S5:E18 Looking Backward

S5:E18 Looking Backward

A socialist bestseller that got everything wrong

Now that we’ve read In His Steps together and discussed it, let’s talk about another work of fiction. Looking Backward was written by Edward Bellamy. That name may sound familiar! We talked about his cousin Frances Bellamy in the episode about the Pledge of Allegiance. Frances was a Christian socialist. Edward wrote his famous book looking forward to the year 2000. He predicted that the United States would be a socialist paradise. People would work hard, retire early, and equality would reign.

None of that came true.

We’re talking about it today in order to understand the zeitgeist in the late 1800s. This book sold over half a million copies in its first few years of publication. It is now over a million copies. That doesn’t happen without stirring something in society. As we’ll see, socialism was tied to the Social Gospel. The opposition to the Social Gospel is what would go on to create the Christian fundamentalist movement.

Helpful Links:

Discussion Questions:

  • How have fictional books you’ve read impacted your worldview?
  • What do you think about Bellamy’s predictions?
  • How does the fear of socialism and communism impact evangelicalism?
  • What real threats were facing evangelicalism in the 1800s? How about now?
S4:E3 Jesus and John Wayne

S4:E3 Jesus and John Wayne

How the myth of the cowboy encouraged Christians to vote for Donald Trump and changed Christian masculinity

What do you think of when you picture a cowboy? A rugged, handsome individual? A lover? Someone who doesn’t need the government’s help? Evangelicalism has long pushed this as the ideal model for the Christian man. What is the impact of that set of ideas?

John Wayne and Ronald Reagan have both become popular figures in American men’s ministries. Their names come up often, they both played cowboys in Hollywood. But they are unlikely heroes. Both men were divorced. Wayne wasn’t an evangelical, and Reagan had once been a democrat. But both men were instrumental in whipping up anti-communist sentiment in the US, building credibility with a religion focused on individualism.

You can draw a line from them straight to former president Donald J. Trump. All three had questionable public morals but were seen as strong, uncompromising figures. They are seen in many men’s books as the epitome of masculinity. That idea, though, comes in contrast with Jesus’ own words about turning the other cheek, forgiving our enemies, and loving our enemies.

In this episode, Chris talks with Kristin Kobes Du Mez, author of “Jesus and John Wayne: How Evangelicals Corrupted a Faith and Fractured a Nation“.

Discussion Questions

  • What do you think of when you picture a cowboy?
  • How have you heard cowboys, soldiers, and fighters discussed in evangelical circles?
  • What books have you read that stressed the importance of tough men?
  • What do you picture when you think of a Christian man? How has that been shaped?
  • What do you picture when you think of a Christian woman? How has that been shaped?
  • What is your idea of Jesus like? Is He a warrior, a gentle savior, or both?
  • Can you see the link between the cowboy image and Donald Trump?
S3:E43 Takeaway 2: Communism Can Be Used As A Scapegoat

S3:E43 Takeaway 2: Communism Can Be Used As A Scapegoat

An interview with Jemar Tisby to discuss race, communism, and why we sometimes don’t like to talk about either.

Season three of Truce has been all about how the rise of communism in Russia impacted the Christian Church. As we approach the end of the season, I want to highlight some of the important takeaways.

One of them is that communism can be used as a scapegoat. That is used by some people to get the public to hate or disregard something they don’t like. That could be the COVID crisis or Black Lives Matter.

Our guest today is Jemar Tisby. He’s the author of the New York Times Bestseller “The Color of Compromise” and “How to Fight Racism“. He’s also a frequent voice on the Pass The Mic Podcast. You can access his Substack email list here.

Helpful links:

  • Article about the Wyoming Health Department official who resigned due to his denial of COVID 19.
S3:36 McCarthyism Before McCarthy

S3:36 McCarthyism Before McCarthy

Many people think that Joseph McCarthy and his witch hunts for Communists in the US government were a one-time event. But the US was hunting suspected Communists long before McCarthyism. We explore how the New York City School System set up a kangaroo court to flush out communists with the Rapp-Coudert Committee. The New York City Public Schools did McCarthyism long before Joseph McCarthy.

Many of us are familiar with Joseph McCarthy and his infamous hearings on Communism in the US government. What we don’t know is that McCarthy was far from the first person to use these tactics. In this episode of the Truce Podcast we examine the Rapp-Coudert Committee– an effort in the New York City school system to root out Communists, Fascists, and Nazis who might be teaching students. In the end, even outspoken Christians participated in this witch hunt, which targeted mostly Jewish teachers and staff.

Discussion Questions:

  • Why were Americans so afraid of Communists?
  • Was it against the constitution to withhold rights from people because Rapp-Coudert was just a hearing?
  • What would you have done if you were accused of being a communist? Would you have named names?
  • Why were Jewish people targeted for violence by the Christian Front?
  • Do the actions of one part of a group define the entire group? In this episode, some communists advocated for using schools to teach communism. But, to our knowledge, nobody in the district did that. Yet they were accused of having done so.
  • Who do we scapegoat today in our society?
  • Knowing that the Soviets did have spies working in the US government (like Klaus Fuchs who stole nuclear secrets), what should the government have done to root out spies?
  • Did you know that the New York City Public Schools did McCarthyism long before Joseph McCarthy?

Helpful Links:

Transcript (some dialogue may have changed)

This episode is part of a long series that explores how communism in Russia impacted the American Christian Church. This episode can stand on its own, but when you’re done, go back and start at the beginning of season three.

The New York City Public Schools did McCarthyism long before Joseph McCarthy.

Picture the smiling, bearded face of Santa Clause. A cute little cartoon Santa standing on a mound of snow in the North Pole. An igloo in the background. This is from a comic strip by Herbert Block. It came out when Americans were petrified of Soviet Russia. Nothing like a little Cold War humor. The caption under this happy drawing reads:

CAPTION: An International agent with headquarters close to Soviet Russia.

Yep, Santa travels internationally. The north pole looks kind of close to Russia on the map. Okay… The next block has his naughty and nice list.

CAPTION: Head of a gigantic espionage ring with files on millions of Americans.

A collection bin for charity sits next to a stuffed St. Nick in a department store. A man reaches into his pocket to donate.

CAPTION: Openly opposed to the profit motive, and flooding the country with propaganda.

