Friday, February 24, 2006

Bill Bright and the Rise of the Religious Right

One of the key leaders of the Religious Right is often overlooked. Bill Bright, founder of Campus Crusade, had a larger role than a lot of people realize.

In 1974 and 1975 Bill Bright convened a series of secret meetings with 20-25 key Christian Right leaders. They formed Third Century Publishers to publish books and study guides to link their political agenda with conservative Christianity. They needed a tax-exempt foundation to receive donations to help them with the for-profit Third Century Publishers. Bright with the help of Richard DeVoss, president of Amway Corp., and Art DeMoss, board chairman of National Liberty Insurance Co., took over the financially troubled Christian Freedom Foundation to solicit funds for their publishing company. They hired Ed McAteer to run it. DeMoss later publicly stated that the purpose of CFF was to elect Christian conservatives to Congress in 1976:

"The vision is to rebuild the foundations of the Republic as it was when first founded--a 'Christian Republic.' We must return to the faith of our fathers." [John Saloma, Ominous Politics: The New Consevative Labrynth(pp. 53-54).

McAteer, a Baptist layman at Bellevue Baptist Church in Memphis where Adrian Rogers was pastor, later founded the Religious Roundtable (1979). As the Religious Roundtable was getting organized, Bill Bright, along with evangelist Billy Graham, called a meeting in Dallas with ten or twelve influential conservative leaders. Among them were Adrian Rogers, Charles Stanley, Jimmy Draper, Pat Robertson, Rex Humbard, Clayton Bell (Billy Graham's brother-in-law), and James Robison.

Here's James Robison's account of the meeting as recorded in William Martin's With God on our Side, (pp. 206-07):

"Billy Graham said, 'I believe God has shown me that unless we have a change in America, we have a thousand days as a free nation . . . three years.' Bill Bright said, 'I know. . . . I do not believe we'll survive more than three years as a free nation. It's that serious.' And Pat Robertson said, 'I believe the same thing.' Charles Stanley was standing there and I can just remember so well, he put his hand down on the table with resolve and said, 'I'll give my life to stop this. I'll give everything I've got to turn this country.' And I said, 'Me too. I'll die to turn this country. Whatever it takes. We can't lose the country.' And each man around the room said, 'we're going to get involved.' Except Rex Humbard. He said, 'I'm uncomfortable politically. I really am very uncomfortable.' And Dr. Graham said, 'I cannot publicly be involved. I can only pray. I've been burned so badly with the public relationships I've had. I can't afford it, but I care so much.'"

Shortly after that meeting, Charles Stanley fulfilled the pledge he made at the gathering by inviting scores of Georgia preachers to meet at his church for a "Campaign Training Conference" where Paul Weyrich, the key organizer of the political right, told them how to get their congregations involved without jeopardizing their churches' tax exemption. Weyrich has fond memories of the meeting. He said,

"I had [newspaper columnist] Bob Novak with me and he was absolutely in a state of shock. It was at that moment, he told me, that he decided Carter was going to lose, because minister after minister stood up and said, 'I was part of Carter's team in 1976. I delivered my congregation for Carter. I urged them to vote for Carter because I thought he was a moral individual. I found out otherwise, and I'm angry.' This was months before the election, and Novak said, 'I decided at that point that Jimmy Carter's goose was cooked because I saw the intensity of those people.' That was really an extraordinary moment. At one point, something was said about baptism, and Paige Patterson, who is now very big in the Southern Baptist Church, and some of his buddies lifted me up, physically, and started to carry me backwards to dunk me in the baptismal well there in the church. It was a humorous moment, and all the guys in the audience were cheering. But it was all done in good fun. It was a remarkable day, really."


mikevotes said...

Unrelated, but a personal story, reading Campus Crusade just made me think about it.

In the first week of college every year, the Campus Crusade folks at Rice would split into twos and try to separate and talk to every incoming freshman, basically trying to cull recruits before they were corrupted by college life working one by one down the hall.

After they did this to me, Some friends and I organized a group to follow behind them by one room handing out beers prostelityzing our own way of living. We just wanted to make sure that the poor freshman weren't terrified that they'd signed up for some weird cult. We did it every year I was there, and the group kept going after I left.

We all create our little ripples, eh?


Motherlode said...

I was an enthusiastic member of Campus Crusade for Christ back in my days at FSU. I've been a volunteer at Billy Graham crusades and grew up in Southern Baptist Convention churches. My mom was state WMU president, my dad a deacon, I was a GA Queen Regent, YWA president, missions volunteers, etc. After I grew up, my husband and I were young pillars of the church, Sunday School and Bible School teachers, choir members, EE leaders, etc.

But somewhere along the early eighties we started to get chills about where the Convention was going. The attempt to force politically conservative standards upon our seminaries and churches was, we believed, a distraction from the faith and the dissemination of the Gospel, and a violation of the Baptist Faith and Message, which established the independence of the churches.

My husband and I attended the 1984 Southern Baptist Convention in Kansas City to vote against the resolution that women be excluded from pastoral roles. Yes, I am a feminist, but our real motivation was to forestall the first salvo against the autonomy of the churches.

All during the mid-eighties we struggled to continue as good Southern Baptists while watching the Convention's traditions crumble before the onslaught of Paul Pressler, Bill Bright and their cohorts. I have to say, I wasn't aware at the time that the venerable Billy Graham was a part of that movement. We entered Southwest Baptist Theological Seminary in 1987 and almost immediately were hit with the reality of the movement to remove some of our most beloved and accomplished professors and administrators simply because they ascribed to the principles of academic freedom and because they believed the faith was strong enough to stand without the protection of political intimidation.

It's not the faith that turned us away from Southern Baptists. It's the leadership. It has done a disservice to the Gospel, to the priorities of believers, and to our Lord.