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“Red Dynamite” Places Adventists Alongside Protestant Culture Warriors

Red Dynamite Book Review

For years, liberal American Christians have wondered aloud how American Protestant Christianity became what it is. How did believers in a religion that consistently warned against the perils of wealth, demanded charity for the poor, and taught forgiveness of sins become so identified with a political movement that celebrates wealth, demands that the poor help themselves, and relies on a carceral state to resolve social problems? How can so many Americans avow belief in a savior who spent time with social outcasts and lambasted the prejudice they face when they themselves glorify the powerful and impede efforts at achieving greater equality?

The questions imply that this was a recent trend, and that the true spirit of Christianity had been corrupted recently—perhaps, as many liberal-progressives are prone to surmising, it is Ronald Reagan’s fault.

But Red Dynamite: Creationism, Culture Wars, and Anticommunism in America, Carl R. Weinberg’s book on Evangelical Protestants and their long-standing opposition to both evolution and communism, portrays them as consistent opponents of social reform throughout the 20th century. In fact, the tendencies liberal Christians identify as troubling among contemporary conservative believers are nothing new. For more than a century the emergence of socialist thought, along with the spread of evolutionary theory, represented in the minds of many Protestant leaders a twin attack on the foundations of their faith—and evidently on their social position as well. Throughout Red Dynamite, readers can see Protestant Christians taking positions that are not particularly surprising to modern observers and students of history—opposition to the teaching of evolution, and to communism, is well-documented thanks to the Scopes Trial and the Red Scare, and the unfortunate connection between American Christianity and slavery, as well as the Jim Crow laws that followed, are generally well-documented. 

That said, it is nonetheless jarring to read Mordecai F. Ham, an early 20th century Baptist preacher, declare in chapter 3 that there is not “one word” in the New Testament commanding Christians to make the world a better place, and should instead focus on their personal relationships with Christ (an argument that seems unlikely to extend to Christians living in the Communist Bloc, for instance, or a society where another religion sets social policy). Another Protestant leader, William Bell Riley, is quoted in chapter 4 defending Hitler’s policies in the 1930s as necessary defeat bolshevism, and dismissing the concerns of Germany’s “Jew communists” who complained. Chapter 5 introduces readers to John R. Rice, another Baptist preacher and Ku Klux Klan member whose opposition to evolution and communism is rivaled by his dedication to white supremacy and “proper” gender roles, in which a woman “was obligated to obey her husband regardless of his character, his treatment of her, or even whether or not he had accepted Jesus Christ as his savior.” 

The chapter of most interest to Seventh-day Adventists would probably be chapter 2, which discusses the work of George M. Price, a devout Adventist and “amateur geologist” who coined the expression “Red Dynamite”—using “dynamite” not to convey excitement or dynamism, but the destructive potential of evolutionary theory for traditional morals—and whose writings on evolution would be quoted by William Jennings Bryan on the Scopes Trial witness stand. The author devotes much time to the roots of Price’s—and thus Adventism’s—thought, including Ellen White’s insistence on the six days of creation as “six literal days.” White’s notorious statements about “amalgamation of man and beast,” resulting in “endless varieties of species of animals, and in certain races of men” from Spiritual Gifts also received mention. While there are Adventists that have wrestled with the implications of these words and found them troubling, if not necessarily grounds for dismissing White completely, Weinberg argues that a “plain reading” of her words is more important. Furthermore, while he notes that White and other church leaders supported the Union during the Civil War and gave voice the calls for equality, Price himself voiced unfortunate views about the “blank” minds of those who traveled to Africa from the tower of Babel. 

Adventism, however, is a small part of the overall story, which mostly concerns conservative Christians in America and their linking of evolutionism and communism. In Weinberg’s telling the relationship between fear of socialism and fear of evolution had deep roots, as even in Dayton, Tennessee, home of the Scopes Trial. A few decades earlier there had been a struggle between organized labor and mine owners over a “convict lease” system that allowed the companies to use prisoners as workers without paying them. Other labor disputes would emerge in the years that followed, and despite the conservative reputation of the community (to this day), it for a time attracted many of progressive bent, including English-born socialist Thomas Scopes in 1885, 15 years before his son John T. Scopes was born. 

