McCarthy, Born Again and Retooled for Our Time
By Sarah Posner
Sarah Posner, author of God’s Profits: Faith, Fraud, and the Republican Crusade for Values Voters, is RD’s associate editor and covers politics for the site. Her work has appeared in The American Prospect, The Nation, Salon, The Washington Spectator, the religion blogs at the Washington Post and the Guardian, and other publications. RSS feed Twitter Email
In the lower level of the Empire State Building last month, about 100 college students toting fare from Trader Joe's and Whole Foods attended a brown bag lunch whose speaker revived the dread of the Cold War, ominously asserting that communism continues to threaten America.
It could have been ripped from the headlines of the sensationalistic conservative site World Net Daily, but the setting was far more staid. The speaker, David Noebel, part of The King's College Distinguished Visitors series, was introduced by outgoing King's Provost and World magazine editor Marvin Olasky as "one of the long-lasting stalwarts of fighting for a lot of things we're for here at King’s: religious, political, and economic liberty."
King's, a Christian school rescued from near bankruptcy in 1998 by Campus Crusade for Christ, now boasts 400 students and is hoping to double that number within a few years. The college proclaims that it "educates students to lead with principle as they aspire to make America better. We prepare students for principled leadership. And nothing else."
But King's made headlines in September after its new president, the conservative writer and pundit Dinesh D’Souza, argued in a Forbes cover story that President Obama is motivated by "Kenyan anti-colonialism." Despite accolades from Newt Gingrich, the piece was so laden with conspiracy-minded, fact-free speculation that The American Conservative called its premise "simply stupid," and its conclusion "inexcusably moronic. . . ideological Birtherism." D'Souza may maintain that Obama is "trapped in his father's time machine," but it was Noebel who seemed frozen in another era. He made D'Souza's premise, and Tea Party movement warnings of the anti-Americanism of liberals and Democrats, feel like an unbroken conspiratorial thread from the Cold War to the Obama presidency.
Noebel, now 74, is a relic: a culture warrior who preceded Falwell; a crusader who helped build the earliest Christian right organizations that worked closely with the John Birch Society in defining America as a Christian, capitalist nation while Glenn Beck was still in diapers; or, in Noebel's own words "a Goldwater Republican before anyone had heard of Barry Goldwater." His rantings about "the reds" peg him as a bit of a Cold War artifact, and his conspiratorial claims about the designs of the Democrats are reminiscent of John Birch Society founder Robert Welch's assertion that President Eisenhower was "a dedicated, conscious agent of the Communist conspiracy." Noebel told me, in reference to Obama, that he prefers Stanley Kurtz’s Radical in Chief: Barack Obama and the Untold Story of American Socialism to D’Souza, but ultimately "they end up in the same ballpark."
Noebel, or "Doc" as his devotees call him, is the doyen of Summit Ministries, the Manitou Springs, Colorado-based institution founded in 1962 to teach evangelical teens about anti-God, anti-Christian threats to the "Christian worldview" and the American way of life. In his seminal textbook, Understanding the Times, Noebel lays out six "worldviews" — Christianity, Islam, secular humanism, Marxism-Leninism, cosmic humanism, and post-modernism — vying for domination in the world. By his own estimate he has educated 30,000 teenagers at his one and two-week conferences at Summit in Colorado and its outposts around the world (including at Oxford) about the evils of atheism, communism, socialism, and other anti-God "statist" worldviews that threaten to destroy America — unless Christians step in to save every soul.
Noebel's conferences, lauded by religious right figures like James Dobson as a life-saving antidote to the fallen world that tempts our wayward teens, represent just a fraction of his reach. His teaching materials are widely used in homeschool curricula, and Summit is developing more materials to start children as early as first grade on a diet of his collision-of-worldviews thesis. That framework forms the basis for his conspiracy-minded theories about American progressives, the Democratic Party, and what Noebel depicts as a fifth column right inside the U.S. Congress led by "hardcore socialist" Nancy Pelosi.
At King's, about a dozen students in the audience had attended Summit, and they nodded enthusiastically as Noebel described its inoculating effects against the evils of secular humanism, which he considers to be the worldview that most threatens Christianity today. But still, when questioned by Olasky about how much had changed in the last 50 years, Noebel had to confess that he still considers communism a dire threat.
"Even though the Berlin Wall fell, and the Soviet Union became Russia," he said, "because worldviews hardly ever change," not much has changed today — except for Noebel's expanded definition of communism. "We used to say communism equals Marxism-Leninism," he told Olasky. "Now communism is a broader term — I have a whole list of things to add today."
