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Michael Olenick: Nothing Godly About Racism or Fascism: Where Evangelicals Went Way Wrong

Yves here. Michael Olenick’s post on the complicated and very much changed relationship between evangelicals and the Republican party builds on two earlier pieces: The Surprisingly Short Road from Abolitionism to Credit Bureaus and Oneida: The Victorian Free Love Commune that Changed the US.

By Michael Olenick, a research fellow at INSEAD whose recent articles can be found at innowiki.org and Blue Ocean Thinking

I normally research, write, and teach about business along with the occasional consulting gig. During my regular work, I came across a pattern that has ramifications for our modern world, the genesis of evangelical support for the Republican Party and how that’s shifted over time.

Most people know the more mundane part of the story: The Kansas-Nebraska Act became law in 1854 violating the Missouri Compromise and potentially expanding slavery into new territories. The law enraged abolitionists and also more economically-focused anti-slavery northerners leading to the formation of a new political party, the Republicans. In 1857, the Supreme Court released the Dred Scott decision effectively stripping all black Americans of rights in both the north and south. Outrage propelled Republican Abraham Lincoln to the Presidency. During the transition period, southern states ceded and civil war erupted. The North won and abolished slavery though, in an effort towards reconciliation, allowed the South to continue treating African Americans not significantly different than before the war.

What’s less discussed is the influence of evangelicals in the then new Republican party. Countless cynical articles suggest abolition was confined solely to economic issues, that northerners didn’t want to compete with free labor. Maybe that’s true for some people but my own research suggests a deeper reason: evangelicals at that time were what today we refer to as progressives with a moral imperative towards freedom and equality. They had a profound impact on Republicans, an outsized influence that remains to this day.

This strong evangelical influence remains but the evangelicals profoundly changed and the Republican Party right along with them.

Many of those mid-1800s evangelicals supported women’s rights, believed in communal living, fair wages, and good working conditions. They were anti-racist abolitionists despite the economic blowback their public stance caused them. It’s an understatement to say those early Republican evangelicals wouldn’t be impressed with their modern counterparts.

Let’s back up.

Founded upon a strict separation of church and state, to avoid the conflicts of Europe and the religious wars, early Americans kept religion largely to themselves. For the longest time, Christmas was a workday for both private businesses and government. They took the separation of church and state seriously.

In the early to mid-1800s, the US underwent a type of spiritual revival. Young Protestant Americans searched for a spirituality that was new and different. This led to various new religious groups, many which formed in the “Burned-Over District” of upstate New York. Some were largely apolitical like the Mormons, Shakers, and Spiritualists, the latter that was led by two sisters who performed mass seances. The Temperance movement was almost entirely political, working to ban alcohol. But one movement stands out from the rest blending religion, morality, and politics, the Perfectionists of Oneida.

The Perfectionists and another evangelical group, the Tappan Brothers of New York City, would go on to have ramifications on the Republican Party that reverberate to this day though their message has been largely coopted by crooks, cranks, and charlatans.

Lewis & Arthur Tappan

Lewis and Arthur Tappan ran an enormous silk trading operating in New York City. They were fervent, devout evangelical Christians. Lewis earned and lost a not-so-small fortune early in life then joined his brother Arthur’s business. The brothers eventually came to express their religion largely through a hyper-focus on the abolition of slavery. They saw slavery as an affront to God, a monumental indecency they pledged to personally stamp out. The brothers printed and mailed pamphlets around the south, lobbied other northerners, and funded the Underground Railroad. Lewis also funded and supported the successful defense of the Amistad case, where a group of kidnapped Africans revolted and killed their would-be slavers.

Their business was boycotted, their homes firebombed, and mobs of angry people followed them around threatening to kill them.

Earlier, before abolition became a central focus, Lewis created a series of morality spies around New York City to report on brothels, gambling halls, and the like. Based on the reports Lewis worked with law enforcement to shutter the dens of iniquity. A financial crisis dealt Arthur’s business a setback when many customers defaulted on credit he’d extended. After that, Lewis repurposed his morality spies to creditworthiness reporters to better manage credit risk. He systematized and expanded his network into the first national credit bureau, Dun & Bradstreet.

Tappan’s pre–Civil War reporting network were overwhelmingly abolitionists, tied together into what today might be called a conspiracy to overthrow the “peculiar institution” of slavery. Abraham Lincoln was one of Tappan’s reporters.

The Perfectionists, Oneida, and the Townerites

Led by John Humphrey Noyes, the Perfectionists were a religious utopian society.

Hayes was a wealthy and well-off American aristocrat, educated at Dartmouth and Yale where he studied law and theology. Both his father and his wife’s father were Congressmen. President Rutherford B. Hayes was his cousin. Like the Tappan brothers, Noyes could have lived a very comfortable life as an upper-class American if he’d avoided politics.

