U.S. Intellectual History Blog

Not Church v. State but State v. Nation

matt and fdr antichrist

Photo courtesy of Daniel Silliman, Heidelberg University, Germany

Matthew Avery Sutton is one of those scholars of American religion who I had in mind when I asked readers to consider the most recent “religious” turn in academia.  Sutton is an associate professor of history at Washington State University, the author of the highly acclaimed biography of Aimee Semple McPherson, an alum of the IUPUI’s Young Scholars in Religion program, and the winner of the 2012 article of the year in the Journal of American History.  I want to recommend that essay to this blog by contending with what I think is one of the substantial contributions Sutton makes through it.

The title of the essay is nicely provocative: “Was FDR the Antichrist? The Birth of Fundamentalist Antiliberalism in a Global Age.”  The argument, as Sutton makes clear in a vigorously argued introduction, is that Christian fundamentalist eschatology developed a very particular ideological line in direct response to the presidency of Franklin Roosevelt.  Fundamentalist “criticisms of the New Deal,” Sutton asserts, “married traditional American fears of a leviathan state to a particular, depression-era apocalyptic Christian theology.  It was this union that came to define fundamentalists’ suspicion of the federal government and their distinctive twentieth-century political ideology.” (1061)  In short, the birth of the contemporary religious right emerged with the birth of contemporary liberalism.

What was distinctive, though, about fundamentalist critiques and fears of FDR?  What made these any different than Catholic cries against Roosevelt’s creeping socialism or traditional conservatives (though not fundamentalist Christian) outright denunciations of the president’s “betrayal” of America?

By necessity, premillennialism played a role.  Fundamentalists believed they understood “that they alone possessed the road map to God’s millennial kingdom.” (1057)  Such confidence propelled fundamentalists to act in response to the signs of their times.  And oh, what signs they saw!  Following the shocking destruction of World War I and contending with the dramatic effects of the Great Depression, fundamentalists saw the rise of fascism in Europe and specter of another war (against the Jews, specifically) as definitive proof that the end times approached.  FDR dropped into this narrative as the forsaker of Prohibition and usurper of local mores for centralized, secularized, perhaps “socialized” control over American lives.  Sutton writes that Roosevelt’s “charismatic personality combined with his utopian promises convinced many fundamentalists and other conservatives that he might be laying the foundations for a revolution.  Furthermore, his consolidation of power, his controversial policies, and his internationalist sensibilities seemed to parallel biblical descriptions of political conditions in the last days.” (1061)  To forestall he who appeared to be the antichrist, fundamentalist Christians began to push their faithful toward specific ideological understanding of an emerging liberal consensus.  “By preaching cultural engagement and working for conservative political causes while simultaneously predicting an imminent Armageddon, these fundamentalist leaders,” Sutton argues, “sensitized subsequent generations of believers to the dangers of modern liberalism.” (1067)

Sutton seeks to correct the idea that the rise of fundamentalist Christian politics is tied to the post-World War II era as an anti-statist, anti-intellectual movement that made Richard Hofstadter (among others) groan with frustration.  Instead, according to Sutton, fundamentalist Christian leaders saw FDR and the New Deal as a dangerous development because it was part of a larger shift in world history.

It seems to me that a pithy way to get at Sutton’s argument is to say that fundamentalists hated Dr. New Deal but were significantly less definitive about Dr. Win-the-War.  For one of the themes that I think emerges out of Sutton’s research is the paradoxical relationship fundamentalists have to the state–they opposed the tendencies of New Deal liberalism to expand state power (for reasons as varied as premillennialism to racism) and yet, as was clear for the every war since World War II, supported the most extreme form of state power, the authority to command its citizens to kill and die for it.  Of course, the difference might simply be that while the “state” is always a threat to local control and the influence of religion to shape people who live in it, war defends those people who collectively sacrifice for the nation.