The Democratic Party's "Socialist Red Army"
Noebel insists that President Obama is a "stealth socialist," and even that Obama economic advisor Larry Summers, in acknowledging to Charlie Rose the influence of Keynesian economics on Obama economic policy, "is kissing the American Capitalist system good night!"
When I asked him for his evidence of the claimed socialist tendencies of House Democrats, he pointed me to the recent re-issue of the 1960 book, You Can Trust the Communists (To Be Communists), written by the Christian Anti-Communism Crusade's Fred Schwarz. Schwarz, an Australian evangelist, launched a school in the U.S. to train anti-communist activists, which frequently featured Glenn Beck idol, W. Cleon Skousen, on its faculty. A 1962 Life magazine feature on right-wing extremism noted, "some lecturers speaking under his auspices feel free to venture into questionable areas, sometimes implying treason in national institutions, sometimes plainly suggesting that one might find Communist activity under almost any bush near home."
Schwarz influenced Christian Reconstructionists as well, as Gary North discussed in an essay, "It All Began With Fred Schwarz." When Schwarz retired in 1998, Noebel took over the publication of his monthly newsletter, The Schwarz Report, lauding his friend because he "took Communism seriously and battled it his whole life. He knew in his heart it was the very mask of Satan (who lies, steals, murders and destroys - John 10:10). He had the courage to tell the naked truth about it while The New York Times lied about it for nearly the whole 20th century."
Noebel's reissue of the Schwarz book, titled You Can Still Trust the Communists to Be Communists (Socialists and Progressives Too), pays homage to Skousen as well, noting that in 1958 he compiled a list of 45 "current communist goals," six of which, Noebel writes, have already been fulfilled: to present homosexuality as "normal, natural and healthy;" to eliminate prayer in public schools; to "discredit" the Constitution; to "discredit" family as an institution; to support "socialist movements" to take over government; and to "infiltrate" churches and "discredit" the bible. After The Weekly Standard criticized Beck for promoting Skousen and his conspiracy theories, Noebel described Skousen in the Summit Journal as "a very honorable and careful scholar and author of the hard hitting but very truthful work The Naked Communist," and challeged the conservative magazine to document what "makes Glenn Beck a threat to America by reading Cleon Skousen!"
"I don’t have anything to add to Fred Schwarz's work," Noebel told the King’s audience, although he told me later that he had added a few thoughts to the 2010 reissue of Schwarz’s "classic." In response to my question about how he could assert that Barack Obama and Nancy Pelosi are secret socialists, he pointed me to chapter 15, in which he claims that House Democrats — who all admire Fidel Castro, he maintains — are affiliated with socialist organizations that "quite literally comprise a Socialist Red Army within the very contours of the House of Representatives."
To hear Noebel speak, the menace hasn't abated since his days with the Christian Crusade, which was founded by the disgraced evangelist Billy James Hargis, and was trailed by the FBI, which considered it an extremist group. When I met Summit's executive director John Stonestreet at the Conservative Political Action Conference earlier this year, he indicated that Noebel's relationship with Hargis — whose name he didn’t even utter — was something the group didn't like to discuss. Noebel, it turns out, was responsible for ousting Hargis from the Tulsa-based American Christian College (founded to teach "anti-communist patriotic Americanism") after Hargis was embroiled in a sex scandal; Hargis was accused of having sex with four male and one female students; the woman, it turned out, married one of the men in a ceremony officiated by Hargis, and the couple found out on their honeymoon that he had had sex with both of them.
But in the 1960s, Noebel worked for the Hargis-led group that planned a "secret fraternity," according to a New York Times report, with other right-wing organizations and members of Congress to outlaw the Communist Party. Hargis maintained that racial unrest was instigated by Communists; that white Southerners, not blacks, were the persecuted minority in the United States; and that Martin Luther King, Jr. was a communist agent. The cover of Hargis' 1964 book, The Far Left, showed a weeping Statue of Liberty, dripping with blood, speared by a sword with a hammer and sickle handle. The purpose of the book, Hargis wrote in the introduction, was to expose not just communists, but also "those organizations and men who have aided and abetted the cause of Communism by word or deed, whether intentionally or unintentionally." The "entire left-wing movement," which included the liberal National Council of Churches, "is of the devil."
Speaking at the 1962 Christian Crusade convention, after fulminating that the "Liberal Establishment" was the "greatest threat to freedom, New Testament Christianity, and constitutional government," which "works feverishly to enslave us all," Hargis revealed his plan to open a "Christian Crusade Anti-Communist Youth University to train people to fight communism," located at the foot of Pikes Peak — the current location of Summit.
Noebel, who ran unsuccessfully for Congress in his native Wisconsin in the early 1960s, says he started Summit because he nearly lost his faith at the University of Wisconsin as a philosophy major, where he says the department was overrun by atheists and the campus rocked by dominant Marxists.
