Markku Ruotsila is Associate Professor of North American Church History at the University of Helsinki in Finland. This interview is based on his new book, Fighting Fundamentalist: Carl McIntire and the Politicization of American Fundamentalism (Oxford University Press, 2015).
JF: What led you to write Fighting Fundamentalist?
MR: There was no biography of Carl McIntire in existence and I felt rather strongly that one was needed. It just wouldn’t do that this legendary figure, almost mythic to many of us all around the world, featured in most historians’ accounts only as a caricature or a clown. Since I have always been interested in the interface between religion, conservatism and anticommunism (which McIntire arguably embodied to a larger extent than any other person), I was eager to tackle the task as soon as I heard that Princeton Theological Seminary was ready to release their collection of McIntire materials. There are more than 600 archival boxes of McIntire’s correspondence and publications preserved in that collection, plus previously untapped data on almost every aspect of religion in the twentieth century that one can think of. I knew full well that McIntire was a larger-than-life figure, a symbol and a lightning rod in America’s ongoing culture wars, but I was determined to investigate as an outsider what was actually behind the symbol and whether the caricature was actually fair to the facts. It isn’t. Also, in many ways, the McIntire story brought together all the stands of my previous scholarship – I’ve studied all kinds of anticommunists, evangelicals, fundamentalists and conservatives for a long time – and it allowed me to tap into the expertise that I had gained on all the interrelated issues involved. I wasn’t about to do a traditional biography, rather one that illumined through the McIntire story much broader themes in the religious and political history of the modern United States.
JF: In 2 sentences, what is the argument of Fighting Fundamentalist?
MR: Carl McIntire was the principal founding father of the Christian Right, a pivotal transitional and transformative figure in the history of the fundamentalist movement who more than any other person pioneered the public theologies, the means of public protest and the political alliances that came to cohere the contemporary Christian Right. It was under his inspiration and direction that the Christian Right began to emerge, not in the 1960s but in the 1930s, in that era’s fundamentalist and evangelical opposition to the New Deal that was later perpetuated under the rubric of Cold War anticommunism but actually always included the moral issues that then belatedly broke into national consciousness in the 1970s.
JF: Why do we need to read Fighting Fundamentalist?
MR: The issues covered – the rise and agenda of the Christian Right, faith-based apologias for free enterprise and the limited state, religious freedom, global and transnational activism by U.S. fundamentalists – remain exceedingly topical ones. I revisit them in a fashion that (I trust) is fresh and provides new perspectives (the book certainly provides new documentation that shatters the McIntire caricature in many respects). I have consulted more than fifty archival collections in three different countries for this book, including previously unreleased FBI files. Also, the issues covered are now increasingly transnational, and my book provides new documentation on how this came to be so, on the very important role played in the process by McIntire’s worldwide organization, the International Council of Christian Churches. Besides, this is a book that tells the intrinsically interesting story of a very colorful man, always absolutely authentic, utterly persistent over his sixty-year career in church and public life yet often quite unexpected in the twists and turns he took in pursuing his agenda. You will be entertained as well as informed by that life story. Or how about this snippet as an enticement: Carl McIntire was actually the first person investigated, on the personal orders of J. Edgar Hoover himself, when the FBI started searching for the person responsible for the assassination of John F. Kennedy. The investigation was ordered personally by J. Edgar Hoover himself.
JF: When and why did you decide to become an American historian?
MR: When an undergraduate history student in Finland I was fortunate enough to be taught by several leading U.S. historians who were visiting my institution as Fulbright professors. I suppose it was this experience that inspired me to choose between the two options in my mind – U.S. history of British history. Those were really the only two countries that interested me, since I already felt a rather strong cultural and philosophical affinity towards both. Becoming a historian was already settled in my mind and in the end I chose the country’s history that matters the most for us in the rest of the world today. I hope I can provide an outside perspective that isn’t suffused with this cultural anti-Americanism and a certain arrogance that unfortunately is so prevalent in much of Western Europe when it comes to narrating the United States.
JF: What is your next project?
MR: I am now working on a project on the global history of Christian fundamentalism during the Cold War. This investigates the fanning out into the rest of the world of U.S. fundamentalists, the message they purveyed, the networks they created and the reception they received from other conservative Christians elsewhere in the world. More specifically, I look at the networks of fellowship and mutual interchange that were created around the International Council of Christian Churches and affiliated agencies. There are no documented studies in existence that investigate the global activities and intercultural exchanges of that specific section of U.S. evangelicalism that has identified as fundamentalist, so I think a definite need exists for a study of this kind. U.S. fundamentalists had a much bigger impact on the history of many other countries (including my own) than most people realize, and in the process of exerting their influence they were themselves shaped in ways that we have only barely started.
JF: Thanks, Markku!