In this way, what fundamentalist Christians created an organizing principle that provided ideological structure to the postwar Religious Right–it was the nation versus the state as much as the church versus the state.  Of course, Ronald Reagan used this alignment to great electoral success.  And Sutton’s essay leaves me wondering why fundamentalist Christians did not extend their critique to the state’s war powers and whether there is something particular to premillennialism that allows for a configuration that is pro-war and anti-state.  Can this difference be neatly answered by the argument that the Cold War (and by extension, almost any foreign war) provided yet another sign of the times?  Clearly, the fight against “godless Communism” was one many Christians in the United States got behind, but was this support for the state’s war powers also an effective way for a group disposed toward a separatist theology to speak to other Americans through the language of patriotism?

32 Thoughts on this Post

  1. Thanks Ray for the nice piece. You raise a great question, which I do answer in the larger book that will be out next year. But the quick version is that 1) fundies learned from their mistakes in WWI that not supporting the war effort had significant consequences, and 2) during WWII their eschatological expectations collapsed–Mussolini turned out not to be the Antichrist. As they regrouped they found that placing more emphasis on Jesus’ promise to return to “judge the nations” gave them the room to maintain their premillennialism while also hitching it to the US’s short term success. They began to argue that they could use US global power to bring a last-days revival to the world, which of course was reaffirmed by the Cold War.

    • Matt–I hate to ask you to give too much away from the larger book, but a question did occur to me.

      To nod to Tim’s last post, how much did the “atomic age,” in which it was now possible to imagine the “end of days” on a global scale, make premillennial/apocalyptic thought mainstream and respectable–i. e., “American”? That seems largely to be Angela Lahr’s argument in Millennial Dreams and Apocalyptic Nightmares (Oxford 2008).

      • Thanks Mark. Again, a quick answer: yes, the Cold War made apocalypticism much more palatable to the broader public, as Lahr and Boyer point out. My goal in the book is to trace the history of this movement from roughly 1880s to early cold war, and then I have a concluding chapter that illustrates how this stuff played out in the later Cold War and into the War on Terror. The ms. will go to my editor in a few months and be out next fall, at which point I hope you guys will rip the hell out of it 🙂

      • Well, Matt, you can always take the same thesis and write it up sympathetically, that they were prescient, not merely paranoid, since all their fears did indeed come true. Probably outsell Hal Lindsey, get your own show on TBN.

      • Tom, that’s exactly what makes the story fun. Start with their predictions in 1880, jump to 1939, and it looks like they nailed global conditions more precisely than anyone. Then their predictions unraveled. Fast.

      • Matt, I think we should be very cautious in concluding that all these folks–or even most–deeply believed Judgment Day was truly imminent, be it in the earlier part of the century or per Hal Lindsey and Tim LaHaye.

        I’d guess most toyed with the idea rather than made actual preparations. Yes, there was Judgment Day in the air, but The End was part of the overall zeitgeist, millennialist and atheist alike. They just took on different cultural trappings and manifestations.

        Of the polls: If they called me up and asked if Barack Obama is the anti-Christ, I’d say, sure, put me down for “Strongly Agree.” Then go funk yourself.

        [BTW, it’s also said that American Reformed Judaism’s messiah looks a lot like FDR. And I’ve heard black folk call Barack Obama “our lord.” We don’t take any of this literally.]

    • Sorry to be a late to the party. Great post, Ray. And, as usual, great contribution here, in the article, and with the forthcoming book, Matt.

      As we’ve talked about before, I think an important thing to consider [with regard to pt. 1 above] is that fundamentalists also had their first successes during WWI. Even though postmillennial liberal Protestants criticized them for not supporting the war, fundamentalists succeeded in turning the tide against the creation of a league of nations. Much of the nation supported the idea of an international peace organization going into the Paris Peace Conference and, in addition to Wilson’s shortcomings, fundamentalists successfully mobilized against Wilson’s League Covenant, providing important lessons going into the interwar period.

