The fundamentalist who created today’s conservative model

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(RNS) — When I was growing up in New Jersey in the 1950s and 1960s, there was ongoing political controversy over proposals to add fluoride to the public water supply. Among the main opponents was Carl McIntire, pastor of the Bible Presbyterian Church in Collingswood, outside Philadelphia, and the foremost fundamentalist of his day.

Today, only 14.5% of New Jersey’s population receives fluoridated water – the 49th lowest percentage of all 50 states. Coincidence? I doubt.

McIntire, who died in 2002 at the age of 95, left mainstream Presbyterianism during the Fundamentalist-Modernist wars of the 1920s and never looked back. When Billy Graham & Co. invented “New Evangelicalism” after World War II, McIntire became the leader of the fundamentalist opposition, establishing the American Council of Christian Churches as an alternative to Graham’s National Association of Evangelicals.

Alongside the Christian fundamentals of old, McIntire preached a vigorous political gospel centered on anti-communism and what he saw as the collectivist tendencies at work in America. His opposition to fluoridation was based on a libertarian belief in minimalist government.

Long before the emergence of the religious right, McIntire insisted that Christians should be involved in politics. Unlike the NAE, which operated top-down, McIntire emphasized grassroots pressure through protests, rallies, and petitions. He promoted them through a dozen books, his journal Christian Beacon, and his daily radio show, which aired on no less than 600 stations during the 1960s.

Carl McIntire in January 1957. Photo courtesy of Creative Commons

Freed from the traditional Baptist belief in a strict separation between church and state, McIntire advocated a theocratic ideology rooted in the tradition of Calvinist reformation. “God,” he wrote, “instructed in his Word that the state should serve the ends of God”. Therefore, “if the state recognizes its place under God, it will have Almighty God’s blessing and favor” and if not, “God’s favor will be withdrawn and there will be disaster and tyranny”.

He doesn’t shut himself down when it comes to his allies either. Unlike many of his fundamentalist colleagues, he was willing to join other Christian conservatives – even Roman Catholics – in pursuing his political agenda. In his opposition to fluoridation he had a range of associates, including the right-wing John Birch Company.

Like the historian Markku Ruotsila pointed out, McIntire was largely dismissed from the history of the religious right, not least because he remained an outspoken segregationist when Jerry Falwell Sr. and others recognized that the success of the civil rights movement required a shift to other issues.

But today, it is McIntire’s model that defines evangelical political engagement.

Right-wing populist mobilization, Christian nationalism, opposition to government health care mandates – somewhere McIntire is smiling today.


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