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“There is a book in the store windows in London and New York,” Frank Buchman, evangelist of the upper class, told an assembly at the Metropolitan Opera House in November of 1935. “The title is It Can’t Happen Here. Some of you who read the very important words of the Secretary of State, ‘Our own country urgently needs a moral and spiritual awakening,’ may have said the same thing, ‘It can’t happen here.’”
In 1935, Buchman was at the height of his powers, a small, well-nourished and well-tailored man of no natural distinction, who nonetheless found himself touring the world in the company of kings and queens and bright, young, rosy-cheeked lads from Oxford and Cambridge and Princeton. True, Buchman was banned from Princeton, where as a Lutheran minister he had stalked students he thought eligible for “soul surgery,” as he would come to call his variation on the born-again procedure; and Oxford University was contemplating legal measures to stop him from using its name for his movement. He was then calling his followers the “Oxford Group,” having discarded “First Century Christian Fellowship” as perhaps boastful, not to mention inaccurate when applied to Buchman’s hundreds of thousands of 20th century devotees.
“Moral Re-Armament,” coined by Buchman as Europe entered World War II, was the name that eventually stuck. Not quite an organization—there were no dues or membership rolls—but less democratic in spirit than a social movement, Moral Re-Armament deployed its military metaphors through Buchman’s never-ending lecture tour, propaganda campaigns, and the spiritual warfare practiced by his disciples in service of an ideology “Not Left, Not Right, but Straight,” in the words of one of Buchman’s hagiographers. Moral Re-Armament’s aims were so broadly utopian as to be meaningless, but in practice it served distinctly conservative purposes: the preservation of caste. “There is tremendous power,” preached Buchman, “in a minority guided by God.” In a sympathetic portrait published by The New York World-Telegram, Buchman named names. “But think what it would mean to the world if Hitler surrendered to the control of God. Or Mussolini. Or any dictator. Through such a man, God could control a nation overnight and solve every last, bewildering problem.” He thought the process had already started: “I thank heaven for a man like Adolf Hitler, who built a front line of defense against the anti-Christ of Communism,” he told the reporter.
Before the war, when men such as Henry Ford and Charles Lindbergh openly admired Hitler, it was still safe to name the style of government to which these words pointed: Human problems, Buchman declared, require “a God-controlled democracy, or perhaps I should say a theocracy.” Just as good, he added, would be a “God-controlled Fascist dictatorship.”
Buchman had taken the stage that evening in 1935 to tell Manhattan’s wealthiest that it could happen here, and that it should. “Think of nations changed,” he told his audience, urging them to imagine “soul surgery” on a national scale, or something even grander: “God-controlled supernationalism.”
That dream survives today. Not just in the political ambitions of Christian Right politicians, currently an embattled species, but even more so in the seemingly sanguine lifestyle fundamentalism preached by mega-pastors such as Joel Osteen (author of Become a Better You), whose very name is trademarked, and Rick Warren, author of the mammoth-selling Purpose-Driven Life — and, as of April 2008, the official sponsor of Rwanda, which under his guidance has submitted to soul surgery on a national scale to become the world’s first “Purpose Driven Nation,” embracing Warren’s amiably-phrased mixture of obedience theology and Bible-based capitalism as an antidote to godlessness, whether that comes in form of genocide or socialism. Warren, despite his mild-mannered demeanor – or maybe because of it – doesn’t make distinctions. Either you’re with God, or you’re against Him.
And yet, Rick Warren, Joel Osteen, and the business-friendly fundamentalism of the post-Christian Right era don’t set off liberal alarms the way the pulpit pounders such as John Hagee, Pat Robertson, and James Dobson do. The irony is that the agenda of this new lifestyle evangelicalism is more far-reaching than that of the traditional Christian Right: the Christian Right wanted a seat at the table; lifestyle evangelicalism wants to build the table. It wants to set the very terms in which we imagine what’s possible, and to that end it dispenses with terms that might scare off liberals. It’s big tent fundamentalism – everybody in.
