Monday, April 22, 2013

The Roots of Right Wing Religious Extremism: The Winrod Legacy 1/2


Most Americans have not heard of the name Winrod but decades ago, Reverend Gerald Winrod was at one time a charismatic voice of right-wing dissent, His anti-Semitic message spread through the Midwest by radio at a time when the Nazi party in Germany were rising to power. 
This two-part post traces his rise and fall and his ideological rebirth through his son, a man who took the message to the next level.

Of all the books of the Bible, the Book of Revelations holds a particular spell over right-wing Fundamentalists. I suppose there's a good reason. It is colorfully written and vague enough to mean nearly anything, depending on current events, the mood of the preacher and the target of the sermon. And for the more literal- minded Christians it instills a sense of imminent  unalterable doom and fear. A proven motivator. 

In our times, we have heard suggestions that Obama is somehow related to the coming of the Anti-Christ, the devil-incarnate from the biblical prophecies. 

However, Obama is hardly unique in this regard. In fact evangelists have used the prophecies to point fingers at well-known leaders nearly from the time the book was included in the official canon of Scripture. 

In this post, I want to examine the biographical history of the nearly forgotten Reverend Gerald Burton Winrod. Winrod used this particular technique against the president and against the progressive movement in general.

Reverend Gerald Winrod vs. Franklin Roosevelt

In the 1930s, for Christian fundamentalists, all the signs of the end times were obvious. The rise of totalitarianism in Europe and a world-wide depression unlike anything anybody had ever seen were just two signs that of the fulfillment of the ancient prophecies.

Matt Sutton, Professor of History at University of California, Santa Barbara, notes that in the 1930s, a few influential Christian leaders began to impose their own view on political events.
Franklin Roosevelt and the New Deal quickly emerged as the object of their most intense domestic scrutiny. Fundamentalists sensed something sinister in the thirty-second president. His consolidation of power, his controversial policies, and his internationalist sensibilities seemed consistent with biblical descriptions of politics and international relations in the last days.
As a result, fundamentalists did not interpret the growth of the modern liberal state in the U.S. as a reasonable response to the growing global economic depression but instead viewed it in conjunction with Mussolini’s visions of empire and Hitler’s Antisemitism. In short, fundamentalists across the continent came to believe that New Deal liberalism was the means by which the U.S. would join the legions of the Antichrist.
One of the more notable preachers that took this view was Rev. Gerald Burton Winrod in Wichita, Kansas.

Like the evangelists of today, Winrod railed against the corrosive effects of “modernism” in general. Specifically he attacked the teaching of evolution. That topic was in the news since the Scopes Trial in which a Tennessee school teacher had been fined for teaching Darwin’s theory in violation of the Butler Act. Then, as today, far right religious leaders had influenced the state legislature to pass laws according to their own agenda.

Toward this end, in 1925, the Rev. Winrod assembled a meeting of like-minded individuals to form the Defenders of the Christian Faith in Salinas, Kansas. While Winrod, despite his popularity, was never able to convince the Kansas legislature to enact anti-evolution laws, by 1926, he led a campaign to ban teaching evolution locally as well as in California and Minnesota. He reportedly appointed a committee to examine school textbooks for signs of heresy. 
In his eyes and in the eyes of many pastors, evolution was an attempt by "modernists" to destroy the Christian faith. No matter what science said, the Bible was clear on the matter.

Evolution was only one beef Winrod had with progressives. 
What originally raised Winrod’s hackles was the Roosevelt’s campaign to end to The Prohibition. The criminalization of alcohol had been seen by fundamentalists as one of their greatest victories. Never mind that it had never worked, that it cost millions of dollars to try to enforce. Never mind that it had made bootleggers and gin-running gangsters extraordinarily powerful and had predictably led to widespread corruption. Or that, it turned every wine-sipping granny into a hardened outlaw. Never mind all that, Christianity had triumphed over Democracy, it had seemed. And now, this upstart in the White House was about to usher in a new era of drunken immorality and open sin.


But that was really only the beginning of his feud. Despite the national emergency, Winrod condemned the New Deal, as a form of Socialism, not only ineffective but designed to snatch freedom from all Americans.

According the book, The Conservative Press in the Twentieth Century, Winrod in his newspaper was against increased federal intervention in the economy.