Maybe you see where this is going. Another block shows a set of parents stands by an open closet with presents spilling out. They hold their fingers to their mouths and made a shhh sound to each other.

CAPTION: Responsible for the fomenting of plots and secret actions in countless American homes.

Finally, Santa and his reindeer fly over a snowy city, passing in front of the moon.

CAPTION: Planning to enter the US illegally and under cover of darkness the night of December 24th!

The cartoon does what only really smart humor can do – it points out a deep truth, while making us laugh. In the case of this strip, it demonstrates that just about anyone could be accused of being a Soviet Spy.

It was written in response to the Dies Committee, also known as the Special Committee on Un-American Activities. Created in 1938 by the House of Representatives, to look into the spread of propaganda and to determine who, if anyone, was involved in communist activities in the United States.

They were not the first to do this. They were preceded by the Special Committee to Investigate Communist Activities of 1930. Followed by the Special Committee on Un-American Activities of 1934. They were very creative with their names back then.

The United States, even before WWII, was suspicious of its own citizens. Were we spreading ideas that might undermine our system of government? Was Bolshevism growing in America? This created a series of mini-red scares. Kangaroo courts in the land of the free and the home of the brave that dragged people before public hearings, and smeared their names. For thought crimes.

We like to think of the United States as a place with a long history of free speech. Freedom of ideas. The right to assemble. But in the 1900’s, all of that was put on trial as a quote-unquote Christian nation feared impending doom.

You’re listening to the show that uses journalistic tools to look inside the Christian Church. We press pause on the culture wars in order to explore how we got here and how we can do better. I’m Chris Staron. This is Truce.

The Hunt for Communists in NY City School Districts

By 1940 the world was at war. Well, not the US. We were actually pretty late to WWII. There was a lot of pressure in the US to stay out of it.

Europe was in serious trouble. Fascism was taking over. We were emerging from the Great Depression. Even though we were out of the war, we were worried that foreign countries could be having an influence on us.

So, when Herbert Rapp, a Republican in the New York State legislature introduced a bill to examine school spending in the state, someone said…

MAN: Hey, if we’re going to be investigating the schools anyway, why don’t we also see if there are any Fascist, Nazi, and Communist influences in the schools?

Thus was born the Rapp-Coudert Committee.

Remember, the committee was interested in budgets. Numbers. While they were there, could they also root out Fascists, Nazis, and Communists? Kind of a lot for one committee. And there were a plenty of interests at play. One estimate from the time said that 10% of students in New York City had to stand because there were no desks for them. Class sizes ballooned to fifty kids per teacher. There wasn’t a lot of money. This was the end of the Depression. Conservatives wanted to balance the state budget by cutting schools even further. Liberals sought more funding. But everyone wanted to know… were children, some of them standing all day, being taught Fascist or Communist ideas in the classroom?

They chose as their chief counsel a man named Paul Windels.

The Man Who Fought Tammany Hall

Paul Windels was the real deal, with an impressive track record. New York City had been super corrupt for decades at this point. Graft. Government contracts going to the highest bidder. All organized by a New York City political organization known as Tammany Hall. Corruption from top to bottom. Fascinating stuff. Mobsters. Deals made in back rooms. Windels and a bunch of other people were instrumental in bringing down the corruption.

So when it came time to choose someone to lead the Rapp-Coudert Committee, to be the chief counsel, Windels looked like the perfect guy. Not only was he a Republican, which means he’d be tough on the budget, but he was also a liberal. Yes, that was possible. Whereas later hearings like those under Joseph McCarthy would be pigeon-holed as conservative witch hunts, Rapp Coudert was bipartisan. Many of its key participants were liberals.

Windels said he’d run this investigation like the one that brought down Tammany Hall7. Because it had been so successful in rooting out corruption. What he wanted, at least, what he said he wanted to was to steer clear of pitfalls earlier committees had fallen into. Making charges against people based on:

WINDELS: Gossip, rumor, or hearsay.

His stated desire was essentially to treat these hearings, these inquiries into people who might be spreading Fascism and Communism, like a grand jury. Keep it fair. Keep it honest.

That’s… that’s not what he did though. What he ended up doing was trying people in the court of public opinion. He denied them their rights. Withheld information. Assumed guilt. Ruining careers, destroying friendships, and setting the stage for the more famous McCarthy hearings of the 1950s.

Here’s how it worked. Windels and his team interviewed people. Staff, faculty, in closed door meetings.

WINDELS: Are you now, or have you ever been a member of the communist party?

Something like that. But the person being interviewed did not have a right to a lawyer. This was just a hearing, after all. They’d have someone in the corner taking dictation. The transcript would then be typed up and… kept secret. The transcripts of those private hearings were only for Windels and his team. Meaning, that the defense didn’t have access to the evidence. In a trial, lawyers defending someone have a right to the evidence that will be used against their client. Transcripts of depositions. Interviews. Police records. This was just a hearing, though. That information was held only by Windels and his team.

When they got into the public hearing, in front of the press and lookie-loos, Windels called witnesses to the stand. But nobody was allowed to offer a defense or cross-examine the witnesses. Meaning if Windels were to say…

WINDELS: (wry) What is it like being a dirty communist?

Which I don’t think he said, I made that up. But if he said that, there would be nobody to counter with…

MAN: (as in a courtroom) Objection!

Like you see in courtroom dramas. Or to ask follow up questions of witnesses. So, if you had a witness on the stand who said…

WOMAN: I believe that Professor Smith is a communist.

… there was nobody there to ask a follow up question. No matter how obvious that question was. Like…

MAN: How do you know that Professor Smith is a communist? Did you see him distributing materials? Attending rallies? Recruiting students?

Nope. Nobody could ask those follow ups. If someone said…

WOMAN: I believe that Professor Smith is a communist.

… and Windels and his team didn’t ask how in the world she knew that, the question never got asked. You see the problem with that? People on the stand could speculate and, maybe, nobody would question them. Whatever they said, no matter how unfounded, made it into the public record. And then the newspapers. Which is another difference between this hearing and a grand jury: grand juries are performed in secret. The Rapp-Coudert hearings were public.

