Many evangelical and Pentecostal Christians would see themselves as somewhat outside of the system of politics and money that rules the world. They are “in this world, but not of this world”, having been “born-again” into the kingdom of God.
But this insight and godly aspiration may also blind them to the influence and even manipulation of their views and beliefs by the interests of capital, business and politics. For there are many others, who although they may not be believers – understand all too well how to use the Christian message to influence and control Christian groups.
Evangelicals are justifiably critical of the influence of the Roman politics and empirical mind-set on the early church. Far fewer are aware of the influence of the American empire on their own brand of Christianity.
There is a long tradition of this kind of influence. In the early 20th Century, for example, in North Carolina and Virginia many of the textile mill-owners brought particular preachers to their communities and subsidised evangelical churches because they liked their version of the gospel – one that emphasized personal responsibility and obedience to the industrial masters. It became almost a formal system of church funding. The presiding elder of the Methodist churches in the Gastonia district of North Carolina, said of this system :
“Amen! I’ve always believed that. Mill churches serve the mill as much as they serve the folks; let the mill pay for the service. Churches help the mills to have a steadier and more intelligent source of labor. Let the mills give more than they do, and let it all be perfectly above board. It’s worth something to the mills to have churches work among their people. Why Mr _____ [one of the largest textile manufactures in North Carolina], a Jew, helps the preachers, and the first thing he does when a strike threatens is to call them up – and the strikers can’t win with the preachers against them. So let Mr ____ pay.” 1
This system expanded through the latter half of the 20th Century. A two word telegram from William Randolph Hearst to his newspaper editors – “Puff Graham” catapulted Billy Graham overnight from an insignificant tent revival ministry to a national figure. Hearst (later dramatized in Citizen Kane) liked the anti-communist message of the young Graham.
With the rise of the evangelicals and fundamentalists in the 70’s and 80’s this group was captured for the conservative side of politics by Reagan’s strategists. It did not have to be so, evangelicals were often on the progressive side of politics in the 19th Century. And Karl Rove masterminded a successful strategy of mobilizing and organizing the churches as campaign offices for the Republican party for the 2004 election. Dana Millbank from the Washington Post :
“I don’t think we can overstate this mobilization of the individual churches. Never happened before. Vast sort of untapped source of political energy in this country. The evangelicals didn’t just come on board for him: They were campaigning; they were at the events; they were the poll volunteers; they were making the phone banks, the phone calls. You know, that’s how you win elections. It was good old grassroots, door-knocking politics, but they tapped this group and organized it in a way that just had never been done to that extent before.
Religious conservatives, if they wanted to get into politics, [used to get] involved with Ralph Reed and his Christian Coalition. No more. You’re doing it right through your church. The Christian Coalition had no important effect on this election at all. It was all about your local Christian church. That turned out to be the rallying point.”2
So, while we are discussing proper exegesis of the Scriptures, being filled with the Spirit and being not of this world – perhaps we should also keep a critical eye on what the world is doing. For there are many who have no interest in the Scriptures, no idea of the Holy Spirit but know how to use our communities, our allegiances and our beliefs in order to manipulate us for their own purposes.
- Quoted in “Millhands and Preachers : A Study of Gastonia” page 149, Liston Pope, Yale University.