But the ultimate goals remain the same. True, Osteen steers clear of abortion for the most part, and Warren, every bit as opposed to homosexuality as Jerry Falwell was, prefers to talk about AIDS relief. But both men — and the new evangelicalism as a movement — continue to preach the merger of Christianity and capitalism pioneered three quarters of a century ago. On the surface, it’s self-help; scratch, and it’s revealed as a profoundly conservative ideology that conflates church and state, scripture and currency, faith and finance. There’s a sense in which Buchman’s vision of “God-controlled supernationalism” thrives today more surely than it ever did in the 1930s, a period of radical economic upheaval. Only, today we call it globalism.
Christ and capital, married deep in the heart of the world’s most militarily powerful empire in history: To many liberals and leftists, that sounds like creeping fascism. But look around; it’s not. We don’t live in a fascist age. The triumph of Buchman’s vision, the age of purpose-driven empire, these days of war abroad and becoming a better you at home, are not a throwback to the Hitlerian passions of the 1930s. To paraphrase Ecclesiastes, there may be nothing new under the sun, but there is surely more than one kind of reactionary politics. American fundamentalism doesn’t revere individual violence, as fascism did, even as it provides pious underpinnings for imperial violence on a massive scale. American fundamentalism cares little for blood or soil; its ambitions are literally universal. American fundamentalism doesn’t depend on a Gestapo – under the sign of the cross as a symbol not of suffering but of power, every believer becomes an informer on him or herself. Censorship becomes a function of the soul, not of the state; pastors needn’t bother with banning speech that it is never spoken.
To understand the uneasy echoes of the last century’s most hateful ideology in contemporary American fundamentalism – and why today’s conservative faith is milder in rhetoric and more literally totalitarian – we must exhume an unlikely pair of “thinkers”: Buchman, and an advertising man named Bruce Barton, two of the most influential hucksters of the early 20th century.
* * *
Buchman never was one for details. Had he bothered to pick up It Can’t Happen Here,the book he considered too pessimistic, he would have discovered that the “It” of the volume’s title was fascism. Five years earlier, the book’s author, Sinclair Lewis, had become the first American to win the Nobel Prize for Literature, in recognition of novels such as Babbit, Arrowsmith, and Elmer Gantry. It Can’t Happen Here wasn’t Lewis’ finest work, but it contained some of his scariest writing. Can’t happen here? Lewis’ novel contended that it already had, in countless little rooms across the country, at gatherings of Rotarians and the Daughters of the American Revolution, in hot-blooded church meetings and movie houses where gunfighters bestrode American dreams like Mussolinis in spurs. All that was wanting was the right key man to take up the sword and the cross and move into the oval office. In the novel, that man is Senator Buzz Windrip, a folksy Southerner backed by a radio preacher called Bishop Peter Paul Prang and his “League of Forgotten Men.”
The story opens with the “Ladies Night Dinner” of a small town Rotary Club, and Mrs. Adelaide Tar Gimmitch, an expert on “Child Culture,” lecturing a group of concerned citizens in eveningwear. Her sermon could have been lifted directly from Abram: “ ‘I tell you, my friends, the trouble with this whole country is that so many are selfish! Here’s a hundred and twenty million people, with ninety-five per cent of ‘em only thinking of self, instead of turning to and helping the responsible business men to bring back prosperity! All these corrupt and self-seeking labor unions! Money grubbers! Thinking only of how much wages they can extort out of their unfortunate employer, with all the responsibilities he has to bear!