The Rapp-Coudert Trap

So, let’s say that you and I are communists. I’m not a communist, we’re pretending here. Maybe we just went to a meeting once. Read some literature. Or maybe one of our close colleagues was a communist. They might suspect us of being Soviet supporters too. What are our options? We are called before this committee to testify. The meeting is public, the media are present. What do we say? How do we defend ourselves?

Why don’t we plead the fifth?

MAN: I plead the fifth.

You probably hear that in courtroom dramas too. It’s referring to the fifth amendment of the constitution, which says, among other things, that a person can’t be…

CONSTITUTION: “…compelled in any criminal case to be a witness against himself.”

The City of New York got around the fifth amendment by requiring in its charter that all public employees had to cooperate with legislative and other investigations. If they didn’t comply, they could lose their job. Simply for staying… silent. Which, under a normal trial, would be their right. Laws protecting people from stuff like this wouldn’t be strengthened until the 1960s.

So, if you and I, two suspected communists, stay silent, we risk losing our jobs. No small problem while the US was still in the Great Depression. That was not exactly the best time to go unemployed.

Also, Windels and public opinion were against you if you pled the fifth, seeing it as an admission of guilt. It’s bad logic, but it went something like this: why would you keep quiet if you had nothing to hide? Umm… because it’s you right?

When Communism Was Illegal

In 1940 there was nothing illegal about being a member of the Communist Party. Not until 1954 during the Eisenhower Administration. Nor was it illegal to go to meetings, read or distribute literature, or invite people to join. All of that was still legal.

Yet public opinion was against communism, even at this time. Before the Cold War really heated up. Or cooled down. Or whatever. The fear was less about one person being a communist. The concern was that a teacher would share their ideas with the classroom. Indoctrinate others. The Rapp-Coudert Commission was going to stop that from happening. And fix the budget or whatever, too. If they had time.

Public opinion was with them. Even among liberals. Teachers were expected to keep their personal beliefs out of the classroom. A New York Times article from 1940 argued that freedom of speech and assembly ended at the schoolhouse door. Communists, it argued, lost first amendment protection by “practicing bad faith”

Windels said in his opening remarks:

WINDELS: “there is no civil liberty to commit a breach of trust; there is no academic freedom to be one thing and pretend to be something else; there is no freedom in this country to poison the rising generation in the name of any political philosophy which practices hypocrisy and deception, as a part of its central and vital doctrine.”

In other words, don’t be sharing your communist principles in public schools or colleges. They undermine our system of government. They poison our kid’s minds. Don’t do it.

There Were Communists in New York City Schools

Let me let you in on a little secret. Here, let’s go into this back room where nobody else can hear us.

Okay, I probably shouldn’t be telling you this… There were communists among the faculty and staff… estimates at the time said there were as many as a few hundred. But over 30,000 people worked there. Even if there were a thousand secret communists, which was the high estimate, we’d still only be talking about 3% of the staff. So, there were communists, but not many compared to the number of staff. Those guys, the people doing the hearings… they were afraid that this tiny minority might use their platforms as teachers to spread communism through the New York City School systems. Here’s the problem…Windels never had any evidence that they’d shared their political opinions with anyone else.

That’s key. There was no evidence that they’d indoctrinated their students. None. His team found literature that encouraged communists to use schools to spread their beliefs… but there was no evidence that anyone ever had.

I know that may sound like I’m splitting hairs. But there were lots of different kinds of communists, just like there are lots of different kinds of Christians. Some communists did advocate for infiltrating the schools. Does that mean that the people pulled before the Rapp Coudert Commission did? No. It’s like if you found a pamphlet calling for all Christians to handle snakes to test your faith in God. Does that prove that all Christians handle snakes? No. Not at all. The belief of one segment of a group does not necessarily define the whole group.

Windels and his team had no evidence of indoctrination. Still – in their minds, if you were a communist it was proof enough that you were using your position to influence the minds of young people.

Okay… Coast is clear. I don’t think they saw us duck in here. Let’s go.

Where were we? Right. Let’s continue our example. If someone said that I were a communist, even if they didn’t present any evidence, I was in a tight place. Lets take another look at my options.

What To Do If You’re A Suspected Communist

If I pled the fifth, I could be fired and the press would assume I was guilty. I could admit to being a communist, but then I’d definitely get fired.. Or… I could name names. List some communists or people I might just have a hunch about and, by doing so, prove what a patriot I am.

None of those are particularly great options. Especially if you had some affiliation with the Communist party. Someone may come out and say your name. Then you’d be fired and blacklisted for lying.

If you were accused… what could you do? With their options narrowing, some of those who would be called to the witness stand came up with a plan. A way to blame all of this on one man. Pick a patsy. One guy to take the fall for everyone.

We’ll be back after these messages.


Some people named names. People like professor Bernard Grabanier, a former member of the Party himself. William Martin Canning was another. He alone pointed fingers at 44 municipal college employees in the public hearing, though he’d named 63 in the private ones. 37 of those were confirmed by a woman named Annette Sherman-Gottsengen. Based on the testimony of just those two people, suspensions began within weeks.

Anyone could see what was at stake. Not only could you lose your job, but possibly your career in academia. And your name would be smeared in the papers. Even just an accusation meant your pals stopped talking to you because it became a liability to be your friend. Nobody’s going to publish the research of a suspected communist. Family members, colleagues, friends disappeared for fear of being roped into your nightmare.

Those who had participated in communist activities came up with a plan: have one person admit to being a communist. The communist. The only one in the teachers union. That guy could draw the public attention on himself, be the sacrificial lamb… and then protest the hearing in a higher court to challenge the system. Get everyone else off the hook, and provide legal grounds for a real trial.

The Tale of Morris Shappes

The lot fell on Morris Shappes. Shappes was an immigrant from Ukraine. A trade unionist and anti-fascist. He spoke with a stammer, and was beloved by his students. He’d joined the communist party around 1934. When it was his turn to testify, he claimed that he was the unicorn: the last and only communist member of the staff.

It didn’t work. Because people like William Canning had already provided a list of suspected communists. Shappes was indicted for perjury eight days later, convicted on four counts, and served a year and a half in jail.

With their attempt to move all of the blame on one guy behind them, more faculty and staff were called to testify. Soon enough, an unhappy pattern started to emerge.

