Northern Evangelicalism’s Long Alliance with the GOP

wheaton record 1964
The Wheaton College student newspaper reports on the results of the campus’s mock presidential election, November 5, 1964.

The popular understanding of the history of evangelical political mobilization is still rooted in the 1970s and 1980s and the movement of apolitical or Democratic southern evangelicals toward the Republican Party. But it’s important to understand that as a southern story, not a national one. The nerve centers of northern evangelicalism had long been overwhelmingly Republican.

Wheaton College was of course among the most influential evangelical centers of higher education (it counted Billy Graham among its alumni). As the snapshot above shows, the future leaders of evangelicalism had a habit of voting overwhelmingly Republican, even in years when to do so was radically out of step with the rest of the country (1948, 1964).

Wheaton’s mock election results in 1964 were almost exactly the inverse of the national returns. While Johnson won over 60% of the vote in a historic landslide, over 60% of Wheaton students gave their mock votes to Goldwater (remember, this was before the 26th amendment lowered the age of the franchise to 18).

Wheaton students’ overwhelming support for Goldwater in the fall of 1964 did not come without controversy. Wheaton students holding a pro-Goldwater rally encountered an interracial counter-demonstration of black kids and a few Wheaton students.

wheaton record 1964 protest

Wheaton student Dan Kuhn described what happened next:

Singing the “Freedom Song” and “Jesus Loves Me,” the teen-age demonstrators moved unresistingly in an extended oval configuration. Many noted their songs—“God loves us, why don’t you, Mr. Goldwater,” or “Wheaton Christians — do you really care,” or “You preach to us, you pray for us, you say you love us, but you vote for Mr. Goldwater” — many resented them and many fought back—kicking, pushing, and jeering the Negro youths…

Some background here: Goldwater voted against the Civil Rights Act of 1964. If you read the speech he gave in the Senate explaining his vote, and then read the speeches of segregationists such as Stennis, you’ll very find little difference.  The old line that Goldwater wasn’t personally prejudiced may be true, but it’s also irrelevant. His constitutional principles didn’t allow him to support human rights for black people.  That’s why the counter-demonstrators were associating a vote with Goldwater with a lack of care for fellow human beings. Kuhn went on to reflect on the stakes involved in Wheaton students’ support for a political platform so oppressive to black people:

The problem confronts us suddenly at Wheaton when we realize with embarrassment that these people to whom we talk about Christianity can see nothing authentic about our claim to be committed to Jesus Christ in the way we live…

A pro-Goldwater student attended the rally and had a different take:

Saturday’s rally provided expression for many people. Some was constructive and pertinent, some was not. Several young Negroes in a revolving picket were out of place…

Someone told them that Barry Goldwater voted against them and thus hates them. Because of this they return their hate to him and his supporters. I offer that this sort of misunderstanding and action engenders new hatred for which there is no room in this situation.

Of equal importance is the offense that was brought against the Christian supporters of Mr. Goldwater. The demonstration was a slap in the face of progress for the Christian in understanding his fellow. I was told that by supporting Barry Goldwater I took my place among the prejudiced. This is not true. The Negro and the white are my fellow, but this demonstration hampers our understanding of one another.

In this tangled mixture of defensiveness and resentment, the student actively supporting systemic racism claimed the right to be offended! Here you can see the toxicity of Christian colorblindness. Black and white people are his “fellows” and they must seek “understanding” with each other, but it is unreasonable and offensive to judge white people on the basis of their actions.

He didn’t vote for Goldwater because he supports racism, but because he supports conservatism. Sound familiar? Then, as now, if he had taken the time to understand perspectives other than his own, he might have realized that this was only a roundabout way of saying that the rights and safety of others are expendable in pursuit of one’s ideological  goals.

From the Archive: Timothy LaHaye

On the evening of April 4, 1968, Martin Luther King was shot in Memphis, Tennessee. It was a Thursday. On Sunday one of the flagship institutions of American evangelicalism, Wheaton College, hosted a community memorial service for the slain civil rights leader. News of the event spread, and some white evangelicals were not happy. Among these was Timothy LaHaye, who would become famous decades later as the co-author of the Left Behind book series. LaHaye’s letter to the president of Wheaton College is below.

lahaye

Think of some of the questions this single document might raise:

Where did LaHaye get the information about the memorial service? (He seems to have enclosed some sort of article but it was not included in the archives)

What kinds of information did LaHaye rely on to understand the civil rights movement, and where did the “deaths of seventeen people” statistic come from? Was this a right-wing meme? How did it circulate in this pre-internet age? Did LaHaye blame Dr. King for all the violence that occurred at his protests?

Was LaHaye satisfied with the president’s reply? (There is no subsequent letter from LaHaye in the archive.) Did he continue to recommend Wheaton College to his congregation?

Did LaHaye change his views in later decades? As memory of the civil rights movement changed and it became impolitic to have such a negative view of Dr. King, did LaHaye adjust, or did he just become silent?

Did LaHaye ever write anything publicly about the civil rights movement, or about race more generally?

Did the blowback Wheaton received (this was only one of dozens of letters) affect its institutional behavior in subsequent years?

What does this reveal about the theological and racial climate of white evangelicalism in the late 1960s? Were LaHaye’s attitudes exceptional, or normal?

Studying history often involves asking one question after another. At times the questions radiate outward in dizzying complexity, and often the evidence is far more fragmentary than we would like. Primary sources like this one don’t speak for themselves. If I ask you, “What does this document mean?” you might come up with dozens of plausible answers. But perhaps the best answer would be, “I don’t know yet. I need to ask more questions.” And that’s part of what makes history so compelling.

Credit: Wheaton College Archives and Special Collections.