(TRENDS in CHRISTIANITY – continued)
In 2005, there were an estimated 800 million Protestants worldwide among 2.2 billion Christians. The Protestants were 36 percent of Christianity, the Roman Catholics at around 54 percent, and Eastern Orthodox and others Christians around 10 percent. Organizationally the Protestant 36 percent was fragmented into more than 33,000 groupings, with individual denominations having subtle theological differences that would take volumes to describe.
Protestants were defined as those belonging to a denomination that traced its origins back to the Reformation. Mormons did not. Mormons believed that they represented the true Christian Church, that Christianity had lost its way in the second century CE and was restored by Joseph Smith in 1830.
Protestants have been described as divided between fundamentalists, evangelicals and mainstream churches, The expression "fundamentalist" came to life in the US between 1915 and 1920 with the publication of pamphlets titled "The Fundamentals: A testimony to the Truth." The Fundamentalists believed that scripture is absolutely reliable because it is God's word. Into the 21st century, Fundamentalists in the United States have been described as around 27 percent of the population. Evangelicals are described as between the Fundamentalists and so-called liberal mainstream churches.
The PBS documentary, "God in America," describes Christian fundamentalists and evangelical Protestants in the 1950s as establishing themselves culturally apart and as concerned with their duty as Christians and the eternity of their soul rather than worldly politics. This changed a bit when John F. Kennedy, a Catholic, ran for president. A number of evangelical Protestants were afraid that a Catholic in the White House would give the Vatican too much influence in the United States. In May, the Southern Baptist convention spoke in opposition to the election of a Roman Catholic president. A few Protestants, including the advocate of positive thinking, Dr. Norman Vincent Peale, formed an ad hoc group called the National Conference of Citizens for Religious Freedom, dedicated to opposing Kennedy's election. But unlike the election year of 1928, when the Catholic Al Smith ran for president, in 1960 the issue of Catholicism evaporated.
Leading the charge against Kennedy, liberalism and Communism was Billy James Hargis, from Tulsa Oklahoma. Hargis had failed at study but had been ordained into the ministry after having been at the Ozark Bible College a year and a half, having left before receiving grades in his courses. He called himself Dr. Hargis but was later to say that his real education came from the hard knocks of life. He was another who believed himself to be gifted by intuition. His intuition led him to attack the National Education Association and the mass media. He accused mainline Protestant churches as having become infested with Communist sympathies. And he charged that the federal government was being directed by pro-Communists, by people who were parading under the name of liberal. The nation, he said, was in the hands of a group of Harvard radicals, hooked on "the insidious dope of socialism." Their hearts, claimed Hargis, "bled for the whole world but not for the United States."
A part of the change was a new spirit that denominational differences didn't matter much. Protestants were becoming less interested in choosing which church to belong to based so much on traditional labels, Baptist, Calvinist, or what have you. They were not much interested in subtle theological differences. What had been developing since the end of World War II was attraction to a preacher who moved them emotionally, not so much the preacher in one of the neighborhood churches but on the radio and then television. more radio.
And for the conservative inclined there was issues more pressing than differences between the denominations. Since 1959 a case had been working its way through the courts concerning prayer in public schools. In 1962 the case reached the Supreme Court, and in June 1963 the justices of the Supreme Court ruled 6 to 1 that reverential Bible reading and prayer recitation had no place in the classrooms of public schools. Some Protestants were outraged. Some others claimed that there was opportunity enough for prayer, that kids could still pray quietly anytime alone on school grounds and that one ought to be satisfied with this and the opportunity that children had to pray at church, at home from morning until they went to sleep, and anywhere between school and home.
Anyway, there were those who saw Christianity under attack. One was Billy James Hargis (1925-2004), founder of the Christian Crusade in 1950, when he was twenty-five. His success was served by his crusade being inter-denominational. His ministry was broadcast on more than 500 radio stations and 250 television stations. His crusade was designed as a "Christian weapon against Communism and its godless allies." Hargis was a fundamentalist with Armageddon on his mind and an apocalyptic vision of a world at war. He joined a scheme to combat Communism by releasing 100,000 balloons with Biblical quotations attached, to be taken by wind into Communist countries. In 1961, Hargis was awarded an honorary Doctor of Laws degree from Bob Jones University. He opposed racial integration. He accused Martin Luther King Jr of being a Communist-educated traitor, and he demanded that America should leave the United Nations.
The rise of the counterculture brought him more followers, people who found in his national television appearances a fighting voice for morality and against "liberalism." Inspired by Oral Roberts University, and as an alternative to left-wing and counterculture influences, in 1971 he founded an American Christian College, where he planned to teach fundamentalist Christian principles, "God, government and Christian action."
With Christianity not being openly expounded in their public schools, some Christians became more concerned that kids were being taught things that might subvert their brand of Christianity. Opposition to the teaching of evolution arose. The John Birch Society – an anti-Communist and largely Protestant group, with Hargis as one of its members – joined those concerned with the schools.
Conservatives had the mainstream churches to criticize. In the sixties, the Episcopalian, Presbyterian, Methodist and Baptist churches announced new positions. In 1960 the Episcopal Church approved artificial birth control, and that year the General Assembly of the Presbyterians (US Southern) declared that sex between a husband and wife without intent of procreation was not sinful. In 1961, the National Council of Churches approved birth control and family planning. In 1963, the United Presbyterian Church General Assembly passed a resolution opposing compulsory prayer and devotion in public schools. In 1964 the Presbyterians ordained their first woman minister, Rachel Henderlite. By the late sixties, study of the background to the war in Vietnam led some Church leaders to speak out against U.S. policy regarding the war. In 1970, the General Conference of the United Methodist Church stated that U.S. policy concerning Vietnam was a "fiasco" and it urged accelerated negotiations for ending the war. In 1972, the United Presbyterian Church asked for a total and immediate withdrawal of U.S. forces from Vietnam.
Christians close to the opinions of Billy Hargis were appalled by their fellow Christians withdrawing their support from fighting Communists. These Christians tended to a part of the evangelical and charismatic movements, and they were gaining supporters, while the mainstream Protestant churches and the Catholics were declining in membership – the evangelicals attributing the decline in the mainstream churches to their having lost "their fire."
Copyright © 2010-2014 by Frank E. Smitha. All rights reserved.