Radio Politics, Origin Myths, and the Creation of New Evangelicalism

Issue #1 - Note Center Article (Billy Graham Center Archives, NAE Papers)

Issue #1 – Note Center Article
(Billy Graham Center Archives, NAE Papers)

I have an article in the latest edition of Fides et Historia, which is the journal of the Conference on Faith and History. You’ll have to subscribe or borrow a copy from your university library to read it in full, but I’ll give you a short excerpt.

Conservative Protestants in the early twentieth century described themselves as evangelicalfundamentalist, or orthodox more or less interchangeably. It was not until the formation of the National Association of Evangelicals (NAE) in 1943 that evangelicalism turned from a mere description of theology into a term of identity. The organization’s founders chose the word evangelical to symbolize a third way between militant fundamentalism and liberal modernism. A surprisingly wide range of denominations joined the NAE despite traditional distrust among groups divided by theology and practice, including Pentecostals, Baptists, Presbyterians, and Lutherans. Uniting such disparate groups under the banner of a new evangelicalism required a powerful set of incentives. Yet while religious historians agree on the significance of the NAE’s creation, the reasons for its formation remain disputed.

There are two ways of conceptualizing what motivated people to join the National Association of Evangelicals. Groups were either pulled or pushed into the organization. The NAE attracted, or pulled, members through positive appeals to what could be accomplished through joint action. Most accounts of the formation of the NAE focus on these internally generated motivations. Thus, historian Joel Carpenter credits the NAE’s creation to the “religious imagination and statesmanship” of its founders, J. Elwin Wright and Harold J. Ockega, who traveled around the country “romancing evangelicals of every variety with [a] vision of national unity.” After all, the NAE’s original name was United Evangelical Action. In keeping with that title, Wright and Ockenga painted a picture of combined missionary outreach, war relief efforts, and evangelistic rallies. Yet while Wright and Ockenga certainly were compelling individuals, there has never been a shortage of personality in American evangelicalism, and Carpenter’s proposal does not convincingly explain why such diverse, antipathetic Protestant groups were predisposed to listen to such appeals in 1943 rather than at any other point in the preceding decades.

New evangelicalism coalesced in response to wider political and industrial struggles in which evangelicals were merely bit players. As the major national broadcast networks fought for market share, they enacted policies that potentially limited evangelical access to the airwaves. At the same time, the Roosevelt administration attempted to suppress opposition to the New Deal by barring newspaper ownership of radio stations, discouraging editorializing, and undermining network control of the airwaves. None of these developments targeted evangelical broadcasters, but that was cold comfort to evangelicals who were told they could no longer purchase airtime from the major networks. Evangelicals’ anxiety over potentially losing access to the airwaves fueled their support for a front organization to represent their interests before the networks and the government. The founding of the NAE, and thus the creation of new evangelicalism itself, was entrenched in the politics of the early radio industry. Fear, not romance, gave birth to the new evangelicalism.

To further whet your appetite, here are my section subheadings:

Lutherans and Catholics Together
Revising the Origin Story
The Mayflower Doctrine
Add Pentecostals and Stir
Who Framed the Federal Council of Churches?
The Mutual Crisis of 1944
The ACCC Fights Back
National Religious Broadcasters

2 thoughts on “Radio Politics, Origin Myths, and the Creation of New Evangelicalism

    • No, I haven’t, though I imagine religious broadcasters would find a story about government censorship of conservative broadcasting (many of whom, like Carl McIntire and Billy James Hargis, were clergymen) of interest.

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