Bill Bright and Campus Crusade for Christ: The Renewal of Evangelicalism in Postwar America.
Bill Bright and Campus Crusade for Christ: The Renewal of Evangelicalism in Postwar America. By John G. Turner. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2008. xii + 290 pp. $19.95 paper.
Who would have thought that a fortune-seeking young man from rural Oklahoma would found, in California, an organization destined to become one of America's most successful youth ministries? In his well-researched work, Bill Bright and Campus Crusade for Christ, John G. Turner delves into the life of Bill Bright to ferret out the Oklahoman's inspiration for and purpose in creating "one of the evangelical world's largest parachurch ministries" (228), Campus Crusade for Christ. Building his chronological narrative from primary sources and buttressing it with numerous personal interviews, the author sets Bright and his organization squarely within the larger mid-century evangelical context. Driven by a passion to evangelize, Turner explains, evangelicals like Billy Graham and Bright shed cultural artifacts of Bible-based Christianity that repelled youth and moved as deeply as possible into popular culture without losing their spiritual integrity. The vehicle of choice that carried them along was the parachurch ministry. Free from denominational oversight, Bright distanced Crusade and himself from separatistic fundamentalists in the 1950s and allowed staff to embrace folk rock music in the 1960s. As the counterculture faded from view, he placed more women in leadership positions, reached out more determinedly to minorities, and clasped hands more easily with charismatics and Catholics.
Turner employs the well-worn marketplace motif in describing Bright's operation, but he gives it substance by demonstrating that Bright saw himself as an entrepreneur and his staff as gospel salespeople. With confidence in his product, Bright supplied his staffers with a book on salesmanship and sallied forth himself to coax wealthy businessmen into donating to the cause. Dollars spent on Crusade converted into saved souls and a spiritual and financial blessing for the donor. And if his winsomeness did not hit home, Bright spoke to the businessman's fears. The pending communist revolution (1950s), the radical student uprising (1960s), and the secular humanist takeover (1980s) might only be allayed by investing in Crusade. Turner clinches the argument when he observes that Bright relinquished the presidency of Crusade to a Harvard MBA.
Turner's biography reveals character flaws. An authoritative man, Bright set extremely challenging, if not unrealistic, goals for Crusade, quashing dissent and demanding that staff fulfill his vision. In soliciting donations, he could be manipulative and could overstate Crusade's evangelistic accomplishments and potential. But his entrepreneurial demeanor, less-than-accurate claims, and heavy-handedness did not eclipse his spirituality. Indeed, Turner assures us, his sincerity and heartfelt commitment to personal evangelism secured most of his staff's admiration and loyalty.
What threatened Crusade's effectiveness, Turner argues, was Bright's penchant for conservative politics. He denounced communism but had little to say about civil rights until the endorsement became commonplace. Much to the discomfort of certain staffers, Bright aligned himself with fight-wing personalities long before Jerry Falwell dreamed of a Moral Majority. His connections, however, failed to forge a political consciousness among religious conservatives. In the 1960s, Turner claims, theological fissures separating evangelicals from fundamentalists, and both of these from pentecostals and charismatics, precluded the rise of an evangelical voting bloc. After being chastised in 1976 for engaging in politics by a liberal evangelical magazine, Sojourners, Bright shied away from public affiliation with right-wing activists and slipped behind the scenes to nurture an emerging Religious Right, denying all the while any political commitment. By the late 1970s, his stealthy political voice had successfully penetrated and influenced the evangelical world.
Bright, it is true, is often outshone by the public flair of Graham and Falwell, but he contributed substantially to the renewal of evangelicalism. He did not, Turner underscores, make of the American campus an evangelical seedbed. He affected but a minority of students, reaching them in their extracurricular activities. Academia itself remained largely untouched and secular. Nevertheless, Bright and his Crusaders did transform lives; and, as did other parachurch organizations, Crusade helped move evangelicalism toward the center of mainstream culture while sustaining a Bible-based spirituality.
Although Turner's book sheds light on parachurch ministries, it did seem to this reader that the author offers but a bird's eye view of Crusade, and I would like to have a ground-level look at the staffers. I am sure Crusade would not have had the number of countercultural Christians as did the Jesus Movement, but it would be nice to know where the recruits hailed from. Part of the problem in identifying Crusaders may be that Turner blurs the line between evangelical and liberal Christians too effectively, often referring to non-evangelical Protestants as mainline rather than liberal. J. Gresham Machen found a clearer distinction back in 1923. The point is that many 1960s youth rebelled against their parents' liberal Christianity by embracing an evangelical Jesus. So, even if Bright used Crusade to corral and break radical students, the converts themselves might have had their own motives for joining Crusade, and may never have been completely broken.
In any case, Turner assures us, those who came into evangelicalism did so for deep-seated spiritual reasons, and not for "a dose of self-esteem and positive thinking" (66). I would hope so too, but I find it hard to believe that Stephen Prothero, whom the author references, would find Crusade's "slimmed-down version of evangelical theology" (231) satisfactory. These objections and observations are peccadilloes. Of greater concern is Turner's claim that conservative religionists failed to form a voting bloc in the 1960s because they were too divided theologically. Turner needs to demonstrate more persuasively that religious conservatives (such as Baptists and Mormons in the Moral Majority?) first came together theologically before combining politically.
Turner's book will be a useful supplement for courses on American Christianity, and while its repetitive themes might seem too deliberate at times, students could but profit by the recycling. Students, and others, need to know that leading evangelicals during the 1960s moved with the times and exercised, if hesitantly, their political voice. William Martin's With God on Our Side (New York: Broadway, 1996) broadened our awareness of evangelical politics prior to Jerry Falwell, but we need more works like Turner's to deepen our understanding.
Preston D. Shires
Southeast Community College
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|Author:||Shires, Preston D.|
|Article Type:||Book review|
|Date:||Dec 1, 2008|
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