Barry Hankins on What Christians in the 2020s Can Learn From Christians in the Roaring Twenties

Billy Sunday

Barry Hankins is professor of history at Baylor University and is the author of Jesus and Gin: Evangelicalism, the Roaring Twenties and Today’s Culture Wars (St. Martin’s Press). The views expressed in this commentary do not necessarily represent those of BCNN1.


One of the most famous preachers in America defended a president accused of corruption. He called the investigation—not a witch hunt, but close—a “damnable rot.” The president had engaged in multiple extramarital affairs. He cheated on his mistress with another, younger mistress, with whom he was rumored to have had a child. Some of the president’s closest advisors and cabinet members were convicted and sent to prison.

This was the Roaring Twenties. The president was Warren G. Harding, a Baptist, who died before his scandals came to light and before the famous preacher, Billy Sunday, felt the need to defend him. Comparisons between these events and our own cultural moment may be difficult to set aside, but they are mostly coincidental. As we stand on the cusp of the 2020s, we can observe other religious and cultural comparisons of more substance. They may shed light on how Christians should live in the public square and conduct ministry in the next decade.

Legislating Morality

The term culture war was coined in the 1980s, but the Roaring Twenties had culture war aplenty: controversy over the teaching of evolution in schools, Prohibition, fundamentalist-modernist controversies in two of the largest Protestant denominations, battles over literature deemed by some to be obscene, and a presidential campaign in 1928 that posed the question of whether Catholics, and by extension recent immigrants, could be fully American. In all of these, serious Christians on both the left and the right, as well as a small-but-growing contingent of secularists, seemed to agree that American civilization hung in the balance and only their worldview could save it.

Take Prohibition, for example. Most Protestant Christian leaders and denominations across the spectrum from fundamentalist to liberal supported and defended the outlawing of liquor, albeit with very different tones. Prohibitionists in the mainline denominations stressed not just law enforcement but the need for continued education and moral suasion concerning the dangers of alcohol. The Presbyterian social gospeler Charles Stelzle was among the most ardent and active mainline Protestant prohibitionists. He put it this way: “Prohibition will produce its best results only when the people of our country accept it sincerely, warmheartedly, and enthusiastically.” Some fundamentalist leaders, by contrast, portrayed Prohibition as a matter of law and order. As Seattle pastor Mark Matthews once said, Prohibition “ought to be enforced if every street in America had to run with blood and every cobble stone had to be made of a human skull.” In response to that sort of thinking, Stelzle liked to say, “It is not sufficient merely to insist upon obedience to the law. There should be more of an inclination on the part of the Prohibitionists to rest the claim for observance of the Volstead Act upon its merits as a social measure.”

On evolution, fundamentalists and liberal Protestants were on opposite sides. The anti-evolution movement was led by conservatives, universally called fundamentalists at the time. This was long before anyone made a distinction between a fundamentalist and an evangelical. Presbyterians and Baptists, and to a lesser extent Methodists and Episcopalians, all experienced fundamentalist-modernist controversies. Anyone who defended traditional, conservative Protestantism against liberal innovations was counted as a fundamentalist. The effort to ban the teaching of evolution in public schools culminated in the infamous Scopes trial where the agnostic, secularist attorney Clarence Darrow goaded the evangelical William Jennings Bryan into taking the stand to testify as an expert on the Bible. Bryan was not, and Darrow humiliated him. Fundamentalists won the case, but within a few years of the trial, most agreed they had lost the culture. Still, in the wake of Scopes, several more states with strong evangelical constituencies passed anti-evolution laws, most of which stood until the late 1960s when the Supreme Court struck down all such statutes as unconstitutional.

Late in the decade, the issue of obscenity joined the culture war roster, and here the alignments were even more complex than on Prohibition. Mainline Protestants once again joined fundamentalists and evangelicals, in substance if not tone, in an effort to ban books thought to be obscene. The one that garnered most of the attention was D. H. Lawrence’s Lady Chatterley’s Lover, with its graphic, extramarital sex scenes. But much tamer novels like Sinclair Lewis’s Elmer Gantry and Theodore Dreiser’s An American Tragedy were also subject to book banning. Standing in for Darrow as the leading secularist on this issue was the acerbic journalist H. L. Mencken, who deliberately set out to make war on the censors. Mencken is remembered as perhaps the most anti-fundamentalist public figure of the 20th century. “Heave an egg out of a Pullman [railcar] window,” he allegedly said in the ’20s, “and you will hit a fundamentalist anywhere in the United States today.”

On obscenity, Mencken detested mainline Protestants almost as much as fundamentalists, especially when his American Mercury was challenged in court for an allegedly obscene article. Mencken had himself arrested at Brimstone Corner in Boston for purchasing a copy of his own magazine. The ACLU took up his case. Arthur Garfield Hays, one of the lead attorneys for John Scopes in the Monkey Trial, defended Mencken and the Mercury in court. Hays argued that censoring the magazine was an attack on Mencken’s personal liberty, just as he had argued that outlawing the teaching of evolution was an unconstitutional restriction on Scopes’s academic freedom. “It is getting down to the fundamentals of American society,” Hays told the judge, as he denounced the mainline Protestant Watch and Ward Society. He pilloried the Boston organization for posing as the “custodians of the morals of the majority.” Ironically, leaders of the Watch and Ward Society thought they were the moral majority.

The editor of The Christian Century did too. He fought back, writing, “The personal liberty argument, so long as it is kept in general terms, is either perfectly meaningless or perfectly anarchistic.” In the view of the Century editor, unrestricted personal liberty rested on “the concealed major premise that every person has a right to do anything that he pleases.” While the most public aspects of the obscenity wars were led by mainline Protestants like the Watch and Ward Society and The Christian Century on one side and what one historian calls “cultural liberals”—essentially secularists—on the other, fundamentalist Protestants and traditional Catholics got involved where they could or cheered on the mainline Protestants where they couldn’t.

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Source: Christianity Today