The Hunt for Communists Became a Hunt for Jews

Of 20 people suspended in May, all but 4 were Jewish. It wasn’t just in these hearings that anti-semitism cropped up. In 1949 New York passed the Feinberg Law, which blocked communists from getting jobs in public education. In the first wave of firings after Feinberg, all but one were Jews.

Public opinion was not with Jewish people. In 1938, 60% of Americans polled had negative opinions of Jews. Before 1933 there were five organizations in the US that were explicitly anti-semitic. By 1941, there were over 100.

This wave of anti-semitism was felt even in Christian circles. Father Charles Coughlin was a famous radio host and Nazi sympathizer. In May of 1938, he called for the founding of the Christian Front – a movement dedicated to protecting supposedly Christian institutions from communists… and Jews. This guy is just bumming me out.

The Christian Front organized meetings on street corners and in assembly halls. They were largely working-class Catholic immigrants from Ireland, Poland, and Italy. Folks notoriously stuck with bad jobs. No upward mobility. They saw Wall Street as run by Jews, and the New Deal as creeping socialism. Because of movements like The Christian Front, New York saw a sharp rise in anti-semitic violence.

Christians Censored The Golden Age of Cinema

This happened at the same time that Hollywood started censoring content. Rumors surfaced that Jewish Hollywood executives were using lude content to subvert society. Spreading communist ideas through film. Christian groups protested, forcing studios to self-censor. I did a whole episode about this, but it bears repeating: the golden age of cinema didn’t occur because people were cleaner, happier, nicer people back then. It happened because Christian groups threatened to boycott the industry. And Jewish people who did work in the film world, were afraid of persecution. Apparently, with good reason. Remember, this is right when Jewish people were being persecuted in Europe. Why couldn’t that happen here?

Jewish Professors at Brooklyn College and City College of New York provided a list of Nazi sympathizers and anti-black and anti-Jewish acts performed by staff members. Even outright supporters of Mussolini. Yet the Coudert Committee concluded that there was no Nazi or Fascist activity in the schools. None. Lots of commies. No Nazis. Despite evidence to the contrary.

In all the committee interviewed almost 700 people in its kangaroo style. Interrogating 500 odd witnesses. At City College of New York alone, the investigation resulted in the firing of over 50 staff members.

Ultimately, the committee lasted for just a few years. One nail in its coffin was Germany’s invasion of the Soviet Union in 1941. When the Soviet Union was forced to join the fight against the Axis powers. Not long after, Pearl Harbor was attacked by the Japanese along with many other targets in the Pacific. The US was at war. What good would it do to persecute our allies?

The Rapp-Coudert hearing was just a precursor to what would come after the war. Blacklists in Hollywood. McCarthyism in the government. Following much the same tack as their predecessor. These kangaroo courts pulled people into the public eye. Ignored due process, constitutional rights, and ruined reputations. We like to think of the United States as a place where people are free. They can think what they want. Join any group they choose. Speak as they wish. But history shows us that we don’t really hold to that standard.

When fear grips the country, all bets are off. We act irrationally.

Compare these persecutions in the US and those in the Soviet Union. The Soviets oppressed people who didn’t agree with them. So did the US. Of course, the difference is that the United States didn’t kill our targets in these cases. We did however, shame them publicly, often on weak or nonexistent evidence ruining relationships, careers, and families.

Today these stories should bring up a lot of questions in our minds. If we are a Christian nation as some people say, how should we deal with our enemies, real or perceived? One of the big questions of this season is who gets to experience the rights as a citizen? Who gets protection under the First Amendment to speak freely? Who can plead the fifth?

How Do Christians React During Dark Times?

Is it just people who think like we do? Christians, are you getting this? Is it just people who think like we do? If so, that’s not really free speech at all.

Perhaps our fear of the other just isn’t working for us. It certainly creates a frustrating past for us to look back on. When we see our country persecuting people for a legal belief. Christian groups scapegoated Jewish people.

Yet… sigh… it’s too simple to leave it there. Wouldn’t it be nice and tidy if I just made us feel bad about the past? Yeah, it’s not that easy. It ignores a really basic fact: There were Soviet spies in the Allied countries. People like Klaus Fuchs, a primary physicist on the Manhattan Project who passed information about the atomic bomb to the Soviets. Yeah, he was a communist. And not the only one. There were Soviet spied in many parts of the US government. It was because of men like Fuchs that the Soviets went from far behind the US to equal to us in nuclear capability in short order.

Messes with your moral indignation, right? The trick is that history is complicated. We lampoon the Cold War as being a bunch of worry about nothing – but there was a lot on the line. The fate of the whole world, really, because of the threat of nuclear war.

But when we suspend justice and due process in our desperate attempts to find someone to blame… is that really the action of a Christian people? For the people of the Christian Front it was easier to blame the Jews than to fix the underlying societal problems. For people like Windels, it was easier to use trickery to frame someone for a crime than to do an actual investigation. Give the people a quick, clear enemy.

When we suspend justice in favor of a circus we end up where we started: with guys like Santa Clause seeming like the enemy. His coat is red! So is Rudolph’s nose! Of course he’s a communist! But those kinds of conspiracies make us looks ridiculous. We Christians can’t be about convenient conspiracies… we have to be willing to do the hard work of justice.

Want to go deeper into these issues around the dinner table tonight? Well, I’ve put together some questions based on this episode that you can use to spark discussion. They are in your show notes on your device and on the website at trucepodcast.com

The backbone of this story comes from the book Bad Faith by Andrew Feffer. I’ve got a list of other resources on the website. Truce is a listener supported show. My goal is to do this full time. If you’d like to be a part of making these stories, of raising the bar on what Christian media can be, visit trucepodcast.com/donate. This topic is really important to me, so I’ll be posting a special bonus about why it’s important for patrons.

I’d also love for you to follow the show on social media. I’m on Instagram, Twitter, and Facebook at @trucepodcast. And would you consider leaving a comment on your podcasting app? It helps people find the show and I do try to read them. It’s nice to hear from ya’ll.

Thanks again to Roy Browning from JMC Brands who built the website at trucepodcast.com and my friend the author Andrew Huff who designed the logo.

God willing we’ll be back in two weeks with more. I’m Chris Staron. This is Truce.

