The sight of so many conservative Christian presidential candidates attempting to out-holy one another during the GOP debate this past weekend was curious but not without precedent. The role of Christianity in the American political system predates the formation of the nation itself, with the more fundamentalist aspects playing a larger part during difficult economic periods. While it can be said that religion informed the political ideologies of the men who established the framework of our nation, fundamentalism was largely relegated to the fringes of American politics until the first part of the 20th Century.
The circumstances that promoted the rise of the evangelical Christian doctrine in the 1920s and ’30s bear a striking resemblance to our current situation and help to explain—as history often does—why right-wing religious views are influencing the social, political and economic platforms of the GOP candidates.
Prior to the Great Depression, the evangelical set were more like babbling mystics than an influential political force. Think Jimmy Swaggart or Jim Bakker. The mainstream transformation came when successful, white Christian men who accumulated and maintained great wealth during this time were looking for absolution of the guilt they felt while their fellow countrymen fell upon hard times. Enter Abraham “Abram” Vereide, the man perhaps most responsible for the modern fundamentalist Christian movement in America.
Vereide was able to coalesce the successful strategies and teachings of other soul-surgeons and evangelists of his era. By rationalizing the financial success of his followers as the earthly manifestation of Christ’s will, he was able to mold a new Christian doctrine that recognized wealth, power and influence as deliberate and divine endowments. As it turned out, mass absolution and wider acceptance came in the form of Jesus Christ as seen through the lens of Bruce Barton’s bestselling book, The Man Nobody Knows.
Barton, who is more enduringly known as the second “B” in the ad agency BBD&O, which exists even today, published The Man Nobody Knows in 1925. It was an instant phenomenon. Barton’s Jesus was the ultimate winner, the consummate salesman. The book was a pocket guide to winning with Christ that helped extricate Christianity from purely religious constraints and bring it to a wider audience as only a professional adman could.
By 1933, when the nation was in the throes of the Depression, Vereide’s organization began to take shape. The political outgrowth of his movement was formalized in Seattle with the creation of the New Order of Cincinnatus. The parallels between the New Order and the Tea Party today are undeniable. Like the Tea Party, the New Order cherished free market ideals and conservative morality, and organized against taxes and big government.
Vereide’s followers heartily rebuked then-President Herbert Hoover for bailing out Wall Street bankers whom many Americans believed to be responsible for the stock market crash of 1929 just as the Tea Party chastised the Bush administration for doing the same with the Troubled Asset Relief Program (TARP). Both groups found their footing, however, railing against the subsequent administrations for battling economic downturns with public works projects, specifically FDR’s New Deal and Obama’s Stimulus Package. Likewise they share similar views regarding social welfare programs, and were able to elect candidates to battle these reforms. Even the great adman Bruce Barton went on to secure a seat in Congress under the slogan “Repeal a Law a Day.”
Vereide’s organization lives on today through the efforts of a rather enigmatic figure named Douglas Coe, who took over the group upon Vereide’s death in 1969 and transformed it into one of the most influential and highly secretive organizations in the modern era. The only public recognition of the group known today simply as “The Family” is the National Prayer Breakfast held every year in Washington, where political and business leaders assemble to pay tribute to Douglas Coe’s cabal. Most of what transpired beyond the breakfast remained a complete mystery until Jeff Sharlet, a reporter and expert on religion, stumbled upon Coe’s secret world, which he unraveled in his 2008 book titled The Family: The Secret Fundamentalism at the Heart of American Power and his 2010 follow-up C Street: The Fundamentalist Threat to American Democracy.
Sharlet painstakingly details the roots of fundamentalism in America and illustrates the many ways in which The Family’s perversion of Christianity as a doctrine of power has transformed modern political life in America. The ultimate testament to the work of The Family is fully on display in the platforms of candidates such as Michele Bachmann, Rick Perry and Rick Santorum—not to mention the political juggernaut waiting in the wings that is Sarah Palin. But before Bachmann there was Frank Buchman, founder of “Moral Re-Armament,” whose closeted reputation was more Marcus Bachmann than Michele, if you catch my drift. Before Palin there was Arthur Langlie, figurehead of the New Order of Cincinnatus, and before Perry there was Bruce Barton.
When placed in historical context, the great revelation of the Tea Party is that there’s nothing particularly innovative about it. As young as our nation is, we’re now old enough that everything old is new again. In Vereide’s time Vladimir Lenin was the Osama bin Laden of the day and Communism was today’s Islam. The rise of the German economy and the grand display of Nazism in the 1936 Olympics openly mocked America’s failing economy in the midst of the Depression just as China’s present-day ascension and the grand pageantry of the 2008 Olympics in Beijing taunted Americans during the Great Recession. And just as FDR became the bête noire of the New Order of Cincinnatus, so too is Barack Obama to the conservative, evangelical wing of the Tea Party.
What I find interesting about the parallels between our past and present circumstances is that there is room for both sides of the debate to find comfort. Christian fundamentalists can take heart in the notion that their wing of the Tea Party is an idea whose time has finally come while opponents of radical evangelicals may take solace in the fact that fundamentalism ebbs and flows with the vagaries of the economy. It’s simply a matter of perspective, or perhaps it’s a lack thereof.