    • Ok, against my better judgment, i’ll respond to TVD:

      Tom, what a wonderfully absurd and arrogant thing to say! Of course most of these folks believe that the rapture and tribulation could begin at any moment. And they believe these things because they are sure they are true, not because of some sort of personality disorder or social displacement or other “status anxiety.” And they just because they aren’t selling their houses and cars doesn’t mean they’re “hedging their bets.” And just because some have figured out how to cash in on rapture culture doesn’t mean they aren’t “true believers” themselves.

      I get your point that millennarian thought is a human construct, evident across times, cultures, and peoples. The historians’ job should be to historicize millennarian thought while trying not to belittle or dehumanize its adherents (as I believe Matt is). But I guess you’ll correct me in your forthcoming book on premillennialism.

      • And they just because they aren’t selling their houses and cars doesn’t mean they’re “hedging their bets.”

        Of course it does. That’s the point. Geez. And thx for the nice reply.

  2. Thanks for this wonderful introduction to Sutton’s essay. As a bit of a counterpoint to evangelical anti-statism, check out Axel Schaeffer’s Piety and Public Funding, on conservative evangelical courting of government largesse since WWII.


    Christian Realists, like most public intellectuals, were troubled by the New Deal state. It was the whole they and most Americans feared, not the parts (i. e., social security, public works, TVA). Check out, for instance, Francis and Helen MIller’s The Blessings of Liberty, which praises most of the parts yet then critiques the “New Deal paradox” of pursuing participatory democratic ends by bureaucratic/totalitarian means. For Realists and other Protestant liberals, the New Deal just added to their felt need to build the “Church Universal” against totalitarian forms of nationalism. At the same time that the fundies were embracing the “nation versus the state” paradigm–brilliant observation, by the way–ecumenicals were busy juxtaposing the transnational v. the national.

  3. Don’t we need to make some distinctions here? Is “fundamentalists” an adequate description of the theologically conservative premillenial Protestant opponents of FDR?

    For a very large number of them, couldn’t they also be described as white Southern Democrats? Perhaps we could refer to them as latter day “Jacksonians.” When did Jacksonians ever see a war they didn’t like?

    Weren’t they also largely sectarians–Baptists, in fact, or members of denominations that being in the South had adopted a Baptist-approach to the government?

    • They could be described by region, race, gender, political party, denomination, but that wasn’t the point of Sutton’s essay. I do recommend his essay since he includes much more than I could here from specific people, journals, movements and events. The point I tried to make was more conceptual regarding the relationship fundamentalists had to state power in two different ways.

    • John–I spend significant time (re)defining what is and is not a fundamentalist, and in so doing am arguing for a revival of Ernest Sandeen and offering a respectful critique of Marsden. But I simply could not do it all in a 10,000 word article, but your point is an important that I do address.

      • I’m with you, Matt; I’ve always looked to Sandheen’s more narrow definition in my classes, especially when culture warriors started labelling EVERY theological conservative Protestant a fundie.

  4. Ray, I read Sutton’s essay, though don’t have it in front of me at present. But it seems to me that he (or you) is singling out a subset of Fundamentalists — premillennial Dispensationalists.

    John, to your remark, if you drew a Venn diagram, there would be some significant overlap between that group and some Baptists in the south, but they were not contiguous or synonymous. The overlap has increased in the years since the New Deal — indeed, the profile of Dispensationalism is, I think, much bigger and more “mainstream”/popular among the Fundamentalist wing of evangelicalism, thanks to the influence of places like Dallas Theological Seminary and its graduates, including Hal Lindsey and Charles C. Ryrie, whose study Bible — a kind of “C.I. Scofield” light — is available for purchase in LifeWay Christian Stores, the bookstore chain of the Southern Baptist Convention.

    How “all” the Fundamentalists wound up being Dispensationalists — or seemed to — would probably be a very interesting story for someone to tell, if it hasn’t already been told, in whole or in part. I haven’t read Dochuk yet (she sheepishly admits), but perhaps he touched on the burgeoning influence of DTS in the sunbelt — maybe via the whole “Bible Church” phenomenon?