“’What this country needs is Discipline…’”
The novel’s voice of reason is the local newspaper editor, one Doremus Jessup, into whose mouth Lewis packs a dense but brief account of the authoritarian strain in American history:
“Why, there’s no country in the world that can get more hysterical—yes, or more obsequious!—than America. Look how Huey Long became absolute monarch over Louisiana, and how the Right Honorable Mr. Senator Berzelius Windrip owns his State. Listen to Bishop Prang and Father Coughlin on the radio—divine oracles, to millions. Remember how casually most Americans have accepted Tammany grafting and Chicago gangs and the crookedness of so many of President Harding’s appointees? Could Hitler’s bunch, or Windrip’s, be worse? Remember the Ku Klux Klan? Remember our war hysteria, when we called sauerkraut ‘Liberty cabbage’ and somebody actually proposed calling German measles ‘Liberty measles’? And wartime censorship of honest papers? Bad as Russia! Remember our kissing the—well, the feet of Billy Sunday, the million-dollar evangelist. . . . Remember when the hick legislators in certain states, in obedience to William Jennings Bryan, who learned his biology from his pious old grandma, set up shop as scientific experts and made the whole world laugh itself sick by forbidding the teaching of evolution? . . . Remember the Kentucky night-riders? Remember how trainloads of people have gone to enjoy lynchings? Not happen here? Prohibition—shooting down people just because they might be transporting liquor—no, that couldn’t happen in America! Why, where in all history has there ever been a people so ripe for a dictatorship as ours!”
And yet, that fruit was never plucked. The United States did not then—and has not yet—succumbed to European-style fascism. Nor, for that matter, does the contemporary Christian Right embrace even a modern strain of “national socialism.” Many of the ingredients are there: militaristic patriotism, a blurry identification of church with state, a reverence for strong men, a tendency to locate such men at the top of corporate hierarchies, even a hated “other” (for American fundamentalists, Jews and Catholics gave way to communists, and now the movement is divided over who to demonize more, Muslims or queers).
But other elements of European-style fascism never emerged in the United States. Despite the nation’s near constant involvement in one war or another for the last sixty years, it has never adopted an ideology that explicitly celebrates violence. Nor do we have a domestic secret police force on the scale of the Gestapo. And it is Christianity itself that has prevented fundamentalists, America’s most authoritarian demographic, from embracing the cult of personality around which fascist states are organized. No matter how much the movement may revere Ronald Reagan or George W. Bush or the next political savior to arise, such men must always accept second billing to Jesus—The Man Nobody Knows, in the words of Bruce Barton’s 1925 bestseller, perhaps the most influential forgotten book of the 20th century.
Barton’s publisher boasted that the book could be read in two hours, but most readers could bounce through in half that time. Less a narrative than a collage of advertising copy, The Man Nobody Knows offered Christ on the cheap as “the most popular dinner guest in Jerusalem!” Exclamation points come by the bushel in Barton’s work. “A failure!” the book opens—and here the exclamation point must be read as an incredulous question mark, a quotation of the supposed liberal view of Christ as “weak and puny,” an effeminate sadsack who died on the cross because he could not do better. Barton responds with the greatest Fortune magazine story ever told: “He picked up twelve men from the bottom ranks of business and forged them into an organization that conquered the world.”
Barton himself was such a man. Shaped like a shoe-box, his flat-faced head atop a rectangle of a body but handsome all the same in that lock-jawed manner that makes some men look like they were born to captain industry, Barton’s name lives on as one fourth of the advertising giant Batten, Barton, Durstine and Osborne, but his slim volume on Christ as the ultimate salesman exists now only as an academic curiosity, evidence to historians of the “secularization” of religion during the 1920s. Published in the same year as the Scopes monkey trial took place, The Man Nobody Knows has long looked to such observers like proof that chief concern of secularism—business—had subsumed theology. Barton made Jesus into a management guru, and profit trumped prophet. Even in the era of a president who touts as his twin qualifications a business degree and his intimate relationship with Jesus, Fitzgerald’s Great Gatsby and Lewis’ Babbitt are celebrated as the definitive texts of that earlier age, the stories that shaped the later course of the nation.
