Evangelist Dr Billy Graham, a former baseball player. Picture: Warren K. Leffler
Published: 17 March, 2015
by ILLTYD HARRINGTON
JOHN Thomas Scopes was by all accounts a modest, hard-working science teacher in Tennessee. Then in 1925 his integrity placed him into a courtroom where two of America’s most renowned lawyers challenged the accuracy of his lesson and his right to teach it.
It proved to be a worldwide occasion, and was known as the Scopes Monkey Trial. Scopes was charged with teaching the sinful proposition that we evolved from apes and with justifying the works of Charles Darwin.
The state had a powerful advocate in the shape of William Jennings Bryan, a populist politician who had been three times a presidential candidate and secretary of state in Woodrow Wilson’s cabinet.
The defence was led by Clarence Darrow, the prince of lost causes. In the film Inherit the Wind, Frederic March, a traditional Hollywood figure, played Bryan and Spencer Tracey was Darrow. It was a forensic study of conflict, the perfect essay in the triumph of prejudice over scientific truth. But at its heart was a philosophy which has divided American public opinion and government policy, even to the present day.
Matthew Sutton digs deep into the roots of the profound belief that attracted the financial and lobbying support of some of the most powerful industrialists in America.
Oil magnates like John D Rockefeller linked arms with wheat manufacturers and the makers of porridge to stand up for old-fashioned religion. Perhaps anticipating Mary Poppins, a spoonful of porridge really helped the Bible go down.
To these men, the world had a sell-by date, and that would be Armageddon, when Jesus Christ would return and rouse the faithful to take on the Anti-Christ.
Many were blessed with the gift of rapture, or transportation towards Heaven. In this period, barnstorming evangelists put the fear of God into the people and into leaders of the nation.
Massive congregations, sometimes as many as 12,000, gathered in the new temples that were created.
Frank Sinatra is still remembered for singing: “Chicago, the town that Billy Sunday could not close down.”
Pastor William Ashley Sunday was a powerful orator and he raged against the sins of the age – dancing, sodomy and drink. These propositions were eagerly accepted by the right-wing.
Step aside Iain Duncan Smith. A hundred years before him, his predecessors saw social security as a breeding ground for laziness and sin.
In the midst of all this world turmoil, the Anti-Christ was identified as fascist dictator Benito Mussolini, as he had fulfilled the biblical prophecy that Ethiopia would be invaded during the last days. But out of the blue came Franklin Delano Roosevelt, elected President of the USA in 1933, and in fact the only president to stand for a fourth term (despite the usual limit of two). Fundamentalists raged against him: “He is a Communist, a secret member of the communist party; his wife is even worse.”
This hysteria was prompted by his New Deal policies, which promised public investment and social insurance. To them, social insurance was a sin and socialism – propositions that were alien to the American mind.
They stuck to their rallying cry of “Jesus is coming” but they could never get the timing right. Instead they beat off Satan by investing in the book trade, TV and broadcasting.
One of the evangelists sold 70 million copies of his fundamentalist creed. They mastered the art of propaganda. Another whom the Lord sent forward was Dr Billy Graham, a former baseball player. Here and in the US he rallied the young to give themselves to Christ. The evangelists drew nearer to the Oval Office and the seat of power.
Then there was a morphing of the religious right with the economic policies of the Chicago School of Friedrich Hayek, Margaret Thatcher’s favourite economist. Everything seemed to be going their way. And the current turmoil in the Middle East continues to justify the Christian fundamentalists. The irony of it all is that Jimmy Carter is and was a true Christian and a president of no consequence. So start counting the days to Armageddon.
• American Apocalypse: The History of Modern Evangelicalism, by Matthew Avery Sutton, published by Belknap Press, $35.