S3:E32 Billy Graham v. Communism

S3:E32 Billy Graham v. Communism

Billy Graham may have been the most important evangelist of the 20th century. His words were heard by millions of people around the world. He preached in person, on television, magazines, radio, and film. His impact is still felt today. He is also one of the people most responsible for tying Christianity, Capitalism, and the United States. But his legacy didn’t stop there. While he denounced communism, he went to great lengths to ensure that communists had access to the gospel too.

Our guest this episode is David Aikman, author of “Billy Graham: His Life and Influence“.

Discussion Questions:

  • Is Jesus’ message individualistic, collectivist, or something in between?
  • If the majority of a nation’s citizens say they are Christians, does that make it a Christian nation?
  • Does hobnobbing with the wealthy and politically connected occasionally backfire? Like, say, when you’ve come out backing Richard Nixon during the Watergate scandal as Graham did?
  • Is it possible to cross political and theological lines today in order to spread the gospel?
  • When do we prioritize the gospel over social issues and when do we have to put our foot down?
  • When do you walk out into the stadium and take down the ropes that divide us and when do you leave the ropes where they are?

Helpful Links:

Topics Discussed:

  • Billy Graham’s evangelistic efforts in Romania, Hungary, and China
  • Was Billy Graham anti-communist?
  • Billy Graham’s sermons
  • Liberal Christians
  • Was Billy Graham a fundamentalist?
  • What is the difference between fundamentalist and mainline churches?

NOTE: We do try to get these right, but because of editing changes and our lack of staffing, they may not be perfectly accurate.

CS: Chris Staron (host)

DA: David Aikman (guest)

CS: This episode is part of a long series examining how Communism in Russia impacted the American Christian Church. This episode can stand on its own, but when you’re done go back and start at the beginning of season 3.

Also – we’re talking about Billy Graham. In the spirit of full disclosure, I produce podcast ads for Christianity Today, and CT serves ads to this show. Billy Graham started Christianity Today so we have a loose affiliation, though I tried not to let that influence this episode. Okay… here is the show.

Should Christians get involved in politics? Oof, big question right out of the gate. It’s going to come up a lot in the coming months. It seems like a simple question, though, right? It’s far from simple.

Lets say you’re an an American evangelist in the mid-1950s. Nice suit. A hat. Everyone wore hats back then. Maybe you travel around with a tent with someone playing gospel music behind you. What is your main goal? To reach people for Jesus, I’m guessing. Because, like many Christians, you probably believe that Jesus is the way to heaven. That it’s your duty to go out on that stage and snatch souls from the mouth of hell.

That’s your job. And there can be no more important task.

If you believe that it’s your job to bring salvation… all other responsibilities fall away. Right?

Well, you’ve got a problem. The 1950s were a time of racial segregation in the United States. If you preached in the south, the auditorium or tent or stadium would be divided in two: one section for the whites, one section for black people. You could say something on stage about the problem of racism… but you know that would scare away some of the audience, an audience who needs to hear about Jesus or risk eternal torment. If you don’t say something, though… history will judge you.

Do you get involved in politics or do you stay out of it?

There is a man who had to walk this line between politics and eternity. A man responsible in no small part for creating an era of public faith in the mid-1900s. For bonding capitalism with Christianity and Christianity with the United States. His name was Billy Graham.

DA: The first crusade I attended was many decades ago in 1975 in Hong Kong.

CS: This is David Aikman. A long time journalist for Time Magazine who interviewed everyone from Boris Yeltsin to Manuel Noriega. He’s also the author of Billy Graham: His Life and Influence. Mr. Aikman was in a nursing home when I interviewed him so you may hear some noise in the background.

DA: When he made his invitation for people to get up from their seats there was a moment of silence before the people started coming and there was a palpable sense of the Holy Spirit absolutely coming over that place. I will never forget that.

CS: It may be hard to imagine the impact of Billy Graham in part because the numbers are so large. In 1951 he spoke to 100,000 people at the Rose Bowl in LA. 336,000 people in Forth Worth Texas.

Though he died in February of 2018, his name is still with us. When Christianity Today’s former editor Mark Galli, who appeared on this show two years ago, wrote that CT could not support President Donald Trump, Graham’s son Franklin claimed that his father would not have approved. Billy Graham was pulled into politics, even after his death.

Much of his career took place during the Cold War. Historic, era defining, and controversial, Graham not only spoke out against atheistic communism… he also took bold steps to preach where nobody else could go.

You’re listening to the show that uses journalistic tools to look inside the Christian Church. We press pause on the culture wars in order to explore how we got here and how we can do better. I’m Chris Staron. This is Truce.

September 3, 1949. Scientists for the United States recorded some strange seismic activity. Coming from the Soviet Union. It could mean only one thing… the Soviets had tested their first nuclear bomb, this one detonated underground.

President Truman told the scientists to double-check their work. It had been only 4 years since the US dropped Little Boy and Fat Man on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. The United States no longer held a monopoly on nuclear weaponry. Truman released a statement that read, in part:

TRUMAN: (read by an actor) We have evidence that within recent weeks an atomic explosion occurred in the U.S.S.R. Ever since atomic energy was first released by man, the eventual development of this new force by other nations was to be expected. This probability has always been taken into account by us.

CS: World War II was only recently over. The threat of nuclear war was upon us. War between an atheistic, communist nation and a capitalist nation with freedom of religion. It’s easy to discount that reality. See it as old fashioned. Scare tactics to control the population. Resist that temptation.

One bomb, with no warning, could wipe out an entire city. Soon, those missiles would be aimed at us.

Billy Graham was born in 1918, the son of a farmer. When he was 16 an itinerant evangelist named Mordecai Ham came to Charlotte, North Carolina to preach a hellfire and brimstone sermon. Young Billy walked forward that night but also bowed a knee a few years later while on the eighteenth hole of a golf course. While he was in training to be an evangelist, by the way. FYI, it’s possible to be in the ministry and not really know God at all.

After college he toured with Youth For Christ, preaching campaigns with musicians, moving from city to city. At this point, he was like a lot of other revivalists. Some ups, some downs. Not the draw that would later become.

Town after town. Month after month.

It wasn’t all roses. Billy Graham himself had a crisis of faith. A friend questioned him about whether or not the Bible could be true. Graham didn’t see a lot of return for his preaching. A crusade in Pennsylvania didn’t go as hoped. Graham went out for a walk one night, set his Bible on a tree stump, and prayed that God would solidify his faith in the Scriptures.

