believer, beware

Clouds, When Determined By Context

On the sci-fi roots of modern fundamentalism.

Radio on: March, 1950, station WING out of Dayton, Ohio, 1410 on the AM dial. “The Bible Speaks,” and your hosts Doyle D. Warner and G. Gene Honer are giving it voice over the air. Two two-bit radio preachers bringing you the news—on scripture time. Prophecy; ancient patterns revealed; the Russian scheme foretold. The end, nigh. Unless, that is, we heed the warning. To wit: Look to the sky. Not for the Second Coming, but for death from above. Russian bombers, jet fighters, flying fortresses. Maybe even—scripture suggests—Russian UFOs. Daniel predicted as much, say the preachers: “Desolation coming from wings overhead.”

Are these broadcasters insane? Are they lunatics, their spittle like static as it crackles against their microphones? Is anybody listening? Does anybody care?

Abraham Vereide, the fundamentalist leader in whose files I found transcripts of Warner and Honer’s broadcasts, cares. In 1950, Abram, as Vereide is known, presides over the most elite fundamentalist organization in America, International Christian Leadership (ICL). Started in 1935 with what Abram believed was a new revelation from God instructing him to organize an “avant-garde” with which to take back America for Christ, by 1950 ICL counts among its members several dozen congressmen. Among them: Senator Homer Capehart, an Indiana Republican who’d nearly weep when he thought of the plight of former Nazi SS men, barred from America for no crime greater than German patriotism;  Senator Ralph Flanders, a Vermont Republican who attempted to amend the Constitution to make Christ king of America; and Senator Absalom Willis Robertson, a Virginia Dixiecrat whose son, Pat, would do his best to make Flanders’ dream a reality.

Such men, pillars of the establishment, are not far removed from Warner and Horner’s end of the radio dial. Since the start of 1950, Abram, their spiritual mentor, has been collecting and filing transcripts of Warner and Horner’s program among his collection of newsletters and tracts and broadsides. It’s the ephemera of fringe fundamentalism—Christian Patriot, and Christian Economics, and a monthly chronicle of Soviet espionage and theological counterweapons titled Intelligence Digest—funneled into Abram’s files, there to be squeezed, distilled, and transformed into Bible lessons for congressmen. Abram never speaks to his disciples of UFOs or death from above, but he knows how to hear the signals, to make sense of the code—to translate airwaves from Dayton and rants from the dozens of letters he receives every day from burghers and petty officials into breakfast club homilies, garnishes for eggs and bacon and the bonhomie of political piety. Abram is the middle man. Abram makes fundamentalism sound sane.

Maybe it is. Or, reasonable, in the literal sense of the word, which is the only one in which men such as D. Doyle Warner and G. Gene Honer can believe. That is: created by cause. Think of the moment at which they’re channeling their prophecies into the nights of Ohio, the “hard heart of hickland” in the vernacular of those who know that purest Americana is lousy with corruption and sin, the decadence of victory and the nightmares “our boys” brought home from the war, more crippling than any social disease. It’s just five years after VJ-Day, and Harry Truman, a shoe salesman puffed into power by the racketeers of the Pendergrast political machine, is steering the nation toward yet another field of blood and gore and dead young men. They do not quite understand why we fight in Korea, but then, they didn’t quite understood the last war, either. If they’d been soldiers, they might’ve seen firsthand the “wings” Daniel dreamed of, the bombing, the cities of friends and enemies in desolation, indeed.

“How doth the city sit solitary, that was full of people!” laments the prophet Jeremiah. ”How is she become as a widow!”

If the listeners were too old for fighting, they’ve seen the widow just the same, in the newsreels that preface every movie. The movies themselves are filled with men who aren’t quite right, men who’re afraid, men who have seen things. Orson Welles slides through the ruins of postwar Vienna in The Third Man, telling his buddy to forget the orphans poisoned by Welles’ snake oil. There is no right or wrong anymore. In D.O.A., the best of the B’s, a man goes to the police to report a murder—his own, by radiation poisoning. Even comedies are peculiar: picture Jimmy Stewart lost in his vapors, raising a toast to an invisible rabbit called Harvey. In science fiction, American G-men race against red agents to find the ultimate weapon, The Flying Saucer.