..The Defender attacked the Franklin Roosevelt's administration from the outset. Not only did FDR lead the repeal of the 18th amendment (which ended The Prohibition) and recognize the Soviet Union, but new agencies like the National Recovery Administration regimented American life.
His paper continued to interpret the depression and the New Deal primarily in religious terms. Member of the FDR's brain trust looked like impudent liberal who had mocked godly americans during the 1920s. On a theological level, Winrod detected an affinity between the NRA Blue Eagle and the Beast of Revelation."
Winrod told his followers that there was a conspiracy afoot and the people behind it were the Jews and the Communists. One major reference Winrod used, (aside from the New Testament) was the infamous text, The Protocol of the Elders of Zion. This was supposed to be clear evidence for a Jewish plan for world domination.

The book was supposed to be a sort of leaked memo from inside the super-secret Jewish elite. Despite that fact that the 1903 document has long been exposed as a forgery, it has been been used repeatedly since it first came to light in Russia, to sow Anti-Semitism to a credulous public.

Henry Ford, a notorious Jew hater, actually funded printing of 500,000 copies that were distributed throughout the US in the 1920s. Furthermore Ford serialized them in his private newspaper, the Dearborn Independent. In turn, in 1927,Winrod's organization, the Defenders of the Faith, began selling copies of Henry Ford's scandalous book, "The International Jew: The Foremost Problem." Half a million copies circulated in the US alone and became a source book for fascists in Germany.

(Even today though discredited, the Protocols of Zion appear in white supremacist and Neo-Nazi sites as justification for their fascist views.)

According to the document, one way the Jews planned to control the West government was through the spread of godless liberalism. The presence of such Jewish figures as Bernard Baruch in the circle of Roosevelt's advisers led Windrod to this judgement. At that time he warned:
"Jewish elite had played satanic roles in a divinely-directed drama now drawing to a close."

To his audiences Winrod played up the fears of his Christian followers against the “strange and “egotistical” people. On one hand, he assured them that he had nothing against the Jews as a people while at the same time, he called them “sly, subtle, cunning and deceptive.” He accused the Jewish race of considering itself superior to the Gentiles. Winrod said the trait led them to being “self-centered and hypnotized with the delusion of his own powers” and “capable of sinking to depths untouched by mortals of lesser mental and spiritual equipment.”


Jewish Conspiracy

This, claimed Winrod, was the source of the great Jewish conspiracy. In his sermons and writings, he blamed the political and economic troubles as a manifestation of what he called the Hidden Hand- “a small group of super-intelligent personalities who control the gold of the world and pull wires for the deliberate purpose of tearing down the Gentile peoples.”
The present world-wide economic collapse, the breaking down of moral standards, the ever increasing corruption in politics, the disrespect for law and order, the growing selfishness and suspicion existing between nations, the general disregard for God, the birth and development of Communism and the atheizing of the masses of people, may all be explained by ...HIDDEN HAND;
This group, alleged Winrod, had been exposed by the Protocol of the Elders of Zion which claimed that Liberalism would be Hidden Hand’s tool of choice.

Winrod didn't invent Anti-Semitism in America, of course. His ideas about the secret Zionist conspiracy were not new and yet, for many Protestant Midwesterners, the idea (especially coming from a pastor) came as a revelation. 

According to the Defender, Winrod's own newspaper, the conspiracy began back in the days of King Solomon And when it came to the so-called Jewish conspiracy, Winrod was nothing if not obsessive. The conspiracy, as outlined by Winrod, not only played a role in the crucifixion of Jesus but in the Communist persecution of Christians. 