A month later, his team arrived in Los Angeles in 1949.

An advance team of fundamentalists did their work advertising the revival, which took place under a big canvas tent. Two days before the revival began, President Harry Truman told the world that the Soviet Union had the atomic bomb. Graham’s first Sunday sermon did not steer away from this looming threat.

GRAHAM: (read by an actor) “This nation now knows that Russia has the atomic bomb! Do you know the area that is marked out for the enemy’s first atomic bomb? New York! Secondly, Chicago! And thirdly, the city of Los Angeles! Do you know the Fifth Columnists, called Communists, are more rampant in Los Angeles than any other city in America?”

CS: Fifth Columnists is a term used to refer to people within a country who are working to overthrow that country. His concern wasn’t just Soviets, but also communists at home.

Later in his sermon, he called Communism: “a religion that is inspired, directed and motivated by the Devil himself who has declared war against Almighty God.”

This era was a defining moment for Graham. Messages like this one found success for the first three weeks of the Los Angeles crusade. Then a famous radio star said on the air that he’d been saved Graham. William Randolph Hearst, the newspaper magnate, told his editors to “Puff Graham”. And his audiences, here comes the pun, exploded. 10

Here again is David Aikman.

DA: He was a very strong anti-communist in the 1950s, as most prominent American speakers were at that time. Many of his crusade speeches spoke in a very sort of doomsday fashion about the dangers of sleek Russian bombers poised to strike atomic fear over American cities. So, throughout the 1950’s he was pronouncedly anti-communist.

CS: By 1954 the crusades had swept through cities in the United States. Eight million people heard him speak in person. He had a newspaper column and a radio broadcast. He’d also made some powerful friends including Sid Richardson, an oil tycoon who may have been the richest man in America. Another friend was Henry Luce, the owner of magazines like Time. He called captains of industry to prayer, even christening an airline and praying at an event for Holiday Inn. Winning him an interesting nickname: “the big business evangelist”.

Graham was known for his political ties as well, meeting with every president from Harry Truman to Barak Obama. Often becoming quite close.

DA: For example, Lindon Johnson probably spent more time in conversation with Billy Graham about spiritual matters then any other American president. And Johnson was apparently very frightened that he might go to hell. And so his conversations with Graham were an important landmark in LBJ’s life.

Graham even preached a sermon from the steps of the Capitol building in Washington DC, drawing an estimated 45,000 people. In that sermon, he called for a national day of prayer. Not a new concept. Abraham Lincoln had called for one decades earlier. It was up to President Truman to agree.

In our episode about the National Prayer Breakfast, we discussed the misgivings some people have about public displays of piety in prayer. By the way, the National Prayer Breakfast is different from the National Day of Prayer in that the breakfast is for political leaders in DC and the day of prayer is for everyone. When President Truman was given the option to create the Day of Prayer… he resisted. After all, Matthew 6 instructs us to pray in our rooms with the door closed, not in public for all to see. But public demand won out. Congress made it part of our law that the President must choose a National Day of Prayer. The first one took place on July 4th, 1952.

Yes, Graham had powerful friends and did events in politically charged locations. Before you get too judgy, remember, even powerful people need God. Business owners and politicians have the same access to Jesus as you or me. But that kind of familiarity makes some people nervous. Here was an anti-union preacher with a vast audience mingling with leaders of industry who stood to benefit if the unions disappeared. An evangelist encouraging people to turn inward for change, rather than seek change in society.

An early biographer said of Graham,

BIOGRAPHER: (read by actor)“When Graham speaks of the American way of life, he has in mind the same combination of economic and political freedom that the National Association of Manufacturers, the United States Chamber of Commerce, and the Wall Street Journal do when they use the phrase.”

CS: In a 1951 sermon in Greensboro, North Carolina he talked of the “dangers that face capitalistic America.” He went on to say that in order to make it through this troubling period, we had to embrace, “the rugged individualism that Christ brought”.

Individualism is a big concept there. Don’t sneak past it. When I talked about the changes made in American Christianity in the 1800s a few episodes ago, I noted that we turned to an individualistic view of the gospel. You as an individual need to make a personal commitment to Christ. Need to walk forward like Graham himself and accept the Lord into your heart as an individual. Some see that individualism in the sermons of evangelists and apply it to their nation. That since God is focused on the individual, we should be too. That’s why capitalism appeals to some. Instead of collectivism, which is centered on society as a whole.

He was also not a fan of the New Deal. It was a collectivist solution to an individual problem.

He knocked the Marshall Plan, which was an American program to rebuild western Europe after WWII and the welfare state here at home saying,

GRAHAM: “Their greatest need is not for more money, food or even medicine; it is Christ… Give them the Gospel of love and grace first and they will clean themselves up, educate themselves, and better their economic conditions.20

If you believe that the only thing the world needs is conversion to Christianity, it can seem like you’re being cold to the needs of normal people. Choosing bootstrap theology over societal change. Ignoring social pressures that keep people down.

It’s a fine line to walk. On September 16, 1951 he delivered this sermon. I want you to listen and notice where he thought change came from. Not from social movements, but from the actions of individual Christians. He starts out talking about the influence John Wesley had on the US. He’s going to talk really fast here, so hold onto your hats.

BG: Child labor laws, orphanages, the abolition of slavery, and social justice for the unfortunate poor followed Wesley. However, Wesley’s social efforts were not socialistic in the modern political sense of the term. And by no means could Wesley be called Marx’s predecessor as much divergence lies between Wesley and Marx as between light and darkness. Wesley’s social consciousness was not the result of a materialistic godless doctrine as Marx produced 50 years after Wesley’s death. Quite the contrary! Wesley answered Kane’s question: in the light of correct scriptural teaching, I am my brother’s keeper! But this keepership was not the outgrowth… was the outgrowth of a right relationship to God through Jesus Christ and not that of a cold, cruel, mechanistic philosophy of class hatred. Mob violence Wesley despised. The revolt of the proletariat had no place in Wesley’s thinking. Yes, ladies and gentlemen, the great Wesley revival of the 18th century saved Great Britain in her darkest and gravest hour. The desperate need in America and Britain at this hour of crisis is a spiritual awakening that will bring about social reform, honesty, and integrity in government put a new moral fiber in our society and pack our churches with men and women seeking the God of our fathers. The tragedy of the whole situation is that most of you agree with what I’m saying but you refuse to do anything about it. You do not seem to realize that you are America. And that when you make your decision for Christ it’s America through you making it’s decision. You must realize your own personal responsibilities. This spiritual awakening must begin in your hear.

