source)

Adam Borneman, a PCUSA pastor from Alabama, looks more squarely at the mission and vision of Bell and his journal in a piece for Political Theology Today:

The Southern Presbyterian Journal came out swinging in its first issue in 1942 with founder L. Nelson Bell writing, “The (National) Council has caused confusion and resentment by constant meddling, in economic, social and racial matters….” In 1945, Bell wrote of the inverse relationship between ecclesiastical focus on social issues and “evangelical power,” insisting that the Gospel of Jesus Christ concerned not ethics, morality, and social policies.   And again in 1947: “We [at the Journal] distrust an organization which seeks to solve the difficult race problem by declaring segregation un-Christian and which advocates a non-segregated society.” Such pronouncements were common among the contributors and editors of the Journal, who frequently voiced distrust of the “liberal” direction in which they believed the denomination was headed.

All this is not to say that the Journal’s editors, contributors, and readers were not concerned with race and civil rights. They simply insisted that the scriptures – and indeed the gospel itself  – did not provide warrant to disrupt the status quo. The Journal acknowledged on several occasions the shortcoming of the church with respect to  race , but they maintained that the system of segregation was not inherently anti-Biblical or morally wrong.

Religious historian Kenneth Taylor takes a deeper dive into the muck of Bell’s Journal:

The Journal’s 1942-1966 theological case for segregation had four overlapping legs: the curse of Noah, divine approval of geographical segregation and disapproval of miscegenation, biblically-mandated cultural segregation, and Jesus’s implicit support for segregation. Three of these elements were either similar or identical to antebellum pro-slavery arguments. All four rhetorical points were culturally conditioned. …

The Journal published curse of Noah-based justifications for segregation. In March 1944, L. Nelson Bell, the magazine’s Associate Editor, invoked the curse to argue that God had established certain racial lines (including miscegenation) people should not cross. …

So there’s a taste of what Bell’s “racial moderation” entailed — curse-of-Ham bullshit heresies and editorializing against “miscegenation.”

Paternalistic Journalers professed to love African Americans and to want only the best for them. Integration, the writers insisted, was cruel, and segregation was kind. Thus, social separation was consistent with the Golden Rule, “to do unto others as you want others to do unto you.” In 1947 Bell wrote without irony that he was “ashamed at the intolerance, the discrimination, and the humiliations which have been heaped on them [blacks] by the white race” while he defended segregation. … Segregation was kind and Christian.

Taylor notes that Bell and his Journal changed their tack in 1966:

The Presbyterian Journal changed its editorial policy regarding racism on 23 November 1966, when it published the complete text of “One Race, One Gospel, One Task,” the statement of the World Congress on Evangelism. The World Congress was a major event for many evangelicals. Billy Graham, who supported civil rights, helped organize the gathering of people from 100 nations at West Berlin in November 1966. … The document said in part, “We recognize the failures of many of us in the recent past to speak with sufficient clarity and force upon the Biblical unity of the human race.” The statement then declared that everyone needs divine forgiveness and salvation, and continued, “We reject the notion that men are unequal because of the distinction of race and color. In the name of Scripture and of Jesus Christ we condemn racialism wherever it appears.” The document then pled for forgiveness and for grace to resist racism.

It wasn’t that Bell had a change of heart, or that he changed his mind, but his son-in-law finally convinced him to at least shut up about it. Bell did so, pretty much, persuaded to do so apparently mainly by Billy’s argument that advocating segregation was becoming a hindrance to evangelism.

By November of 1966, of course, segregation was losing, and the kind of crudely racist language and appeals the Journal had made back in the 1940s and ’50s no longer seemed effective anyway. As Lee Atwater infamously remarked, the civil rights movement forced its opponents to euphemize and to adopt new, more abstract language to argue the same thing. One could argue that this is all that really changed in the Journal after 1966. It certainly never renounced its former zeal for segregation, or repented of that sin, or even acknowledged that it was a sin that required repenting from.

As Taylor summarizes: “Even after the Journal abandoned overt racism as an editorial policy in November 1966, many of the writers, including Bell, continued to oppose the civil rights movement. The leopard did not change its spots.”

Given all that history, what are we to make of that Wikipedia entry claim that “Few people had more influence on Billy Graham than Bell”?

We can see how Graham influenced Bell — finally convincing him to dial-back his fervent advocacy of what he called “the integrity of the races.” But given that Graham was not an opponent of civil rights, and even a (somewhat tepid) supporter of legal racial justice, what can we see of Nelson Bell’s purportedly great influence on his son-in-law?

It shows most clearly, I think, in what Taylor describes as the ideology of “Southern Presbyterian Spirituality of the Church”:

According to this perspective, the church was supposed to focus on spiritual matters, such as doctrine, not on worldly concerns, such as attempts to change the social order. Thus the Spirituality of the Church bolstered the status quo by not questioning it.

This worldview had been one of the foundational principles of the denomination, for the 1861 Address labeled slavery a worldly, not a spiritual matter. …

The Journal articulated the Spirituality of the Church, frequently while criticizing the Federal or National Council of Churches for supporting civil rights. … The Gospel of Jesus Christ concerned sin and salvation, not ethics, morality, and social policies, Bell wrote.

That same message — “sin and salvation” vs. “social policies” — is at the core of the white evangelical Christianity embodied by Billy Graham and championed by the institutional pillars of white evangelicalism associated with him. It steadfastly, as a matter of principle and as a matter of Gospel, eschews meddling in worldly concerns — and emphatically renounces all such meddling even while convening secret meetings of spiritual leaders pleading with Ronald Reagan to run for president. It denounces the National Council of Churches for “constant meddling, in economic, social and racial matters” while simultaneously meddling with all its might in support of white supremacy and “the conventions between the sexes.”

You know, because it’s spiritual.

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