Cutting to the salacious part that grabs most people’s attention (admittedly, myself included), the Perfectionists were a nineteenth-century free love community. They openly practiced nonmonogamy during the Victorian era when adultery was a crime. New England intellectuals were unimpressed with Noyes’ “complex marriage” – where every person was “married” to every person of the opposite sex – and “a mob” forced them to flee from New Haven to upstate New York. They purchased a small farm and formed a commune, the Oneida Community.

Starting out impoverished, Oneida quickly grew into an economic powerhouse manufacturing and selling everything from animal traps to silk and, eventually, tableware. (Digression: the latter business exists to this day despite the best efforts of several private equity firms, though that’s a different issue.)

Noyes’ was an anti-slavery abolitionist but also believed marriage to be a form of ownership, which wasn’t entirely untrue as it related to early nineteenth-century women. In his theology, all forms of people ownership must be abolished.

Along these lines, Oneida believed strongly in women’s rights. Women and men held the same leadership roles, received the same education, and rotated through the same jobs. The group practiced a primitive but apparently effective form of birth control. Pregnancies were planned and children raised, after being weaned, by men and women in a children’s house. Men and women cooked, cleaned, smelted, supervised, and did everything else together without regard to sex. The only obvious major exception was higher education; smarter Oneida children were sent to Yale which only accepted men at the time so the smarter women were sent to art schools.

Both women and men can and did suggest and reject advances to sleep together. Unlike women in traditional marriages at the time, women had the right to reject advances though historical records suggest both men and women enjoyed many partners. “All men and women were expected to have sexual relations and did,” wrote Noyes. Favoring any person over any other was termed “selfish love” and was severely frowned upon.

 

Despite their communal ways, in which no member lived better or worse than any other, the group as a whole excelled at business and became incredibly wealthy, purchasing ever more land to expand their business empire. They were extremely selective about who could join the collective but hired many locals who were paid and treated far better than the norm at the time. Besides high salaries and excellent working conditions, Oneida provided privately-owned houses to workers on nearby farms.

 

Oneida as a commune fell apart after an internal revolt. Community member James W. Towner was a self-taught lawyer and Civil War officer. He joined Oneida, along with a dozen others, from the Berlin Heights Free Love community in Ohio. Noyes was apprehensive about admitting Towner and the Berlin Heights group who he believed were more into the carnal pleasure part of free love rather than the idealistic side that rejected monogamy as a form of ownership. However, many letters, several visits, and a $14,000 fee eventually gained the group entry.

 

Towner and his dissidents, by then a large group, left Oneida with their then sizable share of the wealth. In 1880, they settled in the Southern Californian town of Santa Ana and purchased an enormous amount of land. Soon after, Townerites convinced the southeastern corner of Los Angeles to secede into its own municipality, Orange County. Towner was appointed judge. Learning from the lessons back in New York, the relocated Oneidaites were more discreet though their reputation preceded them. “It is difficult to figure this thing out – whether it is another ‘Oneida Community’ business or a ‘Mormon outfit.’ At any rate it will be a good idea for parents to keep their eyes on their daughters and husbands on their weak wives,” wrote the Santa Ana Weekly Standard on June 9, 1882. Oneida and Townerites influenced the California way of living ever since.

Tied Together

Tappan and the Oneidians were high-profile but many abolitionists preferred to remain below the waterline. After all, pro-slavers were often crude, uneducated, and violent people (some things never change). Privacy was so guarded that many of these ties weren’t clear until recently. For example, presumably to protect the privacy of the offspring, Oneida’s records were largely closed until 2007. Most remain in dusty boxes undigitized, buried in an offsite repository at Syracuse University.

However, it doesn’t take the imagination of a Q conspiracy theorist to see the links between these groups. There is plenty of ancillary evidence that the Tappan’s and Oneida were working together and that their beliefs strongly influenced the early Republican Party. At a superficial level, Oneida was one of the core manufacturers of silk and Tappan of the leading silk wholesalers in New York. At a deeper level, there is historical record of the Tappan’s working with the “Oneida Institute” and Arthur Tappan’s daughter, Frances Antill Tappan, died at Oneida. Given that Oneida was a small out of the way village, it’d be far-fetched to believe these connections are entirely coincidental. The Townerite connection to Orange County and that County’s strong Republican bent – albeit with a California morality which didn’t at all intersect with east coast protestant Republicans – brings the Republican Party into better focus.

Modern Day

Many people argue the Republican Party began to rot with Nixon’s “southern strategy.” After passing the Civil Rights Act and Voting Rights Act, Republicans realized they could reel-in lots of southern racists. This worked and the Republicans did indeed attract a whole lot of rot. But attributing the problems of the party solely to their affinity for wannabe Confederates understates the core problem and gives them a pass they don’t deserve. Certainly, racism is a layer of their foundation but it’s not the only layer and it’s not the oldest one.

Think about it: the Republican Party is home to a long line of miscreants who largely pre-date the Southern Strategy. There’s the corrupt Warren Harding, the incompetent Herbert Hoover, the obscene Joe McCarthy, the bloodthirsty Barry Goldwater, and the crook Richard Nixon who dreamed up the Southern Strategy. Later, we have the dishonest Ronald Reagan, the vengeful George W. Bush, and the vilest of all, Donald J. Trump. However, by the time they arrived there were already serious problems. Republican Ike Eisenhower was the exception, not the rule.