  5. LD: Sandeen, The Roots of Fundamentalism, more or less equates fundamentalism and dispensationalism. As noted above, I agree with this narrow definition as well, although it is not entirely unproblemmatic, given that the word “fundamentalism” originated in the context of the 1920s church controversies and not necessarily in regards to dispensationalism.

  6. Most interesting. If I so much as crack the cover of Sandeen right now, I will go down the rabbit hole for sure. I have exams to pass, and a dissertation to write, and they most assuredly don’t have a damn thing to do with Dispensationalism (unless I get the Exam Question from Hell.)

    But, following Colbert, my gut tells me that the roots of Torrey-esque Fundamentalism are (slightly?) broader than 19th century Dispensationalism.

    It’s interesting that Sandeen published the first edition of his book in 1970 — same year as Lindsey’s Late Great Planet Earth. It seems to me that rather than “resurrecting” Sandeen, it might be helpful to historicize him just a bit. Why was it important in 1970 to situate the origins of Fundamentalism in Dispensationalism? My guess would be, to discredit Dispensationalism, not vice versa — Fundamentalism had already been lumped in with the “paranoid style,” hadn’t it?

    • First time poster but longtime reader.

      As a grad student writing a dissertation on the intellectual roots of post-1967 Christian Zionism, I have spent a lot of time moving from Sandeen’s definition to Marsden’s and back again. One thing I think is crucial is timing. Going into the fundamentalist movement there was a broad coalition of “militant anti-modernism” (Marsden) that was bigger than dispensationalism, but coming out of it in the 1940s, dispensationalists seemed to hold most of the important institutions (Moody, Dallas, even Wheaton had a strong premill president from 1925-40 in J. Oliver Buswell) and most of the movement’s “mindshare” (to borrow a popular marketing term). To a degree that I don’t think many historians realize (Donald Dayton makes a point of this in some of his work, but as far as I know he never fleshes it out), the neo-evangelicalism of Carl FH Henry, Harold Ockenga, and George Eldon Ladd at Fuller Seminary was in large part a reaction against dispensationalism. I think Marsden downplays this aspect in his institutional history, but Mark D’Elia’s more recent biography of Ladd is good on this point. I would add that the middle chapters of Henry’s *The Uneasy Conscience of Modern Fundamentalism* (1947) – usually cited as the founding text of neo-evangelicalism – was a theological attack against the dispensationalist doctrine of the kingdom of God. The parts usually quoted from the book in the historiography about social action and intellectual malaise come from the intro or conclusion, but the meat is a more abstract argument about what Henry saw as the roots of fundamentalist irrelevancy to American culture, namely an eschatology that led to sectarian isolation rather than social engagement.

      The main point being, I guess, that Sandeen’s definition of fundamentalism as mostly millenarianism seems much more compelling for the generation of fundamentalists after his book ends.

    • Except that Ockenga and Henry were staunch premillennialists. They just rebranded it and made it more respectable, along with Graham. Ladd, who does not enter the Fuller story until later, is of course different. But Fuller’s origins were explicitly and emphatically premillennialist.

      • Matt: I doubt that Dan (and certainly I) would disagree with you that the new evangelicalism was an in-house fight between premillennialists. But certainly Sandeen’s definition (which I still prefer) has its problems. J. Gresham Machen, for one, accepted the “fundamentalist” title in a qualified way, but he was no dispensationalist. Francis Schaeffer meanwhile rejected the fundie label yet was a (non-dispensational “historic”) premillennialist.

      • I’m reading up on J. Gresham Machen and thought those here gathered might find it useful. Where HL Mencken despised Wm Jennings Bryan, he thought highly of Machen.

        Here’s an account [from the a Presbyterian magazine] of how the press covered Machen’s 1935 ecclesiastical trial at the hands of his Presbyterian church, which portended the theological future of the American Protestant Mainline. If you’ve read the Trial of Socrates or the New Testament, you have some idea of how it went down.