CS: Did you hear the individualism there? That it wasn’t up to a big social movement like communism to do the right thing, but that of the Christian individual? Also he tied the United States to Christianity there at the end, contrasting it with socialism. That if Americans were Christians, we could fight against the evils of communism.

In another sermon titled “Satans Religion,” he spelled it out even more clearly with his five things that could fight communism: One: “old-fashioned Americanism”. Two: “by conservative and Evangelical Christianity”. Three: “prayer”. Four: “Spiritual revival”. Fifth: “by personal Christian experience.” He went on to say, “the greatest and most effective weapon against Communism today is to be a born-again Christian.”

An individualistic idea, right? That the only thing stemming the tide was you. It’s not unheard of for evangelists, to take the news of today and personalize it, use the concerns of modern life to bring people to a moment of decision. It is focused on the individual, not on the role of society. Contrast that to the Social Gospel which was very much about bringing societal change.

To his credit, Graham, an individual, did bring about societal change. In some ways that surprised even his own supporters.

You’ve probably heard me caution against creating a “they”, a people group we can scapegoat. Those people are the worst. If only they had their act together. I warn against this because if we create a “they” then we’re free to ignore that group of people. It allows us just to write them off. But our job as Christians is take the good news of Jesus to the world. We can’t do that if we’re ignoring a people.

Graham’s early supporters were fundamentalists. Those were the people who came to his early revivals and brought their friends. But Graham wanted to attract mainline Protestants as well. By the way, in the past, I’ve used the term mainline incorrectly. I’ve tried to go back to old episodes and edit those sections out but may have missed some. To make some generalizations, mainline Protestants tend to be more theologically moderate, and are less likely to take the Bible as literal. Whereas fundamentalists are more conservative and do take every word of the Bible as literal.

For example: The story of Jonah getting swallowed by a whale from the Old Testament. Mainline churchgoers might see in that poetry or allegory whereas fundamentalists see a guy being swallowed by a literal whale.

See the difference? Okay. So, Billy Graham wanted to reach out to mainline churches, the poetry/allegory camp – a necessity in places like New York City where they were the majority of Christians. He would need their help to carry out the task of putting on his revival there.

But there was this imaginary chasm between the two groups. Us over here and those guys waaaay over there. So Graham reached out.

In 1957 he held a gigantic crusade at Madison Square Garden, which was sponsored by the Protestant Council of the City of New York, a group with many liberal ministers. Graham also spoke at liberal seminaries. Broadening the idea that maybe Christians could get along. And, seeing the gospel as the most important thing, he could preach to the choir who also needed saving.

This crossing of theological lines drew criticism. Most notably by fundamentalists like Bob Jones Sr. who saw him as cow-towing to liberal ideology.

Graham’s efforts were effective. The New York crusade was the longest-running, and most heavily attended event in Madison Square Garden history. Across all of the venues, 2 million people attended with 55,000 cards signed with people making decisions for Christ. Making it the most successful evangelistic event in American history. Of course, numbers are deceptive. Many people came more than once. Thousands came from out of town. Of those many cards that were signed, only about 6-10,000 new people started coming to church in the area. The rest were already churchgoers. This sounds like a slight but really demonstrates that churchgoers, like Christian leaders, need to hear the gospel too. This was accomplished, in no small part, because he was willing to reach across theological lines.

That’s not always easy to do. Conservatives and liberals are so used to referring to each other as “those people”. One of the things I admire about Billy Graham is that he was willing to cross those heavily guarded borders. To preach to people who otherwise might not gear the gospel.

He is often criticized today for another line he had to walk. He famously removed the ropes that divided the segregated audience for his 1953 Chattanooga crusade. A few months later, he allowed a Dallas venue to segregate rather than risk some not hearing the gospel. Understandably, folks got angry about it. Still do. There are lots of angry articles about that moment on the Internet. The next year, he determined to never hold a segregated crusade again.

In the same way, he started fighting Communism by speaking out against it. Those people. But as time went on, Graham’s approach changed. Communism was a real threat. Don’t forget that. The nuclear bomb, the spread across Asia that led the United States into wars. It would be understandable to simply treat communists as those people.. but… but… Graham didn’t leave it there. Just condemn “them” to hell. To his credit, he went to places that nobody else could imagine going. And blazed a trail behind the iron curtain.

We’ll be back after these messages.


Billy Graham was us and them about Communism. Understandable considering the great number of their own people they killed, and the threat of a nuclear holocaust. But the story doesn’t stop there… What changed, according to David Aikman, is not what he thought of communism, but ideas about how Christians should react to communists.

DA: He began to change his outlook on the communist world in the 1970’s. And two events in that decade were instrumental in altering his outlook. One was he got a very high level briefing from an official in the White House in the administration of Jimmy Carter, which really scared him because the Carter official told him how dire things would be if there were ever anything resembling a nuclear war. The other thing that happened was that in 1977 when the Cold War was still at it’s height, he made a visit to Hungary as a speaker and this set in motion a whole series of invitations to other communist countries of eastern Europe.

CS: The most famous evangelist in the world… went behind the Iron Curtain. It took five years of planning to do so. Americans of Hungarian descent criticized Graham for going there. Seeing it as an implicit endorsement of the horrors that occurred in their country. But Graham himself said,

DA: And then in 1982 he made a controversial appearance at a peace conference in Moscow organized by the Russian Orthodox Church. Of course, it was a essentially a propaganda stunt to get Graham there and to have him say some fairly innocuous things. But it set into motion a series of invitations to Graham by east European regimes like the Czech Republic, Hungary, Romania, and even Poland that allowed Graham tremendous access into these countries which previously had been closed to outside evangelists.

Graham was, once again, met with skepticism by some in the United States. He had now become strongly anti-nuclear weapon, even calling for disarmament. Dismantling the military might we had spent so much money to build. Some saw that as the hand of the Soviets, manipulating Graham so they could gain an advantage. Soften their image.