This raises the question of how a political party that had its roots in forward-thinking progressive Christian movements could turn around so quickly. Lewis Tappan advocated encouraging interracial marriage on the theory that, eventually, the descendants would all be the same race eliminating racism. The Oneidian’s were strong Christians but their worship was confined to studying and acting out a strong morality based on equality; there were no sermons at Oneida and hypocrisy was called out and stamped out.

Contrast those evangelicals with their modern-day counterparts.

Jerry Falwell, Jr. liked to watch his wife have sex with their pool boy. To each their own – Noyes would’ve shrugged his shoulders at this arrangement as long as everybody consented – except Falwell was also head of Liberty University which prohibits premarital sex, much less extramarital. Then there are the countless homophobes like Ted Haggard caught enjoying meth with male hookers. “I bought drugs and a massage from [his male escort], and he masturbated me at the end of it. That’s it,” said Haggard. Uh … ok, though “it” seems like a lot for a morality preacher who opposed gay marriage.

Despite their wealth, Oneidians all lived and ate together spreading prosperity throughout their community, including to employees. Lewis Tappan also paid his employees well, eventually retiring and turning the business over to one of them. Contrast that with the greed of today’s evangelicals. Preacher Joel Osteen lives in $10.5 million mansion, own a second $2.9 million home, and flies his private A319. Pastor Kenneth Copeland explains “you can’t talk to god while flying commercial.” Apparently, Copeland’s mentor Oral Roberts was annoyed by requests for prayers while flying with ordinary folk.

Moving On

I’m an American Jew living in France, a first-generation college student from a long line of butchers raised in Southern Indiana, a lifelong Democrat. My dad broke out of the butcher shop, went into business, and – due to dyslexia slowing things down – finally received rabbinical ordination in his 50s. All of which is to say, what I know from evangelical Christians I know from afar.

There are certainly good and kind evangelicals. When I was 13 years-old, I biked with a bunch of other teens and one adult from Bloomington, Indiana almost to Mississippi where we met up with the rest of our hippie school on the way to New Orleans. Inspired by Kerouac, our bike trip included no motors, no preplanned route, no hotels, and minimal money. Mobile phones hadn’t been invented yet.

In this context, biking with a mixed-race, mixed-sex group through the rural south, I got to meet lots of interesting people. Some weren’t so kind; when we asked a farmer if we could sleep in his barn we ended up in the local jail, albeit in the lobby rather than a holding cell. But one group of evangelical Baptists took us in, fed us, and were genuinely concerned and cared for the group of ragtag teens. Granted, they also kept me awake most of the night trying to convert me to Christianity but it was out of genuine concern for my spiritual health.

Still, more than a few evangelicals – arguably the great majority – have clearly lost their way. The hypocrisy is self-evident. They preach one thing then do another. When called out, they come up with ridiculous justifications or – if their sins are egregious enough – disappear into obscurity, their own message of forgiveness and redemption fading fast away from their former flock.

The Republican Party they support is no different. Where once they picked up on the morality of Tappan and Noyes, embracing human dignity, freedom of thought and expression, free but fair business practices, and equal treatment now they lust for tax cuts (and corporate welfare for their own businesses) with fewer business regulations. The evangelical roots that worked to destroy slavery and put down racism now embraces building a real and metaphorical wall against poor immigrants. Where Oneida embraced God and science, today’s Republican scientists include people like Rand Paul, an anti-vaxxer with an MD. Progressive Republican theologians like Noyes are replaced with holy roller hypocrites like Ted Cruz and Josh Hawley.

One shining light is maybe, like a forest fire that eventually runs out of fuel, the Republican Party has run so far astray that maybe they’re ready for a reset. Maybe the evangelicals who have supported them will reassess their lives and find something better than flakes and frauds preaching the prosperity gospel or the charlatans of charismatic Christianity. Surely, there are people who realize that phonies permeated and debased their religion. It seems impossible to believe the same theology that fired up those nineteenth-century Christians also propels anybody to support the barbaric and arguably Satanic Donald Trump or any of his horrible kids or sycophants.

During the impeachment debate, Republicans argued it’s time to move on. Guess what: they’re right. But that doesn’t mean Trump or any of his henchmen and women get a free pass: just like the US should’ve thrown the book at the Confederacy after the Civil War – the entire South should’ve had two Senators, total – so too must their terrible behavior be addressed and severely punished. No, moving on isn’t something that happens with us; it’s something that happens with them. It’s time to move on from the path they’ve collectively chosen. Time to find angels in their ranks while throwing out the cranks. Time to start over.

As much as it’d delight me personally to see an entirely neutered conservative party, the lack of political diversity wouldn’t be especially healthy. For the sake of the US and for their own sake as people, the Republicans must reembrace their long distant past and grow into a new movement based on very old ideas.

 

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