        In estimating Machen’s place within the fundamentalist-modernist controversy, one must take account of the fact that, judged by various criteria adopted by friend and foe, he was not a fundamentalist at all. His standards of scholarship, his distaste for brief creeds, his rejection of chiliasm, the absence of pietism from his makeup, and in brief, his sense of commitment to the historic Calvinism of the Westminster Confession of Faith disqualified him from being classified precisely as a fundamentalist. And he never spoke of himself as a fundamentalist; indeed he disliked the term.

        At the same time, conscious as he was of taking sides in the great debate as to the nature of the Christian religion. . . he did not think it worthwhile to quibble about the term. . . . In spite of significant differences in outlook and emphasis which distinquished him from many fundamentalists, he was convinced that what he shared with them was more basic than what distinguished him from them.

        Yet the press, in all the stories of the trial, did not understand how Machen’s Calvinist faith differed from fundamentalism. Again and again, as will be shown, the newspapers lumped Machen in with all “fundamentalists.” While some may say this reflected a conscious antagonism toward Christianity, it is probably due more to the press’s general acceptance of a humanistic perspective.

      • DG Hart’s biography of Machen remains the definitive study of the man and the church controversies. Hart distances Machen from the Fundies while noting that Machen did, in public essays, self-identify as a qualified fundamentalist.

        [Please file under FUN FACTS]

        While researching Machen as an undergrad., Princeton Seminary archivists granted me access to newly released files on the 1935 trial. Tom’s right about the Socrates comparison. Denominational leaders outright ordered laypersons to find Machen “guilty” and remove him.

  7. Dan, welcome aboard. Just wade in and have at it!

    I think Wheaton’s Dispensationalist bent lasted for some time after the tenure of Buswell. I *think* I might throw Moody Bible Institute in there as well — and the linkage between Dispensationalism and various strands of missiology is pretty strong. Indeed, it seems to me that part of Fuller’s raison d’etre was to find a (slightly) different rationale for evangelical missiology than that offered from within the Dispensationalist frame.

    The “footprint” of Dispensationalism, especially on post-WWII missiology, is absolutely huge — again, in large part through DTS, as well as through the “Bible Church” movement, which has supplied a lot of missionaries for the New Tribes Missions, Wycliffe Bible Translators (also headquartered in Dallas), and several other trans-denominational “mission sending” organizations. Many of these groups are informed (and staffed!) to one degree or another by a heavy dose of DTS-style dispensationalist eschatology (though the content of that has shifted somewhat in the last few decades, I believe. Lewis Sperry Chafer is no longer the required systematics text).

    You will be able to tell me if this is the case, but I think that DTS remains a fairly major player in the institutional shape of Christian Zionism via support of “Messianic Judaism” and other movements.

    AFAIK, Fuller’s main foray into missiological education of laypeople from the 1990s on is the “Perspectives” curriculum/movement, which does not emphasize Christian Zionism but does have a clear eschatological bent: Jesus won’t return until some from every tribe and tongue and people and nation have turned to him. Something like that.

    Would be glad for you to provide insight on this. I mean, if you’ve already been down the rabbit hole and come back to tell the tale, why should I make the trip? 🙂

  8. Not to be a hairsplitter — not my style — but I think it’s important to distinguish between “premillennialism” and “Dispensationalism,” both historically and “abstractly.” The second term is a subset of the first term. This seems to me important in identifying one of the avenues by which Fuller was able to distinguish/distance its approach from that of DTS. (DTS has soft-pedaled some of its own former eschatological commitments too, though the institution is still boldly holding the line on those upstart lady preachers. Fuller is okay with the lady preachers, but AFAIK they’re still mulling over the question of gay clergy.)

    (This comment is a reply to a discussion upthread between Matt and Dan — I just generally don’t do threaded comments.)