DA: He was criticized by many evangelicals in the US even for taking up that invitation to go. And he was even more criticized by not just Christians but by journalists. In 1982 when he accepted the invitation to the Russian Orthodox peace conference in Moscow. And it’s very significant that one of the strongest critics of that time was Dan Rather, the CBS anchor person. And he had lambasted Graham for his naivete for attending that conference. But later on he completely retracted that criticism because Graham was speaking to the aspirations of many ordinary Russians. And they responded in a major way to his message.

CS: He preached in East Germany, Czechoslovakia, and Romania, which was considered one of the most religiously oppressive of the Soviet regimes. He was not always met with enthusiasm. Authorities in these countries were brought up to fight for atheistic communism. They limited the number of people who could attend or they cut the wires to his loudspeaker systems. Still, the crusades carried on.

DA: Most significantly, of all the foreign trips that he was invited to make to eastern Europe there was a trip in Romania in the year 1985 when Graham gave an important talk at a cathedral in the city of Timisoara, which is the major city in the Hungarian speaking component of the nation of Romania.

CS: The crowd there was estimated to be 150,000 people. Enough to make a world leader nervous for sure. Ceausescu, the Romanian dictator, cancelled his meeting with Graham. But the groundwork had already been laid. Protests by Protestants in Timisoara called for the end of the regime.

DA: That revolt in in Timisoara against Ceausescu triggered the collapse of the last regime in eastern Europe to succumb to the anti-communist wave that had penetrated the country.

CS: Some Romanians credit Graham’s visit for getting the ball rolling to start the revolution.

DA: Later on in 1992 after Boris Yeltsin had emerged as the leader of Russia, which was no longer part of the Soviet Union, Graham was able to make a crusade to Russia itself. Something he had prayed about on his very first trip to Russia as a tourist way back in 1959 when he said he knelt down in Red Square and prayed that the Lord would open the door for him to share the gospel with ordinary Russians and that of course happened. So I think Graham’s influence on the collapse of communism in eastern Europe and Russia was very significant. And it would be quite wrong to assume that his 1950’s era anti-communism prevailed as a viewpoint throughout his life. It didn’t. It was really modified. His disgust with the dangers of nuclear war and his sincere admiration for some peace programs in the 1970s.

CS: As his approach changed, doors continued to open for him to preach in places that had previously been unthinkable. Including both North Korea and China.

DA: When he went in 1988 the Chinese authorities were a bit annoyed by the fact that he particularly asked to see a Chinese Christian named Wang Ming-dao (spelling?) who spent decades in a labor camp for his strong Christian witness. And the people accompanying Graham were very surprised that Graham decided he wanted to make this visit. But it was extremely important for Wang Ming-dao himself. And it was a great encouragement for Chinese Christians. In fact, on the same trip by Graham, Graham had invited one of the prominent house church leaders to visit him for tea in Moscow. And the guy was arrested on his way to that meeting, which, of course, made the Chinese communists look pretty bad. But the fact is that Graham showed great sensitivity to the needs of followers of Jesus who suffered serious persecution in various countries.

CS: Which is important. Everything Billy Graham did drew media attention. By meeting with these persecuted Christians, their stories could be told. His visit in 1988 occurred at a pivotal moment in Chinese history. An era of unrest, eventually leading to the student revolt of June the 4th, 1989 in Tiananmen Square. An event that David Aikman himself was witness to. You can hear more about that by visiting our Patreon page.

Billy Graham’s legacy is complex. A man whose first love was telling people about Jesus. His career spanned massive social changes from segregation to the women’s liberation movement. Nuclear proliferation to the fall of the Soviet Union. Radio, television, films, and the Internet. Not knowing where history would go, or how he would be judged.

He was instrumental in tying Christianity, capitalism, and America together in the minds of many. Spreading the idea that societal change could be accomplished by individuals. Those concepts are vital to understanding why popular Christianity in the US is the way it is today. Why critics of American Christianity see the faith as in the pocket of big business. Ask not what big business can do for you, ask what you can do for your country. He also defined a time in America that is at the center of many debates. Some of us long for a time when Christianity was visible in every corner of society, literally preached from the steps of the capital building, on network television, and in newspapers. The 1950s can have a glow to them for that reason. A warm simplicity. When they say “Make America Great Again” this is what they’d like to emulate.

This era has long made me suspicious. Was it really so different from our own or do we romanticize the past? Was that time really less complicated, or just complicated in different ways?

Because, others see the 1950s as a time of great struggle. Rampant racism and segregation. War, restricted career and social options for women, the very real threat of nuclear holocaust. Not to mention, the reality that, religiously, we were actually pretty wishy-washy in the 1950s. We’ll get to that soon.

Billy Graham had the difficult challenge of trying to be all things to all people, so that he could make the gospel known. Despite sometimes ending up on the wrong side of history, his legacy was profound and often positive. Leaving we Christians in modern times to ponder some big questions. I’ll put these in the show notes of this episode in case you want to spark a conversation with your friends and family over dinner tonight.

Is Jesus’ message individualistic, collectivist, or something in between? If the majority of a nation’s citizens say they are Christians, does that make it a Christian nation? Does hobnobbing with the wealthy and politically connected occasionally backfire? Like, say, when you’ve come out backing Richard Nixon during the Watergate scandal as Graham did? Is it possible to cross political and theological lines today in order to spread the gospel? When do we prioritize the gospel over social issues and when do we have to put our foot down? When do you walk out into the stadium and take down the ropes that divide us and when do you leave the ropes where they are?

Special thanks to David Aikman. His book is titled Billy Graham: His Life and Influence. Two other books that were helpful in this story were One Nation Under God by Kevin Kruse and The Evangelicals by Francis Fitzgerald. You can hear many recordings of Graham’s sermons at billygraham.org, which is where I found clips for this episode.

Truce is a listener supported show. I need your help to keep this thing going! Traditional means of financing Christian media don’t work for this show because I’m exploring some of the most complex issues in the faith. Questioning the legacy of Billy Graham, questioning the role of money and influence in the church, and whether or not the US is a Christian nation don’t tend to fit in with wealthy donor’s ideas. If you like this show, I’m counting on you. Not just to donate, but to tell your friends, and leave a review in your podcasting app. If we’re going to send the message that intelligent Christian media is important, I need your help.

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