It did not help that actual communists, including Marx, Engels, and early Soviet thinkers, embraced evolution, claiming that Marxism and Darwinism were both signs of progress. In fact, the first chapter of the book contains so many examples of communists and other radicals endorsing evolutionary theory that unaware readers might mistakenly anticipate that the book is, in fact, a story about how conservative fears of an evolution-communism connection are valid. 

That book has already been written, though: Illiberal Reformers: Race, Eugenics & American Economics in the Progressive Era by Thomas Leonard traced the connection between progressive-era reformers who believed that “planning,” in both the economy and the gene pool, were noble goals that American intellectuals should support. Indeed, in the late 19th and early 20th centuries it was not just conservative Christians (and William Jennings Bryan, who was certainly Christian but not so conservative) claiming a connection between evolution and eugenics: Many Darwinists felt the same. 

In this light, despite Weinberg’s caveat at the beginning of the book that the evolutionist-communist connection is not a mere Protestant invention, Red Dynamite feels like just one part of the story. The history of organized labor disputes in Dayton sets a backdrop to the Scopes Trial, there is one other side to that story that the author does not mention: The book that Scopes taught from in his high school classes, which prompted the nationally publicized affair, was Civic Biology, a pro-eugenics text. In Leonard’s words: 

“Civic Biology warned of the perils of a low and degenerate race, which it described as parasites ‘spreading disease, immorality, and crime to all parts of this country.’ Were they lower animals, the text continued, ‘we would probably kill them off to prevent them from spreading.’ Society did not yet permit the killing of inferiors, but it could protect itself with other remedies, such as confining them to celibate asylums.” 

David Bentley Hart, in his The Story of Christianity: A History of 2,000 Years of the Christian Faith, calls this “a monstrously racist text” and, while a believer in evolutionary theory (and socialism, for that matter) himself, warns of the dangers of interpreting such events through a purely modernist vs fundamentalist lens. It is, in fact, easy to read a book like Red Dynamite, point fingers at the opposite movement and congratulate one’s self on being part of the correct intellectual current, but books such as these do remind us that most ideologies today have problematic roots, and that scientism presents a dangerous allure of its own for non-fundamentalist thinkers.

Not that this is of much consolation to those worried about the current state of American politics, and Christianity’s role in it. Red Dynamite, much like Kristin Kobes Du Mez’s Jesus and John Wayne: How White Evangelicals Corrupted a Faith and Fractured a Nation, portrays a Christian movement that, contrary to Jesus’ declarations that His kingdom was not of this world, has long considered itself to have an earthly mission, and one not friendly to reforms that hurt its members’ place in society. Indeed, both books end with contemporary evangelicals endorsing, the presidential candidacy of Donald Trump, who Weinberg terms “social Darwinism incarnate.” He goes on to note that Trump’s worldview, which can uncontroversially be described as unbiblical, is no more a dealbreaker than was Ronald Reagan’s status as the first divorcee president, since he also advanced conservative Protestantism’s goals.  

Christ’s declaration in John 18 that His kingdom was not of this world has, I believe correctly, been interpreted as an admonition against seeking political power. Nonetheless, one should beware “Christian” movements that declare their apolitical nature even as they seek ends that would impact the rights, freedoms and well-being of their fellow citizens, including keeping them in a state of inequality. Reading Red Dynamite, and its collection of ghastly quotes from American Protestants, who declared their aims to be moral rather than political, and aimed at stopping a secret conspiracy designed to undermine Americans’ faiths, I was reminded of George Orwell’s quote: “All issues are political issues, and politics itself is a mass of lies, evasions, folly, hatred and schizophrenia.”

About the author

Rob York is regional affairs director for Pacific Forum, a Honolulu-based think tank, and editor of Comparative Connections, a triannual e-journal of bilateral relations in the Indo-Pacific. More from Rob York.
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