Trump's appeal to the religious right still seems incongruous: How did a serial adulterer with no history of upholding conservative Christian values manage to win the loyalty of voters profess to moral principles? Combining more than a decade of investigative reporting with deep historical examination, UNHOLY: Why White Evangelicals Worship at the Altar of Donald Trump explores the common agenda that binds together Trump, the religious right, and the alt-right. In this excerpt, author Sarah Posner examines the career of Rev. Bob Billings, the impresario of Christian education, and the unwholesome alliance of Baptist conservatism and Southern segregationist racism.
When public schools were undergoing court-mandated desegregation in the 1960s, the Rev. Bob Billings, who in 1979 would go on to become the first executive director of the Moral Majority, was a leader in conceiving of, advising, and leading the nascent fundamentalist Christian school movement. A number of factors, along with school desegregation, converged to drive this effort to craft a religious public school alternative: fundamentalist suspicions about "government" schools; conspiracy theories that the secular humanist underpinnings of public schools were part of a communist plot; that a judicially-engineered separation of church and state—most notably the Supreme Court's decisions in the early 1960s striking down mandatory public-school prayer and Bible reading—would destroy Christian America. But the backlash against the federal government's moves to desegregate private schools became the spark that thrust Billings into national politics, as he crafted campaigns intended to bring rank and file churchgoers into his anti-government crusade. Billings portrayed his Christian schools as an antidote to everything about the 1960s that conservatives despised: the moral laxity, secularism, and most critically, the heavy hand of the federal government in public education, and, particularly, desegregation.
In 1968, Christian school organizers in Hagerstown, Maryland, an industrial town on the state's western edge, drew Billings away from a position as principal of a Christian school near Akron, Ohio, to serve as the administrator of the brand-new Heritage Academy. The town had a long and deep history of racism and segregation; slaves were once sold in its downtown, which remained sharply segregated through the Jim Crow era. In 1950, baseball legend Willie Mays, making his professional debut with the New York Giants minor league team, was forced to stay in the all-black Harmon Hotel because he was barred from staying in the hotel with his teammates—something Mays later recalled as remarkable because he was able to stay at hotels with his white teammates in nearby Washington, DC and Baltimore. During the game, local fans yelled racist slurs, calling him "nigger," "watermelon man," and "crapshooter."
Washington County, where Hagerstown is located, had begun desegregation of its high schools in the 1956-57 school year, and completed its desegregation plan for in the 1964-65 school year, when it moved 130 black elementary age children from segregated to newly integrated schools. In 1968, trying to persuade parents to support a Christian school, Billings turned to tropes about leftists, rather than explicit racial appeals. "We're not about to turn our young people into a bunch of draft dodgers, flag burners, draft card burners, hippies, yippies and beatniks," Billings promised at a fundraising dinner for the school. Billings' efforts were praised by the town's mayor, Herman L. Mills, who told the audience, "we'll keep our freedom and liberty because of people like you." Billings promised the school would teach creationism and impose strict discipline, saying, "we believe in using the other side of the hairbrush," citing the verse from Proverbs that "the rod of correction" would drive "foolishness" out of a child. Billings was hired as the school's first headmaster; the IRS granted the school tax-exempt status in 1969.
Billings did not spare anyone in Hagerstown his views on race, or his belief that the majority was besieged by minority rights. In an April 1969 letter to the editor of the local newspaper, Billings complained that, at a ball game, another spectator spilled part of a "spiked" drink on him, and didn't apologize. Billings raged that he was getting "an earache from listening to the pampering minorities who shout 'We want our rights!' Don't the rest of us have rights?" He segued into a diatribe about "false philosophies" in the classroom, while "old fashioned Americanism and Christianity are to be kept out. Is this freedom? Do we have freedom OF religion or freedom FROM religion?"
From Hagerstown, Billings continued his itinerant pursuit of Christian schools. He became the administrator of a Christian school in Elmira, New York, and then, in 1970, the principal of the new Hammond Baptist High School in Hammond, Indiana, which was affiliated with First Baptist Church, a fundamentalist independent Baptist church that at the time was considered one of the largest churches in the country. Its pastor, Jack Hyles, co-founded Hyles-Anderson College in 1972, part of his flagship fundamentalist complex he named Baptist City, and made Billings its first president.
Hyles, known as a "fundamentalist Baptist power-broker" and "the Baptist Pope," in the late 1960s rejected civil rights laws, sermonizing that "You can no more legislate people to love Negroes than you can cut the moon in pieces and have it for lunch. The only way you're going to have the race problem solved is when people believe the truth, and know Him Who is the truth and get born again; then the love of Christ fills their hearts and they are compelled to love their neighbor."
Hyles ostentatiously depicted public schools as dens of "sordid, wicked, communist" infiltration, where Black Panther literature was for sale and hippies had subverted all discipline. If students were to be exposed to Black Panther literature, Hyles said in one thunderous sermon, then the Ku Klux Klan should be permitted to distribute its literature as well. He urged his congregants to get a second job if they needed to in order to pay for his tuition at Hammond High so they could get their kids out of the "cesspool" and into a school where "clean-cut, dedicated kids sit at the feet of cultured, fine, educated, godly people who believe the Bible." He trained his ire on universities, too, telling his flock that he'd prefer his son to fight in Vietnam than attend Indiana University because "I'd rather him die for freedom than be taught filth and rot by folks trying to destroy freedom."
At Christian schools like Hammond Baptist High School, authority—in particular, that of Billings—was taken seriously, Hyles boasted to his congregation. "When Dr. Billings decides to discipline your child and your child comes home some night and has to stand up while he eats," the preacher warned, "don't waste your time calling me on the telephone saying, 'Preacher, I want to talk to you about what Dr. Billings did to my boy.' Because, brother, I'm going to be sitting there counting them as he gives them—Amen one, Amen two, Amen three."
Hyles, who died in 2001, was accused of sexual misconduct with a congregant, a charge he repeatedly denied. His protégé and successor, his son-in-law Jack Schaap, was sentenced to 12 years in prison in 2013 after he pled guilty to sexually abusing a teenage girl in the congregation. Hyles' son Dave, also a pastor, has been embroiled in sprawling independent fundamental Baptist sex abuse scandals in which he is accused of serially sexually assaulting teenaged girls at multiple churches, as leadership moved him around to different positions each time new allegations surfaced.
Throughout the late 1960s and early 1970s, Billings—Hyles' respected authority figure— traveled the country promoting Christian schools, serving as a speaker and consultant to the fledgling movement. In 1971, he published A Guide to the Christian School, a detailed how-to manual for the aspiring Christian school administrator. In it, he advocated strict admissions requirements for students, and high standards for hiring teachers. An IQ of at least 90 would be required for admission for a student, Billings wrote, and the student must demonstrate "Christian indoctrination." Those who "show by their clothes, language, actions, and hair-dos that they have left the way of righteousness, humility, and reverence" should not be selected, and "emotionally disturbed" children "should never be admitted to the Christian classroom unless the teacher has faith to believe that the disturbing emotions and their influences will quickly be nullified."
As it turned out, the book had its origins as Billings' dissertation for his doctorate from the Clarksville School of Theology in Tennessee. A decade later, when he was serving in the Department of Education in the Reagan administration, it came out that Clarksville was a correspondence school which state authorities had shut down because the degrees it offered were "false and misleading educational credentials." The champion of Christian education had a "doctorate" from a diploma mill.
From the book UNHOLY: Why White Evangelicals Worship at the Altar of Donald Trump by Sarah Posner. Copyright © 2020 by Sarah Posner. Published by Random House, an imprint and division of Penguin Random House LLC. All rights reserved.
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