Debate Magazine

“Nut Country”: How Dallas Silenced Jesus and Became the Most Christian City in America

Posted on the 27 September 2015 by Alanbean @FOJ_TX

By Alan Bean

nut countryWhen evangelist Chuck Templeton visited Dallas in the late 1950s he was deeply disturbed by the city’s extraordinary religious culture.  As he stood chatting with the pastor of Highland Presbyterian Church, a grinning congregant approached with an envelope in his hand.  “That’s for $100,000,” the man announced proudly.  “I just finished an oil deal worth a cool million and that’s my tithe.”

Moments later, the pastor drove Templeton to the most exclusive tailor in Dallas to have him fitted for three expensive suits.  When Templeton realized what was happening, he protested vigorously, eventually settling for a pair of cowboy boots.  Templeton had learned through observation and painful experience that lavish gifts come with a price.

There was something unusual about the symbiotic relationship between religion and big business in the Dallas of the 1950s and 60s and nothing much has changed.  In Nut Country: Right-Wing Dallas and the Birth of the Southern Strategy, Edward H. Miller argues that Big-D was a Beta version of the Southern Strategy, a trial run that worked the bugs out of racial politics.

My big question (as the title of this post suggests) is how a fundamentally unchristian political strategy could owe so much to Christians.  The megachurch culture of Dallas, Texas is the product of the strange dynamics Miller describes in Nut Country.

The title derives from an idle remark John F. Kennedy made to his wife as the couple dressed for their fatal trip to to Dallas: “We’re heading into nut country today.”

A poster circulating in Dallas shortly before JFK was assassinated

A poster circulating in Dallas shortly before JFK was assassinated

Dallas earned a reputation as “hate city” after the assassination of John F. Kennedy, but Miller detects a method behind the madness.  In Dallas, apocalyptic religion, libertarian economics and small government politics were fused into an intoxicating brew that is still with us today.

The story shows how the central religious tenets of Dallas ultraconservative Republicans advanced their secular political ideology.  The Republican Party’s original Southern Strategy  was partly grounded in a spiritual defense of segregation, which held that the Bible prohibited the integration of blacks and whites.  Biblical literalism and premillennial  dispensationalism fostered ultraconservative Republican preoccupation with eschatology and spiritual cabals, which they then projected onto the secular world of politics.

This Manichean urge to divide humankind into the children of light and the children of darkness, Miller says, accounts for the vitriolic demonizing of the enemy for which Dallas became infamous.

Their embrace of fundamentalism undergirded an absolutist understanding of secular matters, reinforcing their devout belief in the correctness of their opinions and perception of the world as black and white.  Their convictions that Satan’s war against Christianity was history’s biggest and longest-standing cabal also likely fed into their preoccupation with conspiracies.  For ultraconservative Republicans, history was a grand plot, and conspirators were ubiquitous, omniscient, and omnipotent; random events, when closely scrutinized, were found to fit preconceived patterns that confirmed their conspiratorial worldview.

Miller isn’t suggesting that everyone involved in Republican politics shared this ultraconservative worldview, but the sheer extremism on the far right allowed traditional Republicans to stake out extremely conservative positions while appearing “moderate” by Dallas standards.

This perspective was personified by W.A. Criswell, the histrionic pastor of First Baptist Church, Dallas.  In 1944, Criswell accepted the unenviable task of following the saintly, irenic, cautious (and postmillennial) George Truett as pastor of America’s largest congregation.  Truett’s concern for the poor in the heart of the depression was so intense that his wife had to hide money for fear her well-intentioned husband would dispense their entire income to the desperate men and women he encountered on the street.

criswellCriswell emerged from a very different theological mold and responded to a very different set of challenges.  Dallas had been an oil town since the 1920s, but the Second World War transformed the city into a hub of the aeronautics industry and people flocked to Big-D from all over the country to get their slice of the pie.  This emphasis on getting ahead and making things better for their families encouraged a materialistic, anti-labor, anti-civil rights, pro-business mindset that meshed well with Criswell’s brand of conservatism.