Like Pat Robertson and other fundamentalists of our own time, Winrod selectively mixed Biblical interpretation with current events, with the theme of the coming of the AntiChrist. In his newsletter, he told his followers that Jews would ally themselves with Satan in human form. Defender readers were urged to beware of "bad Jews" and to convert "good Jews. 
Actually, the link to the past was already noted in the February 1995 New York Review of Books when Robertson was compared to Anti-Semites of the past. 
Not since Father Coughlin or Henry Ford has a prominent white American so boldly and unapologetically blamed the disasters of modern world history on the machinations of international high finance in general and on a few international Jews in particular.
* * * *
In what can only be called blind irony, Winrod wrote:
The Jews are essentially an egotistical people. Embedded deep in the subconscious strata of their natures is the everlasting feeling that "I am better than thou."
But, said Winrod, they had it all wrong. It was the Christians that were “better than thou.” But Winrod could not have understood how accurately he was describing his own religious beliefs.
No matter how [the Jew] may try to overcome it, the feeling always lingers with him, that he is superior to others, that he is made from special cloth. This would be a legitimate assumption if his people were loyal to their calling and true to the moral principles and commandments of the Bible. But in his present condition he is apostate and his bigoted attitude only becomes an egotistical perversion.
In Winrod’s feverish thinking, one proof of the Jewish conspiracy was the 1932 Presidential election of the United States, when Franklin D. Roosevelt was swept into office under the slogan of "Liberalism." Winrod cited as evidence the first public statement that Roosevelt made after his election as proof of the president’s role in the conspiracy to usher in the AntiChrist’s one world government.

In the darkest hour of the Depression, Roosevelt told the American people:
"We are about to enter upon a new period of Liberalism and of sane reform in the United States, and we shall require unity of purpose, if not of opinion, if we are to achieve permanent and practical results. The United States has become a great nation, and its economic life functions along national lines, where our political life still clings too much to the political machinery of the past.

As President of the United States I shall do my utmost, in cooperation with the people and with their chosen representatives, to restore the balance of our economic interests and to simplify and vitalize our political institutions, so that as changes come they may be effected without injury to the proper rights of any individual and without conflict with the spirit of American institutions.
Sounds all pretty standard for a presidential speech, doesn’t it? But for the self-appointed defender of the faith, Roosevelt’s call for change and progressive reform of the failed institutions of government was a divine sign that the reign of Anti-Christ was fast approaching. 
Winrod, using verses from the New and Old Testaments, supported this idea before a naive and easily-persuaded  audience.
These evangelicals and fundamentalists are, as the Reverend William Sloane Coffin wrote, not biblical literalists, as they claim. but "selective literalists," choosing the bits and pieces of the Bible that conform to their ideology and ignoring. distorting or inventing.  Selective literalist have the best of both worlds: The Bible can be literally true or it can be interpreted to mean whatever they want. 

The Anti-Christ Amongst Us
"The best propaganda is that which, as it were, works invisibly, penetrates the whole of life without the public having any knowledge of the propagandistic initiative. - Joseph Gobbels

For well-read Christians, none of these world events should come as a surprise. The Book of Revelations, foretelling the coming of the Anti-Christ, had laid out the shape of the future and then end of world. Winrod's opinions might not have had much impact outside of Kansas or of the Midwest but at its peak in the mid 1930s, his newspaper reached reached more than 100,000 readers.

Perhaps the most tragically ironic part of Winrod’s sermonizing was that his narrow political views blinded him (and in turn, his followers) to a much more plausible candidate for the Anti-Christ. In one tract, written in 1933, he describes the Anti-Christ:
He will be the blackest, most ferocious, diabolical character the world has ever known, a counterfeit Christ, energized by demon power, a veritable Judas-Nero-Napoleon-Mussolini-Nietzsche, all rolled into one super-personality. It is my deliberate conviction that this man is in the flesh at the present time.
In another article he says:
To the person who has not taken the trouble to inform himself regarding what the Prophecies say about the rise of a world Dictator, the idea at first glance may strike him as being a heavy draft on the imagination. However, a careful study of Bible Prophecy in the light of history and current events will show that everything is being made ready for the appearance of just such a colossal personage, whose characteristics are outlined down to the smallest details. Under the administration of this great industrial, philosophical, political, intellectual and financial Monarch the most unspeakable tortures will be visited upon the human race, in the end time of this dispensation, prior to the second coming of Christ.
In that list of potential devils in human form, there is one contemporary leader who is conspicuously missing. In hindsight, there is, of course, one person who fits perfectly into the criteria that Winrod requires for the Anti-Christ. Not Roosevelt or any of the so-called pawns of the Jewish conspiracy.

Although critical of Adolph Hitler and the Nazi party in its early days, Winrod warmed up to the Nazi leaders. In fact, they shared much the same ideology.

