Backwards Christian Soldier

by Russell Cobb

11/30/2012

Shortly after World War II, Billy James Hargis came barreling down from the Arkansas hills—all 6 foot 6 inches and 280 pounds of him—to a small church in Sapulpa, where he set up shop as a conventional “bawl and jump” preacher ordained by the Disciples of Christ. There have always been fundamentalists, for sure, but before Hargis, they mostly squawked about the end of the world and the need to repent. But if James Brown was the godfather of soul, Hargis was the godfather of fundamentalism as a political movement.

In 1948, spurred on by a traveling preacher who gave him a pamphlet that showed a connection between communism and the NAACP, young Billy James had an epiphany: Protestant churches were being infiltrated by communists! The National Council of Churches (of which the Disciples of Christ was a member) was a Marxist organization! Liberals had kicked God out of the USA!

It was then that this 23-year-old preacher “stepped out in faith for the harder service as a crusader.” The “harder service” was his political crusade to rid America of communism and return the nation to its Christian foundations. He came to national attention in 1953 with his “Bible Balloon Project,” a stunt that involved tying Bible quotations to helium balloons and floating them from West Germany to the Eastern Bloc.

By 1966, Hargis had established himself in a Tulsa that was at the vanguard of evangelical broadcasting. Like Oral Roberts and T.L. Osborn, Hargis had a media empire that reached hundreds of TV and radio stations. He published books, recorded LPs of his sermons, and claimed hundreds of thousands of readers through his Christian Crusade newsletter. But unlike Oral, Hargis had a political agenda. He red-baited some of his colleagues in the Disciples of Christ, and the church withdrew his ordination.The IRS ruled that the Hargis’s Christian Crusade organization had definitively crossed the line from religion to politics and took away its tax-exempt status. Hargis smelled a rat: The entire federal government had been infiltrated by communist stooges.

If Oral Roberts never quite achieved the respectability of Billy Graham, Billy Hargis never quite achieved the respectability of Oral Roberts. Mainstream newspapers liked to describe him as looking like a truck driver. There were several references to his “porcine” appearance. He never quite shook his twang, and he frequently mispronounced and misspelled words. He had spent a couple of years at Ozark Bible College in Bentonville, but never completed a formal education. Hargis bordered on self-parody, his jowls shaking and his voice quivering as he denounced the communist and libertine agenda of rock music: “When the Beatles thrust their hips forwards while holding their guitars and shout, ‘Oh Yeah!!!’ who cannot know what they really mean!”

For about 15 years, Hargis was a one-man preaching, publishing, and media tornado, cranking out books with titles such as Is the School House the Proper Place to Teach Raw Sex? and Thou Shalt Not Kill … My Babies and Communist America … Must it Be? He met with world leaders and renegade military brass, like Major General Edwin Walker whom he supplied with anti-communist propaganda for U.S. forces in Germany. He started his own college—the American Christian College. He ran a summer camp for young Christian Crusaders and even had a choir: “The All-American Kids.”

PEACE IN THE VALLEY

Then, in 1976, Time magazine dropped a bombshell on the Hargis empire. As it turned out, at the same time Hargis preached against the moral decline of America, he was carrying on numerous affairs with his college students—some of them the “All-American Kids” in the choir.

According to the Timearticle, Hargis’s transgressions came to light under particularly sordid circumstances. After performing a wedding for two students of his American Christian College, the bride and groom made a startling discovery: they had both had sex with President Hargis. The college’s vice-president, David Noebel (who went on to be a distinguished culture warrior himself) started to hear tales of debauchery in Hargis’s Tulsa office, at his Ozark mountain retreat, and on tour with the choir.

Most of the victims were male, and Hargis proved surprisingly candid about the affairs. He all but admitted them to Time, saying: “I have made more than my share of mistakes. I’m not proud of them. Even the Apostle Paul said, ‘Christ died to save sinners, of whom I am chief.’ Long ago, I made my peace with God, and my ministry continues.” What might be most remarkable about the scandal, though, is that Hargis, blamed his genetic make-up, rather than Satan, for his homosexuality. He said it had something to do with “genes and chromosomes.”

While the nation chuckled, the Tulsa media establishment was not amused. Despite the national attention, the scandal was too much for the Tulsa World and the Tulsa Tribune, which never mentioned the allegations, except to say that Hargis was retiring from the college “for health reasons.”

Meanwhile, Noebel hushed up the affair and Hargis was sent packing with some $72,000 to his farm in the Ozarks. But, much like its big brother institution in south Tulsa—Oral Roberts University—American Christian College struggled without the charisma and fund-raising capabilities of its dear leader. In 1975, the College invited Hargis back and he made a grand return to Oklahoma, claiming that he was “led of the Lord to come back to Tulsa.” He bought a downtown building and had plans to place an 85-foot sign in lights with BILLY JAMES HARGIS atop it, but the city denied him the proper permits. At one point, he bought the historic Adams Hotel, but sold it a year later, despairing that he couldn’t find parking downtown.

With the end of the Cold War and the new crop of smiling preachers on TV, Hargis started to fade away. His college closed in 1978, and he never took to television the way he did to radio. Nevertheless, his weekly “newspaper,” Christian Crusade, continued to reach hundreds of thousands of readers. It’s a curious little publication. While the headlines seem ripped from the AP, the illustrations are often Counter-Reformation portraits of Christ suffering on the cross.

Christian Crusade is all that’s left of Hargis’s once-mighty empire. In his prime, he owned a museum to Christian America, a college, a publishing house that employed 76 full-time workers, and a modernist cathedral. All this is gone.

But Hargis’s legacy is alive and well. When Hargis was at the height of his powers in the 1960s, he was considered a far-right extremist by Republicans and Democrats. Apart from George Wallace and a handful of Klan supporters, proto-fascists, and conspiracy theorists, no respectable politician or religious leader wanted to get near him, Southern Baptists in particular. By the 1960s, many Baptist churches were trying hard to shed their image as bastions of Southern racism while Hargis preached that it was his “conviction … that God ordained segregation.”

A reporter once asked Hargis what he stood for. Hargis responded that he was, “anti-communism, anti-socialism, anti-welfare state, anti-Russia, anti-China, a literal interpretation of the Bible and states’ rights,” positions that are now staples of the conservative Republican diet. Hargis used to pound on the podium and decry the betrayal of Christian America by a bunch of elitist liberals in the media and universities.

Next time Rick Santorum or Rush Limbaugh utters a similar line, they might want to say a little prayer for the forgotten soldier of Christ: Rev. Billy James Hargis.


Originally published in This Land Vol. 3, Issue 21. Nov. 1, 2012.