Miller gives a great deal of attention to men like J.L. Hunt (reputed to be the richest man in the world in the 1950s) who combined a commitment to laissez faire libertarianism with the dispensational theology he learned from men like Criswell.  Hunt invested immense sums in Republican politics, First Baptist Church, Criswell College while building a media empire dedicated to the promotion of the brand of conspiratorial dispensational libertarianism that typified Dallas ultraconservatism.

Working in a traditionally Democratic section of the “Solid South”, Republicans were desperate to shed their image as the Party of Lincoln and Reconstruction.

Ultraconservatives embraced the long-standing nineteenth-century notion that the Constitution, rather than providing rights, was in fact designed to restrict them.  In this view, the Constitution was intended to protect property rights, safeguard the power of the states relative to the federal government, and curtail democracy in order to preserve the status quo.

W.A. Criswell garnered national media coverage in 1956 for the racist diatribes he delivered in a South Carolina Baptist Church in the wake of the Supreme Court’s Brown v. Board decision.

He argued that segregation was God’s intention and that any deviation from that plan was contrary to the will of God.  Integration, he said, was a ‘denial of all that we believe in.’  Ecumenical religious leaders who supported desegregation were ‘just as blasphemous and unbiblical as they can be.’  The ‘universal Fatherhood of God and brotherhood of man’ was a ‘spurious’ doctrine.

When Criswell repeated these sentiments in a speech to the South Carolina legislature, “legislators rose from their seats and cheered enthusiastically, then passed a resolution encouraging the United States Justice Department to place the NAACP on its subversive list.”

Criswellian racism was a cultural inheritance bolstered by the dispensational theology he embraced as a young man.  C.I. Scofield, a long-time Dallas pastor and the spiritual father of Dallas Theological Seminary, “claimed that black people descended from Ham, whom Noah cursed after the flood.  According to Scofield, black people were meant to be ‘inferior and servile,’ and the Bible offered spiritual justification for segregation, Jim Crow and other forms of subjugation.”

C.I. Scofield

C.I. Scofield

Miller points out that Criswell used the Scofield Reference Bible (which interpreted Scripture from a dispensational perspective “as a point of reference and proclaimed as late as 1979 that black people suffered from ‘the curse of Ham.'”  [If you are unfamiliar with “premillennial dispensationalism” I explain the basics at the conclusion of this piece.]

Miller pays particular attention to the controversy that erupted when several black students attempted to enroll at the high school in Mansfield, Texas, a few miles southwest of Dallas in 1956, a year before Dwight Eisenhower sent federal troops to Little Rock, Arkansas.  In Texas, Miller notes, there was no federal intervention and Allan Shivers, the Democratic governor of Texas, sent Texas Rangers to the school to prevent the black students from enrolling.  Henry Wade celebrated this victory for the Southern Way of life in his campaign for district attorney of Dallas County.  In the process, Wade painted Republicans as carpetbaggers and scalawags:

Republicans are running on a platform of peace.   They forget they were born of the most devastating war in our history–the Civil War.

Wade’s successful evocation of racist sentiment translated into a landslide victory.  Republicans like Bruce Alger were paying attention.

After Mansfield, Alger concluded that even in an urban setting as sophisticated and cosmopolitan as Dallas, racial moderation was an untenable position for a Republican seeking reelection in Texas, a state dominated by conservative Democrats.  It became clear to him that the citizens of Dallas wanted to keep traditional racial practices in place, and he modified his approach to race-related issues in order to succeed within his political climate.  The success of his approach set a precedent for Republicans in the South.

But Alger realized that crude attacks on “racial mongrelization” would not work in Dallas.  A more subtle approach was needed.

Appealing to attitudes prevalent among many white voters, Alger suggested that integrating black children into white schools was akin to mingling ‘the diseased with healthy’, ‘morons with normals,’ ‘criminals with virtuous,’ and ‘filthy with clean children.’

Miller contends that this “understated advocacy of white superiority” established the template exploited in 1961 by John Tower (the Republican who won Lyndon Johnson’s vacated Senate seat), by Barry Goldwater in 1964 and by Richard Nixon in 1968.

The assassination of John Kennedy proved disastrous for Republicans across the country and the blow-back was particularly severe in Dallas.  Bruce Alger, the first Republican congressman elected in Dallas since Reconstruction, was defeated in 1964, in part because 85% of registered black voters flocked to the polls.