In Los Angeles a 30-year-old college president named Dr. William Frank Graham has just become Billy to the nation, launching the biggest revival since the days of Billy Sunday, thirty years past. The new Billy makes the wild old Billy seem buttoned-down, New-Billy wears pastel suits and hand-painted ties, the best he can afford. He’s almost good looking enough to play a cowboy, a gunfighter, his soon-to-be-famous blue eyes glowering between his rock jaw and a wave of blonde hair. A hero or a villain? He has been to the desert, weeping over the wheel of his car on the outskirts of the city weeks before the revival, wandering alone in the dark through the California hills. Submit, submit, urged his friend J. Edwin Orr, one of Abram’s “field representatives,” preaching his modern American gospel. Billy did not know how. Doubts swarmed his mind. Submit, submit, preaches Orr. “Starve doubt, feed freedom,” Abram advised.

In 1949, at the start of his great revival, Billy declares himself a free man with a trumpet-blast sermon, 20 straight verses from the prophet Isaiah as its opening. “Ah, sinful nation,” he begins, his voice curling around the crowd. “A people loaded with guilt, a brood of evildoers, children given to corruption!” To them he brought a vision: “Your cities burned by fire…!”

Just months past, the Soviets had tested their first nuclear weapon, years ahead of schedule. Mao had completed the Communist takeover of China, the “sleeping giant” of which FDR had warned the nation. Asia seemed lost, possibly as a result of Red traitors in the State Department Joe McCarthy charged, and Soviet tanks mustered in East Germany. The American forces facing off against them were meant at best to be a “trip wire,” to give the U.S. enough time to get its bombers in the air.

Too late. God has chosen Russia as His “chastening rod” and awarded her as her prize the flying saucers from the movies, the better to execute His wishes. Such was the writing on the screen. Scripture could not make it more plain: “In the first place,” declare the radio preachers,

we have the following biblical terminology which is descriptive of the Flying Saucer: Chariots of GOD, Wheels of Ezekiel and of Daniel, Glittering Spears, Shining Arrows, Flying Swords, Flying Sickles, Shafts of Lightning, Engines of War (from which are hurled Hailstones of Fire).

The list goes on:

Weapons of Indignation, Weapons out of His Armory, Weapons Out of Heaven, New Sharp Threshing Instrument, Whirlwinds, Burning Winds, Flaming Chariots, Armored Chariots, Chariots of Salvation.

Finally: “Clouds, when determined by context.”

The Christianity of American fundamentalism is a faith for futurists, the sort of people who delight in imagining what is to come next, even if it’s awful. The brightest of the believers realize that to hone one’s predictions, one must study the past as well. Our Ohio radio men declare that to be wise as serpents, one must be both a futurist and a historian. But World War II had changed the steady plod of Christian futurism, quickened it. Fundamentalism had at times raced toward apocalypse before, but never with such technology at its disposal—no rockets, no bombers, no nuclear missiles. The stakes are higher, the enemy stronger. In 1950, American fundamentalism responds with great imagination, not just following the popular trend of spotting flying saucers and aliens among us, but driving it into the future, old time religion resurrecting as the cyborg doctrine—part faith, part technology—that hums and blinks and winks from from the same screen on which you are reading this transmission from fundamentalism’s past.

Jeff Sharlet is a founding editor of Killing the Buddha, coauthor with Peter Manseau of Killing the Buddha: A Heretic's Bible (2004) and co-editor of Believer, Beware (2009). Sharlet is also the author of Sweet Heaven When I Die, (2011), C Street, (2010), and the New York Times bestseller The Family (2008).