The fundamentalist who created today’s conservative model
(RNS) – When I grew up in New Jersey in the 1950s and 1960s, there was lingering political controversy over proposals to put fluoride in public water supplies. Among the main opponents was Carl McIntire, pastor of the Bible Presbyterian Church in Collingswood, outside of Philadelphia, and the greatest fundamentalist of his time.
Today, only 14.5% of New Jersey’s population receives fluoridated water, the 49th lowest percentage of the 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 has never looked back. When Billy Graham & Co. invented the 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 the Graham National Association of Evangelicals.
Along with the Christian fundamentals of yesteryear, McIntire preached a vigorous political gospel centered on anticommunism 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 from top to bottom, McIntire emphasized popular pressure through protests, rallies and petitions. He promoted them through a dozen books, his Christian Beacon newspaper and his daily radio show, which aired on no less than 600 stations during the 1960s.
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 reform. “God,” he wrote,instructed in His Word that the State must serve the ends of God. Therefore, “if the State will recognize his place under God, he will have the blessing and favor of Almighty God “and if not” the favor of God will be taken away and there will be disaster and tyranny.
Nor did he limit himself to his allies. Unlike many of his fundamentalist colleagues, he was ready to join other Christian conservatives – even Roman Catholics – in pursuing his political agenda. In his opposition to fluoridation, he had a series of associates, most notably the right-wing John Birch Society.
As a historian Markku Ruotsila points out, McIntire has been written largely outside of religious law history, not least because he remained an outspoken segregationist when Jerry Falwell and others recognized that the success of the civil rights movement required moving on to others. Questions.
But today, it is McIntire’s model that defines evangelical political engagement.
Opposition to government health care mandates, right-wing populist mobilization, Christian nationalism – somewhere Carl McIntire is smiling today.