As a youngster growing up in Jonesboro, I heard a lot about the city’s church war of the 1930s. Some of it seemed hard to believe, but the then-small town in Northeast Arkansas had indeed been the scene of a fierce struggle for control of local pulpits and congregations.
In essence, what happened was this: The First Baptist Church, a stronghold in the community, with many prominent citizens – the local establishment — among its members, invited a traveling evangelist to conduct a tent revival. The evangelist, Joe Jeffers, actually had a background as an actor and showman. But he proved to be a charismatic and powerful preacher who quickly gained a devoted following and drew large crowds. Increasingly, he mocked and ridiculed other denominations and religions.
When it was time for the revival to end, Jeffers decided he wanted to stay and got himself elected as pastor of First Baptist. However, a significant faction of the church membership objected to that power play. Some of the local leaders attempted to find a compromise solution and brought in a new preacher. That’s when things really heated up.
After a brief absence, Jeffers returned to Jonesboro to launch an ongoing revival and began making accusations of corruption and immorality against local officials. He applied derisive nicknames to his critics. He accused some of being criminals. Rumors about his own behavior were abundant. There were fisticuffs and gun shots and the governor called out the National Guard to try to maintain order. Jeffers’ revival tent was set on fire. He and his insurrectionist backers became more and more surly. When one of his supporters was arrested, Jeffers led a mob to the courthouse in protest. A melee resulted, with the mayor and police chief attacked. Jeffers had asked God to strike the mayor dead. In the following days one man was killed. When calm finally prevailed, Jeffers left town, though renouncing local leaders and prophesying grim days to come.
Jeffers moved on to Florida and California, leaving the ministry for the Pyramid Power Yahweh movement.
This is only a brief sketch of Jeffers and what he incited. Why bring this up now? It’s because someone recently asked me about the church war and. as I think about all this, I see parallels and paradoxes, past and present.
I see parallels with what has been happening in and around the Republican Party and the Republican presidential candidate. Are the parallels exact? No, but there are more than a few similarities — insurrection against the party establishment or elites, large and boisterous crowds at revival-like rallies, derisive nicknames and wild accusations against opponents, conspiracy theories and predictions of gloom and doom for those who don’t follow Donald Trump’s leadership.
Just as Jeffers struck a responsive chord with many, so has Donald Trump. But while Jeffers used religion as his base, Trump’s theological foundation appears to be based on conspiracism or conspiracy theories, mixed with nationalism. Some of his themes and actions appear to be contrary in tenor to the tenants and values of conservative Christianity. And here’s where the paradox comes in.
The Republican establishment was tardy and tame in responding as Trump blew through the primaries even though opponents such as Mario Rubio labeled him as a “con man.” Traditionalists wanted the benefits of drawing in zealous Trump followers without paying the price for his clamorous candidacy. .
A further paradox is that a major element of Trump’s core support comes from evangelicals and the religious right. He aligned himself with them on some social issues, but his rhetoric and record were often at odds with their credo.
However, many evangelical leaders and Republican officials have stuck with him while disdaining some of his comments and positions. Liberty University President Jerry Falwell Jr. blamed a “conspiracy” of GOP establishment leaders for the leak of the “Access Hollywood” videotape with Trump’s lewd comments. Falwell and some other evangelical leaders cite prospective appointments to the Supreme Court as a rationale for supporting Trump, believing that several Court vacancies will occur in coming years and Trump, unlike Hillary Clinton, would nominate conservative justices.
Here we find more paradox. As opposition to Trump has grown, the potential negative impact on Republicans in congressional races has increased. This heightens prospects – by no means guaranteed – that Democrats might gain a Senate majority, giving them more of a voice on Court nominees. The reality, however, is we will still face a deeply divided Senate. Even if Clinton wins the presidency, there’s likely to be a logjam on major issues. And neither party is likely to have a filibuster-proof majority of 60 votes in the Senate.
The 2016 campaign has some historic parallels of demagoguery and no shortage of paradoxes.
Hoyt Purvis is an emeritus professor of journalism and international relations at the University of Arkansas. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Print Headline: Presidential parallels, paradoxes