The Writing on the Wall
Some apologists for Winrod might claim that when Hitler initially began, his true nature fooled a lot of people. However, that view is highly debatable. It's difficult to excuse Winrod for not understanding exactly how dangerous Hitler was. In 1922, Hitler explained precisely what he had in mind for the Jews to retired Major Josef Hell a journalist for the weekly Der Gerade Weg:
"If I am ever really in power, the destruction of the Jews will be my first and most important job. As soon as I have power, I shall have gallows after gallows erected, for example, in Munich on the Marienplatz-as many of them as traffic allows. Then the Jews will be hanged one after another, and they will stay hanging until they stink. They will stay hanging as long as hygienically possible. As soon as they are untied, then the next group will follow and that will continue until the last Jew in Munich is exterminated. Exactly the same procedure will be followed in other cities until Germany is cleansed of the last Jew!"
He also added:
"Once the hatred and the battle against the Jews have been really stirred up, their resistance will necessarily crumble in the shortest possible time. They are totally defenseless, and no one will stand up to protect them."
Winrod’s bigoted campaign against the Jewish minority ensured that his own followers would not offer any protection. The conscience of a Christian was, in effect, rendered insensitive by Winrod’s fiery rhetoric and biblical quotations. 

In 1933, the year that Winrod wrote about Roosevelt and the imagined Jewish conspiracy, Hitler said in an interview by a German language New York newspaper:
"Why does the world shed crocodile tears over the richly merited fate of a small Jewish minority? … I ask Roosevelt, I ask the American people: Are you prepared to receive in your midst these well-poisoners of the German people or the universal spirit of Christianity?
But Winrod was not content to admire the fascist from the safety of the American Midwest. In early 1935, by invitation, he actually paid a visit to Germany. As one source notes:
In January 1935 Winrod was invited by Dr. Otto Vollbehr to visit Hitler's Germany "to study social, political, moral, economic, and prophetic trends.". The visit had a profound effect upon him. In discussing Hitler, Winrod stated: "One of the first things that disgusted Hitler was the fact that he discovered night clubs, cabarets, centers of vice, nudist colonies, as well as poison literature to be under the control and direction of an organization of Jews, who for money, were willing to tear down the Gentile morale of the nation."
Vollbehr had chosen the perfect propagandist tool for the American heartland. Winrod returned from Germany with glowing reports of the Third Reich for his readership. This came in stark contrast to what the rest of the newspapers were reporting by that time. Journalist Heywood Campbell Broun was warning not only of the threat that European fascism was going to play on the world stage, he cited involvement and support by some in the United States. 

In Hitler, Winrod saw his own anti-Semitic views, purified and backed with power, embodied in one man. While the pastor is reported to have been doubtful that Hitler's model could ever work in the United States, Hitler’s rhetoric could have been lifted from one of Winrod’s newsletters. For example, here’s one excerpt from Hitler’s “Mein Kampf”
Hence today I believe that I am acting in accordance with the will of the Almighty Creator: by defending myself against the Jew, I am fighting for the work of the Lord..
And another quote could very well be Winrod’s own mission statement:
"The greatness of Christianity did not lie in attempted negotiations for compromise with any similar philosophical opinions in the ancient world, but in its inexorable fanaticism in preaching and fighting for its own doctrine."
At that time, Winrod was by no means the only religious leader who voiced anti-Semitic opinions.

Father Coughlin (as well as Father Edward Lodge Curran) used his radio shows to promote the idea that the Jews were suffering because Nazism is a defense mechanism against Communism for which, he implied, Jews were responsible. In his publication, Couglin wrote:
A worldwide sacred war was declared on Germany, not by the US , not by Great Britain, not by France, not by any nation, but by the race of Jews."
This was in 1943, at a time when the outcome of the war was up for grabs. According to LIFE magazine, Coughlin's Social Justice with a circulation of 185,000 readers, was at that time probably the most widely mouthpiece of this type of Nazi propaganda in the US.
(Eventually Coughlin’s views became so controversial that the Catholic church was forced to distance itself and declared Coughlin’s opinion were those of a private individual, and in no way represented the view of the Church.)

In 1938, when Winrod launched an unsuccessful campaign to be the governor of Kansas, he was forced to gloss over his anti-Semitic and Anti-Catholic record. After his loss with 21% of the vote, however, he returned to the fold. After all, he knew that it was not necessary to be so directly involved in political affairs to have a political effect.