Miller argues that by 1964 “many Dallas moderate conservative Republicans now acknowledged that, at the very least, the party had been on the wrong side of history in the struggle for civil rights.”  By the late 1960s, even W.A. Criswell was apologizing for the racial rhetoric that made him a rock star in 1956 and even calling First Baptist, Dallas “the Church of the Open Door”.

But the race riots of the 1960s and affirmative action programs were creating a new species of racial resentment and political opportunity.

In disproportion to women and black men, white men had enjoyed, become accustomed to receiving, and used as a springboard to a better life benefits like college education (in many cases financed through the GI Bill).  Many were amenable to the argument that affirmative action and other policies threatened their access to these advantages and thus constituted reverse discrimination.

Color-blind rhetoric, Miller says, allowed Republicans to argue that America’s debt to people of color had been paid in full, the slate had been wiped clean, and a level playing field had been established.

Conservative Republicans in Dallas and nationwide embraced the new color-blind message and coopted the liberal argument for fairness, contending that affirmative action, public housing, busing, and other products of the 1964 Civil Rights Act denied the civil rights of middle-class white people.  Thus while publically promising privileges to all, the color-blind strategy actually protected the benefits already claimed by the privileged.

Miller rejects the simplistic sentiment that Democrats and Republicans simply switched places on race in the 1960s.  Southern Democrats like George Wallace continued to exploit racial hatred throughout the decade while many Republicans, especially in the North and Midwest, remained racial moderates.

On the other hand, there is compelling evidence that the GOP was abandoning, albeit not completely, its heritage as the party of Radical Reconstruction, Abraham Lincoln, and black male suffrage and office-holding.  In their campaigns, GOP liberals and moderates never matched the unity and coordination of Republican racial conservatives.  Moreover, blacks largely abandoned their support for GOP presidential candidates in 1964 and have never returned to the party.

I took the time to read Nut Country because I am mystified by the weird mix of dispensational theology, Randian libertarianism and big business conservatism that still defines Dallas evangelicalism.  Miller does a good job of describing this strange mix, but it isn’t his purpose to demonstrate how men like Criswell made the pieces fit.  (I will share a few guesses at the conclusion of this piece.)

Miller tells us that Ayn Rand’s The Fountainhead and Atlas Shrugged were wildly popular in Dallas but the author’s outspoken hatred of Jesus Christ meant that more academic libertarians like Ludwig Von Mises and Friedrich von Hayek were more frequently quoted.

As I write, Pope Francis is in the Philadelphia portion of his American visit.  Last week a co-worker made an interesting comment.  “I really like this Pope,” he said, “but when he talks about religion its almost like he’s describing a different religion.  I didn’t hear much about loving the poor and caring for creation in the Baptist church.”

The Pope’s spoken theology is at odds with mainstream Dallas evangelicalism.  It wasn’t Miller’s task to explain how J.L. Hunt, W.A. Criswell and the rest were able to square their opposition to racial justice, environmentalism, ecumenism, anti-poverty policies and every attempt to make the world a more peaceful and harmonious place with a purported love for Jesus and his love.

The disconnect is just weird unless you understand the basic contours of premillennial dispensational theology.  If you are familiar with Hal Lindsey’s Late Great Planet Earth of Tim LaHaye’s Left Behind books you have been exposed to dispensational logic.

The fundamental idea is that Israel and the Church constitute two entirely distinct faith communities.  This makes Bible reading tricky because we must decide whether the passage in question applies to Israel of the Church.

The moral consequences of this Israel-Church division are troubling.  All the talk about justice, caring for the poor, and welcoming the sojourner and the immigrant found in the Old Testament have no direct relevance to the church.  We can profit from reading these ethical injunctions, dispensationalists admit, but they aren’t addressed to us, they are all about Israel.  We’re reading somebody else’s mail.

Few understand that, in the brand of dispensational theology taught at Dallas Theological Seminary in the 1950s, this Church-Israel distinction doesn’t just drive a wedge between the Old and New Testaments of the Christian Bible, it also silences Jesus.