    • Except I’ll note here that I posted this comment at 4:20, and Mark Edwards posted a similar observation upthread at 4:21. Great minds think alike!

  9. My trip (and setting up camp) in the rabbit hole comes with making some razor thin distinctions. One is on the in-house premillenialist fight. Historic and dispensational premillennialism, while obviously close to each other on the broad spectrum of eschatological views, have radically different social implications. The “already, not yet” inaugurated kingdom theology of Henry, Ladd, et al. included an explicit theological mandate for Christians to try and better their social surroundings, or at least wage some type of intellectual battle in the realm of culture. Dispensationalism, which emphasized the millennial kingdom was Jewish, not gentile (churchly), in character, saw no such mandate. While both were premillennial (that is, Christ will return to earth and then establish the millennial kingdom of Revelation 20, not return after it is established), the differences are important.

    Which leads into one of LD’s questions, on DTS’s (and dispensationalism more broadly) role in the Christian Zionist movement. I think the ties are more complicated and less direct. They do support Messianic Jewish efforts, but that is a comparatively minor and politically insignificant (if highly contentious) group in terms of Christian Zionist goals with foreign policy and US-Israeli ties. Without going into an entirely too long analysis of the institutions that make up the Christian Zionist establishment, I think almost everyone (including me when I began this) would be surprised to find how many non-dispensationalist (some anti-dispensationalist) leaders there are. One anecdote is when I sat in on last year’s International Christian Embassy conference (ICEJ is the most important Christian Zionist group in Israel), the opening speech by ICEJ’s president, Jurgen Buhler, contained an almost 10 minute attack against dispensationalism. I think there are certain dispensationalist themes (prophetic significance of 1948 and 1967, immanence of Christ’s return, etc.) that have much more sway than dispensationalism as a theology. And I think the membership, as opposed to the leadership, is much more dispensationalist, too. Again, a razor thin distinction, but one that has (I hope, for my dissertation’s sake!) more visible and substantial political and institutional effects.

    A few more brief points:

    – Moody: yes, it still remains largely dispensationalist today, though not as much as, say, 30 years ago.
    – dispensationalism is certainly changing. It is, somewhat ironically, moving much closer to Ladd’s historic premillenial views on a lot of technical and hermeneutical issues. This is a shift that began in the late-1980s, spurred in part by some DTS professors (Craig Blasing and Darrell Bock). They call it “progressive dispensationalism” (progressive used as a technical term more than a value judgment, though I’m sure there’s a little of the latter, too).
    – I’m not the best read on missiological differences, but my sense is that the eschatological component of missions has waned since the 1970s across the board. Even dispensationalist institutions like Moody grapple more with problems of “contextualization” and cultural exchange than debates on the eschatological significance of mission work itself. It is an always present factor, but not a primary one like it may have been 50 years ago.

  10. Dan Hummel, your dissertation is going to rock the house! Well done on drawing these distinctions — they are indeed significant. The tendency to lump “premillennialism” into one big batch (never mind treating “premillennialism” and “fundamentalism” as synonymous/interchangeable) obscures a great deal that your dissertation is, it seems, going to make clear. It will be a good read — you heard it here first, folks.

    On the connection between eschatology and missiology — still pretty strong, I think, though very much more subterranean than it used to be. The emphasis on contextualization seems to me to be a strategic shift, but the underlying rationale is still very premillennialist — time is running out, the Lord could come any day, how will they believe if they have not heard, etc., etc. Lots of emphasis now on “tentmaker” evangelism, placing missionaries in “closed” countries under false pretexts (necessary in the Post-Colonial era in a way that it was not before) — but still the sense of urgency in view of the Lord’s imminent return.

    Heck, just gesture toward missiology in your introduction or your conclusion, and you’re good. Let someone else wallow in that rabbit hole.

    Won’t be me!

    • Thanks for the encouragement! Gesturing toward the need for future work sounds like a fun task, actually.

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