Called to Account
American Bund Party 
Conference
After America entered the world War II, Winrod must have felt the sand under his feet shifting. Life magazine mentions Winrod in 1942:
Winrod is a big, loud bellicose speaker who specializes in attacking "international Jew Crooks." ... His Nazi sympathies prior to Pearl Harbor were well-established and well known in Kansas, but since the United States entered the war he has toned down his public utterances. 
In the end, his enthusiasm for the Nazis was to prove a costly misjudgment. The Roosevelt Administration took the unusual step of indicting Winrod- along with 29 other defendants- for sedition in 1942. In addition to Winrod, included other notorious individuals, like William Dudley Pelley, Pelly was the founder of the Silver Legion in 1933, underground American fascist organization modeled on the Brownshirts. He also ran for President in 1936 for the Christian Party
Also on trial for sedition was Gerhard Wilhelm Kunze, former German-American Bund fuhrer.  Its membership reportedly consisted of 230,000 German Americans and 10,000 uniformed strong-arm storm troopers. As an article in the Saturday Evening Post observes:
No group in America make freer use of the Founding Fathers or play closer to the flag. That, too, is out of the Nazi book. On behalf of the Founding Fathers, they hate democracy. The Founding Fathers, they maintain, did not found a democracy— “mob rule”—but a republic—”a government of representatives.”
If that observation about the Bund Party sounds vaguely familiar, you shouldn't be too surprised. The very same lines are used today by the Tea Party- a party that also makes free (but selective) use of the Founding Fathers.  The Saturday Evening Post goes on:
With varying degrees of openness, they doubt—as the Nazis did—whether so much evil can be uprooted without the use of force. Most of them appear to relish the prospect. Some of them are actively organizing to have a hand in it. Meanwhile, in support and for the spread of these hatreds, they are pouring upon the country an extensive propaganda which, for incoherent violence, might be drawn directly from the [German Nazi] presses — as some of it actually is.
Again the same sentiments were expressed not too long ago by the Mississippi Tea party chairman:
To resist by all means that are right in the eyes of God is not rebellion or insurrection, it is patriotic resistance to invasion.

May all of us fall on our faces before the Heavenly Judge, repent of our sins, and humbly cry out to Him for mercy on our country. And, may godly courageous leaders rise up in His wisdom and power to lead us in displacing the criminal invaders from their seats and restore our constitutional republic.
After two sensational years, the charges were eventually dropped when administration prosecutors chose not to continue with the trial after the judge died. Perhaps it had been enough to indict, to scandalize. To any further could easily have backfired for the administration and appeared to the public as a persecution, rather than justice.
*   *   *   *
The fortunes, as well as the health, of Winrod began a slow decline after the trial and he wisely turned to the more popular crusade against Communism of the 1950s. In Joseph McCarthy, whom  one professor of history called "the consummate demagogue," Winrod found a politician he could love. He could also remain untouchable by “wrapping himself in the flag” against the godless Communists. 
At the very first years of the civil rights movement, Winrod also preached that the anti-segregation movement was little more than a Communist plot, endorsed by Jews, and an attempt to split the nation apart. Such a view was, unsurprisingly, supported by many in the Deep Ssouth. His Defender Magazine, for example, quotes a Congressman from Louisiana, John E. Rankin:
When those communistic Jews.. go around here and hug and kiss these Negros, dance with them, intermarry with them and try to force their way into white restaurants, white hotels and white picture shows, they are not deceiving any red-blooded American.
Incidentally it might surprise you to learn that this kind of talk came from a Democratic Congressman who served sixteen consecutive terms. Perhaps even more shocking, this was a man who, according to sources, was known to use the epithet nigger on the floor of the United States House of Representatives.

In the end, If Winrod ever apologized for misdirecting his followers, there’s no record of it. Instead of seeing what was obvious about the rise of Hitler, Winrod, blinded by his sense of intolerance, pointed at the president of the United States as the enemy.

If Winrod reflected on his actions, embracing a veritable Anti-Christ to the cost of six million Jews, that’s not part of the historical record either. He never seems to have understood how his widely-read sermons might have encouraged the German fascists, or, prior to that, how they might have weakened the president's position during the Depression. 

All evidence shows that he felt no shame whatsoever. 



In part two of this series, we will examine how Reverend Gerald Winrod's right-wing views and intolerance was passed down to his son.

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