And yet, in the 1920s The Man Nobody Knows outpaced them both. It was the book read on streetcars and the title punned on by admirers, the volume distributed in bulk at Christmas to friends and employees. So, too, its themes thrive now, far more so than Fitzgerald’s despair or Lewis’ contempt for capitalism. Gatsby and Babbitt may still be debated in high school English classrooms, but Barton’s entrepreneur-Christ prospers on a broader scale, the “Master,” as Barton called him, of bestsellers such as God is my CEO: Following God’s Principles in a Bottom-Line World, and Jesus CEO: Using Ancient Wisdom for Visionary Leadership and, most influentially, Rick Warren’s spiritual time-management manual, The Purpose-Driven Life—more than 25 million copies sold since publication in 2002.
In Barton’s own day, Frank Buchman declared The Man Nobody Knows one of the “three outstanding contributions to my life and work.” Indeed, it’s hard to imagine the rise of today’s business-friendly evangelicalism from the ashes of the populist revolt of 1920s fundamentalism absent the precedent of “top man” religion set by The Man Nobody Knows. But if the book espoused a literally fundamentalist Jesus—a Christ stripped clean of all that Barton considered feminizing cultural accretion—Barton was not, himself, a fundamentalist. He was less interested in the doctrinal battles of separatist religion than in the driving force of Christianity as the best means for national efficiency. In this sense, he followed the example set by one of his chief theological advisors, Harry Emerson Fosdick, even as he hewed to a morality and politics more akin to that of Billy Sunday.
In 1922, Fosdick had preached a sermon that drew the battle lines and became a manifesto of sorts for modernist Christians. “Shall the Fundamentalists Win?” attempted to prove that they couldn’t. Ironically, it also established the political and theological vision that would allow the more sophisticated fundamentalists such as Abram to build for the future.
“We must be able to think our modern life clear through in Christian terms, and to do that we also must be able to think our Christian faith clear through in modern terms,” Fosdick preached from the pulpit of New York’s First Presbyterian Church. Reminding his congregation of advances in science, and, even more dangerously, Biblical scholarship—the German “higher criticism” which held that the Bible could be better grasped with a knowledge of its historical context—he declared that “the new knowledge and the old faith [have] to be blended in a new combination.”
Fosdick imagined that combination to be cosmopolitan and literary, shaped by a grasp of metaphor and a benign disdain for the literalists of years past. He had no concept of the other meanings future Christian conservatives would take from his call, shuffling the parts around not in the service of high-minded liberalism but of sophisticated, science-fueled fundamentalism. Fosdick’s accommodationist vision of modernism illuminated the path for a traditionalist crusade in which later fundamentalists—influenced, not so indirectly, by Marx, whom some read with the idea of turning his ideas to conservative ends—realized that they could seize the means of cultural and political production. They could make better radio than the liberals, better propaganda, and most of all, they could shape and run and finance better politicians. Not just morally superior legislators but better hacks—men (and, eventually, women) who took from “modernism” only its rule book, not its goals, and bested its pure champions at the game they thought they’d invented.
Fosdick smoothed the way with his powerful denunciation of denominations, soon to become a bete noire of Christians who defined their faith by the “fact” of spiritual war, in which there are ultimately only two sides, theirs and the enemy’s, Christ’s and Satan’s. “If,” preached Fosdick, “during [World War I], when the nations were wrestling upon the very brink of hell and at times all seemed lost, you chanced to hear two men in an altercation about some minor matter of sectarian denominationalism, could you restrain your indignation? You said, ‘What can we do with folks like this who, in the face of colossal issues, play with the twiddlywinks and peccadillos of religion?’”
Of course, those “twiddlywinks” are the intellectual marrow of Christianity and the convictions that prevent its more ancient precepts from merging too easily with the necessary vulgarities of partisan politics. Barton, like Fosdick, saw no reason not to do so. Upon returning to the U.S. from a European tour in 1930, he wondered, “How can we develop the love of country, the respect for courts and law, the sense of national obligation, which Mussolini has recreated in the soul of Italy?”