Dispensationalists believe that Jesus offered the Kingdom of God (essentially a revived Davidic kingdom) to Israel.  This explains, they say, why Jesus was always talking about the Kingdom.  Essentially, the teaching ministry of Jesus concludes the Old Testament.  The teaching of Jesus, C.I. Scofield believed, is a recapitulation of Jewish Law and is thus antithetical to divine grace.  [It should be noted that the brand of dispensationalism taught at Dallas Theological Seminary these days has retreated somewhat from traditional dispensationalism, but that wasn’t the case in the 1950s and 60s.]

Only when Jesus understood that Israel had rejected his offer of the Kingdom (as evidenced by their desire to kill him) did he create the idea of the Church as a kind of parenthetic and ad hoc community of faith that would be saved by grace (by believing Jesus is the Christ) not by works of the law.

Dispensationalists insist that God’s promises to Israel remain in effect and will be fulfilled once the church has been conveniently taken out of the world in the great rapture.  With the church spirited out of the way, God will be free to wreak vengeance on the world through a literal rendering of the plagues described in the book of Revelation.  Then comes a thousand-year golden age in which the Jewish Law (and Jesus’ kingdom teaching) will once again be operative.

Southern evangelicalism has always had problems with Jesus but, prior to the arrival of dispensationalism in the early 20th century, the inconvenient words of Jesus about radical forgiveness, love of enemies, and the first being last were either ignored or explained away.  But the teaching of C.I. Scofield and Lewis Sperry Chafer (the first president of Dallas Theological Seminary) made it possible to affirm an inerrant Bible while effectively silencing Jesus.

The only words of Jesus that apply directly to the Church, these men taught, can be found in the “farewell discourse” in the latter chapters of John’s gospel.  If you want to understand the Christian mission, read Paul, Hebrews and Revelation; but the Sermon on the Mount is optional at best because it isn’t actually a Christian document.

This explains why the ethical thrust of Christian scripture can be blithely ignored while the explicitly Antichrist tenets of Ayn Rand are embraced with an ungodly passion.  With Jesus silenced, you may take your moral guidance from anyone you like.

Dispensationalists speak of the apostasy (or ‘wreck’) of the Church as a predestined inevitability.  The true Church will be caught up in the clouds with Jesus, but most people calling themselves “Christians” will already have deserted to the Antichrist and must therefore undergo the horrors of the seven-year Tribulation.  This explains why Republican presidential candidates interested in courting the religious right are so unwilling to stipulate that Barack Obama is a Christian.

It also explains why Dallas ultraconservatives could be so blase about nuclear holocaust in the 1950s and early 1960s.  It was taken as established fact that John the Revelator had described (and therefore predestined) a nuclear holocaust and, since God has foreordained that the world must soon perish in fire, it was almost sacrilegious to work for global justice. The Church’s only task is evangelism, snatching brands from the burning (as D.L. Moody liked to say).

H.L. Hunt

H.L. Hunt

It didn’t hurt, of course, that men like H.L. Hunt were willing to spend millions of dollars transforming First Baptist Church in to a fundamentalist Mecca or funding the college that bears Criswell’s name.  While we wait for the trumpet’s sound, somebody’s got to pay the bills.

If you wanted to get ahead in Criswell’s religious culture, the teaching of Jesus had to be silenced.  Dispensational theology transformed that necessity into a virtue.

I am not saying (nor is Miller) that all Dallas ultraconservatives were aware of the fine print of premillennial dispensationalism in the 1950s (or in 2015); but the core ideas at the root of dispensational thought made it possible for religious leaders to embrace Randian economics and pro-business politics with an unseemly enthusiasm.  Criswell knew full well that Jesus taught a very different ethic from the one he was preaching, but Jesus wasn’t talking to the Church until the fourteenth chapter of John’s gospel.  This “insight” allowed Criswell to proclaim a Christianity largely devoid of the words of Jesus.

Miller ends Nut Country by fast-forwarding to the present.  It took two generations for the Southern Strategy to transform the Republican party, he admits, but the project is entering its final stages.  And that’s not a good thing:

The partisan wrangling and gridlock that results from a dysfunctional Republican Party makes it impossible to deal thoughtfully with threats to the environment, rising inequality, gun violence, an emboldened Russia, terrorism, and other issues that could derail all hope of a second american century and of the nation’s continuing to be what Abraham Lincoln called mankind’s ‘last best hope.’

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