By the mid-1960s, Noebel was producing pamphlets for the Christian Crusade claiming that rock music was a secret communist plot to make teenagers mentally retarded. In "Communism, Hypnotism, and the Beatles," he urged readers to throw away their records: "We have been unashamed of being labeled a Christian nation; let's make sure four mop-headed anti-Christ beatniks don't destroy our children's emotional and mental stability and ultimately destroy our nation as Plato warned in his Republic." Later, he turned his attention to anti-gay activism, writing The Homosexual Revolution, which he dedicated to anti-gay crusader Anita Bryant, co-authoring a book with discredited anti-gay activist Paul Cameron, and advocating for Colorado's anti-gay Amendment 2, which passed in 1992, but was invalidated by the courts.
Too extreme for the conservative movement?
Noebel seemed taken aback when I asked him about the reemergence of the John Birch Society at CPAC, where it was a co-sponsor this year. William F. Buckley had purged extremist elements from the conservative movement in the 1960s, but Noebel claimed not to recall that, even though Christian Crusade and the JBS worked closely together through the 1980s, according to a report by Jean Hardisty, founder of Public Research Associations, a think tank that studies right-wing movements.
"I like Bill Buckley a whole lot, I've read all of his stuff," Noebel told me."I would say he probably would not like the idea [of the John Birch Society]. I dunno. CPAC must. That’s Dave Keene [president of the American Conservative Union]? He brought 'em on. I suspect over the years that has changed a little bit. What was the issue? Why did Buckley do what he did? I can't even remember, to tell the truth."
Instead of addressing the Birch Society issue, Noebel changed the subject to Joseph Sobran, another extremist who butted heads with Buckley, who fired him from National Review after he penned anti-Semitic columns for the magazine. When Sobran died earlier this year, Noebel said, "give National Review credit, they had a great obituary for Joe Sobran, even though they kicked him out of the organization. That was over some issue too, I forget what that was about."
A Washington Post obituary of Sobran after he died in September noted, "Over the years, Mr. Sobran's views veered ever more wildly to the right, beyond the ken of National Review and anything resembling the mainstream. He praised an unabashedly racist publication called Instauration, which, in Mr. Sobran's own words, was 'openly and almost unremittingly hostile to blacks, Jews, and Mexican and Oriental immigrants.'"
John McManus, the JBS president whose book on Buckley is subtitled The Pied Piper for the Establishment, claimed in his online eulogy of Sobran that in an unpublished essay Sobran concluded, "It took me many years to see what John McManus makes overwhelmingly obvious: Bill Buckley, American conservatism's longtime intellectual leader, has been a calamity for conservatism."
From the Christian Crusade to the Tea Party and Christian Film
If Noebel seems stuck in time with his fear-mongering about a fifth column of "reds" aiming to take over America, his protégés continue to reinterpret his conspiratorial thinking in ways that reverberate throughout the conservative movement — despite the embarrassment over conspiracy theories from some conservative journalists. Noebel himself acknowledged the thread running from his activism to the Tea Party movement. "Most of them are evangelical Christian anti-communist, anti-socialist, anti-statist. . . . Michele Bachmann is one of their leaders and she certainly is a fine Christian gal and she's got her feet in that camp big time." And, he added, "I would say Ron Paul, for example, Ron Paul is more Christian than anything, to tell the truth."
Noebel's influence can be seen in the work of a Summit alumnus who answered the Christian right call for evangelicals to create their own media and entertainment enterprises to replace secular ones. Noebel makes an appearance in the propaganda film Agenda: Grinding America Down, produced by former Idaho state legislator Curtis Bowers, who recently won the Christian Reconstructionist San Antonio Christian Film Festival. As a youth, Bowers and his family spent summers at Summit, which he described recently as "such a valuable and important thing that was helping turn America back to God and the Bible;" as an adult he opened a restaurant in Manitou Springs.
After being appointed to the Idaho legislature in 2007, Bowers wrote a column titled "Communist agenda makes its way to our mainstream," that roiled the state, arguing that feminists seek to have children raised by government programs, environmentalists sought to destroy business, and that "the homosexual movement" would "extinguish" our "heritage of religion and morality."
"When we see many mainstream politicians and activist judges with the same agenda that just 16 years ago was that of Communist strategists," he wrote, "it is time for patriotic Americans to wake up and get involved."
Bowers asserted in a recent interview on the Christian Worldview radio program (which is sponsored by Summit) that communists wanted moral decay because it has "allowed them to expand government the way they want to as they are striving to have a socialist type government that controls everything!"
"There really is an enemy inside America that is being incredibly successful," the Summit alumnus concluded, "and we don’t even realize it."