He praised Mussolini’s “efficiency and progress” and Hitler’s mastery of the adman’s science, psychology, after another European visit in 1934. “Only strong magnetic men inspire great enthusiasm and build great organizations,” he’d noted in The Man Nobody Knows. He wasn’t defending the dictators’ disregard for rights, he insisted, but he had to admire Hitler’s anti-Semitic propaganda, so detailed in its documentation of Jewish influence in Germany that one could easily see why Hitler’s rise “was not an unnatural thing to have happen.” Declaring himself of a “generous” frame of mind, he said that he preferred Roosevelt, whom he considered an anti-business “dictator,” to Hitler. Still, he seemed to see more similarity between them than difference. “Every new deal has to have some one to blame when all the promises do not come true. We blame the reactionaries; Hitler blames the Jews.”
Four years later, Barton entered Congress as a leading isolationist, opposed not only to war with the Axis powers, but to aid to the Allies, as well. He promised to fight the dictator he saw closest to hand: FDR. He pledged to “Repeal a Law a Day.” Or, in the slang of today’s fundamentalism: Let Go, and Let God. The Wall Street Journal thought it a capital idea. “It is not that one congressman, more or less, especially a new one, can arrest the hitherto unstoppable juggernaut” of government, the paper editorialized, “but that [Barton’s] election can well serve as a beacon to encourage other reasonable men, who have demonstrated their success in industry… to take action against the web of legislation in which the nation is currently struggling.”
But Barton was not a fascist in the vein of Henry Ford (whom he quoted as an authority on Christian business in The Man Nobody Knows) or even fuzzy-brained Frank Buchman. He was an advertising man, an optimist. In an editorial for The Wall Street Journal titled “Hard Times,” Barton quoted the Journal’s publisher on the necessity of poverty: “‘What is taking place on this earth is a great experiment in the development of human character. The Creator is not interested in money or markets, but in more enduring men…. suffering develops them.’” That the subjects of this great experiment were not as interested in this development as were the captains of industry mildly puzzled Barton but did not bother him. He felt certain that they could be persuaded with a jingle and a catchy slogan, a “juster” peace.
Such newspeak represents the chummy self-satisfaction of a mind that mistakes the efficiency of short phrases for depth of meaning. In The Man Nobody Knows Barton tells the story of a newspaperman assigned to cover an unnamed great issue of the day in a single column. When the reporter protested that one column was not enough space, his editor told him to review the Book of Genesis—all of creation summed up in a tidy 600 words. Not for Barton the lingering work of theologians, who find in scripture at least as many questions as answers. Nor was he a man for the thickets of political theory, a limitation which, given his stated sympathies for strongmen, may have saved him from a more frightening path. Mein Kampf? That doorstopper weighed in at nearly 1,000 pages. Barton simply lacked the patience for fascism; Hitler was too deep for him.
But he also took one of fascism’s central premises too seriously to embrace the ideology’s violence: Fascism, the word itself derived from the Latin for a bundle of sticks bound together and thus unbreakable, promised unity. Barton wanted that: unity. As an advertising man, he believed it could be achieved through persuasion rather than force of arms. Moreover, he understood that the best way to sell a product was not fear alone but fear plus desire: to stoke the consumer’s anxiety that he or she lacked something, and then to press some button in the brain that led to the conviction that acquiring it would lead to happiness. Consumption, not fascism, was the core of his Christianity, the faith that evolved into the “comfortable, smooth, reasonable, democratic unfreedom” diagnosed decades later as America’s Cold War religion by Herbert Marcuse, the creed that won that war for capitalism, the heart of the new fundamentalism of the 21st century, same as the last
JEFF SHARLET is the author of the forthcoming The Family: The Secret Fundamentalism at the Heart of American Power (Harper), from which this essay is adapted.
* Sinclair Lewis, It Can’t Happen Here (Doubleday, Doran and Co., 1935), p. TK. MGM bought movie rights for Lewis’ dystopia, but despite the fact that its fictional tyrant seemed to be modeled on Democrat Huey Long, Will H. Hays, the president of the Motion Picture Association of America and author of the censorious Hays Code condemned the story as too anti-Republican. Years later, NBC substituted space aliens in red jumpsuits for Republican fascists and turned the novel into a mini-series called V, broadcast at the height of the Reagan era.