God, Mammon, and Race Politics

Bible with cash inside

God and Mammon


A kingpin of commercial American evangelicalism named Pat Robertson died this month.

People born after the Boomer generation can probably not imagine a time before tele-evangelism, and its unholy trinity of The Bible, money, and politics.

The reason for churches being exempt from various taxes goes back to ancient times, and stems from the church’s historical role in caring for the sick, elderly, and poor.

The last hundred years has seen the governments of developed western nation states largely taking-over this social role of churches – especially in multi-cultural and more secular countries.

The nature of American history, with colonisation and warfare taking place almost continuously for centuries (far from large urban centres), made religion very much a “do-it-yourself” affair.

Religion in frontier-era America was about more than personal faith.  It would be impossible to overstate the role religion played in people’s social lives as a marker of “civilisation”, or as a way to signify that a person was worth “taking account of”.

In a world of war, disease, crop failures, slavery, droughts, floods, tornados and casual violence, to “profess faith” was about more than seeking salvation.  It was the surest route to acceptance into any “decent” community, and the easiest way to elevate oneself socially in the eyes of others, regardless of one’s relative wealth or poverty.

The atmosphere along the frontier fostered generations of rough men and women, many of whom didn’t care for the pieties – let alone the rules and strictures – laid down by Hard Shell Baptists, Quakers, Mennonites, Presbyterians, Methodist circuit riders, and other such representatives of late-stage Calvinism.

The rowdiness, violence, heavy drinking, gambling, and debauchery of such folks happened to coincide with the Age of Enlightenment, with its focus on secular rationalism.

Instead of blaming violence, immorality and licentious behaviour on social, political, economic, and environmental factors, various religious leaders blamed secularism and rationalism, and began to rail and fulminate against widespread “ungodliness”, and the decline of traditional Christian faith.

The most vocal of these religious leaders began to launch regular “revivals” and camp meetings meant to bring stray sheep back into the fold.  The biggest such periods of revivalism are known in American history as the “Great Awakenings”, and these periods of theatrical public preaching and intense religious fervour incubated mass movements such as Mormonism.

In the aftermath of these revivals, a certain type of person quickly realised they could have their cake and eat it.  Even the roughest illiterate man from the backwoods could memorise some Scripture, have a voice that carried, claim to be “sanctified” and call himself a preacher of the Gospel.

From Eastern Kentucky, to the Ozark Mountains, to Bleeding Kansas and on to the mining camps of the Old West, both settled and itinerant lay preachers – whether literate or non-literate – performed marriages and baptisms, spoke words over the dead, and were welcomed into people’s homes for dinner.

It was precisely these sorts of preachers and their followers who would eventually morph into the early 20th century American Pentecostalist or “Charismatic” evangelical movements.

Pat Robertson, while officially a Southern Baptist preacher, was very much informed by Pentecostalism, with its emphasis on a world in which miracles, signs and wonders, and other supernatural phenomena are believed to be real and present in the lives of the faithful.

Such supernatural phenomena might include the overt display of “spiritual gifts”, such as “speaking in tongues”, serpent handling, prophesizing and faith healing, and among many, a firm belief in imminent “Rapture” and Armageddon.

With the power being wielded by the “white” evangelical voting bloc in America today, it would be natural to think these people were followers of a very old strain of American Protestantism.

Not so.  Today’s “white Christian evangelicals” have very little to do with old style Calvinism, and everything to do with very recent forms of “do-it-yourself Christianity”.

The concept of “Rapture” never figured in Christianity until an Anglo-Irish Church of Ireland minister named Charles Nelson Darby went rogue, left his church, and started preaching it during the mid to late 1800s.

And almost all of the current faith trappings of American evangelicalism were late 19th and early 20th century inventions/innovations, with much current “orthodoxy” actually born in one small church in Los Angeles in 1906.

The age of radio, cinema, and TV arrived just in time to turbo-charge these local revivalist crazes, and a generation later – just like the travelling preachers of yesteryear – men like Pat Robertson, Jim Bakker, Jimmy Swaggart, and Jerry Falwell appeared at the door, ready to get their legs under everybody’s table for a free Sunday dinner.

By now, most people paying even the slightest bit of attention will know about the hypocrisy, the bigotry, the jet airplanes, swimming pools, infidelities, and swanky cars.

But this is Before We Were White, and we like to leave our readers with something they might not already know…


The voting bloc known today as the “white evangelical base” was pretty much solidified during the late 1970s and 1980s by a TV preacher man called Jerry Falwell, Sr, whose movement “The Moral Majority” joined American evangelicalism at the hip with Ronald Reagan‘s GOP.  It is hard to resist drawing parallels between Reagan’s background in Hollywood, and the acting skills of tele-evangelists…

To understand the social milieu from which Falwell arose, here are a couple of quotes from the years leading-up to the Civil Rights Movement, in which Falwell addressed the issue of desegregation:

“If Chief Justice (Earl) Warren and his associates had known God’s word and had desired to do the Lord’s will, I am quite confident that the 1954 decision would never have been made. The facilities should be separate. When God has drawn a line of distinction, we should not attempt to cross that line…”

“…the true Negro does not want integration…he realizes his potential is far better among his own race.”

In old age, Falwell eventually rowed back from his abhorrent position on segregation, but continued to pander to bigots with a variety of other poisonous interpretations of Scripture, up to and including his infamous blaming of the 9/11 attacks on:

“The pagans and the abortionists and the feminists and the gays and the lesbians who are actively trying to make that an alternative lifestyle, the ACLU, People for the American Way…I point the finger in their face and say, ‘You helped this happen.'”

Earlier in this post, I noted how “professing faith” was an important step toward “respectability” in America’s earliest days.

This was just as true for indigenous Americans and African-Americans.

In the eyes of much of “white” America, to be indigenous American or African-American was already seen as carrying “the mark of Cain”.  If such people were also non-Christian?  Why, that would lower these people to the level of savages, or even simple beasts.

Of course, while those who suffered under the American racial caste system might become Christian, the one thing they couldn’t become was “white”.

Or could they?

Well bless my cotton socks.

Mr. Falwell’s racism and bigotry seem strange (or not?) when we realise that one of his great-grandparents on his mother’s side was a woman named Judith Goins.

A woman descended from the Goins folks who were free PEOPLE OF COLOR from Buckingham County, Virginia.


©2023 Brian Halpin, Before We Were White


#WhiteEvangelicals  #televangelists  #PatRobertson  #JerryFalwell

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