The Kanawha County Schools textbook controversy began in 1974, when I was in third grade at Elkview Elementary School, a tiny school on the banks of the Elk River, north of Charleston in West Virginia. The controversy ballooned into an all-out crisis involving violence, guns and dynamite.
It began when a preacher’s wife on the school board discovered that the new textbooks were designed to subvert American and Christian values. Included in the children’s books were the writings of secular humanists, communists, and perverts—Allen Ginsberg, Sigmund Freud, Eldridge Cleaver—and one even had an excerpt from The Biography of Malcom X in which he thanked Allah that he was no longer a “brainwashed black Christian.” The preacher’s wife started a protest movement, and conservative preachers all over the county jumped to her call.
The school board was not sufficiently responsive so protest turned to boycott. Coal miners went on strike to show their support. Members of the KKK rolled into Charleston from all over the state to show their support. Good Christian people would not stand for these textbooks that taught secular humanism and moral relativism. I heard his father discussing it with church members. It was on the news. One example of situational ethics that I remember hearing men in the church discuss was a story that condoned thievery. A man steals an apple to feed his starving son. “It all begins with not believing in God. Trust God and He will feed you,” on man said. “The ends do not justify the means,” several others said. You cannot let go of moral absolutes, else anything goes.
The boycott turned violent: gunshots, Molotov cocktails heaved at school buildings. Somebody dynamited an elementary school downtown. Someone tried to set off an explosion at the actual school board meeting, but it failed. One preacher plotted to blow up two schools but was arrested before he could carry it out. The Kanawha County Schools Superintendent closed all county schools to let things cool down. I rode my bike around Elkview with the stink of the river in my face for a week of glorious freedom.
In the end, the board adopted the textbooks in spite of the preacher’s wife and the miners and KKK men and the preachers with dynamite. Moral relativism, the spawn of secular humanism, had infested the schools, was growing, and would eventually swallow the very soul of America. In response, preachers all over Kanawha County threw together Christian schools in their church basements. They found teachers among the stay-at-home mothers, and a ready student body in those mothers’ children. The preachers themselves were most often the de-facto principals.
In 1976 my brother, sister, and I left the Kanawha County public schools of Elkview for Elk Valley Christian School (EVCS) inside Mount Pleasant Baptist Church, less than a mile from our own church, up North 119.
Ironically, it was in the EVCS library that I discovered both Allen Ginsberg’s “Howl” and Anthony Burgess’s A Clockwork Orange. The library was in a leaning old house out by 119 stacked full of donated books. None of the teachers had gone through and looked closely to see what was there, but they herded the kids in to find books all the same. I wrote a book report on Clockwork in sixth grade, careful to describe the book in ways that did not lead Mrs. Combs to suspect how chock full of sin and perversion the book was. Still, our parents believed we were somehow tucked away from the world of secular humanism, communism, evolution, and situational ethics. We were safe, for the time being, from the heathen hordes overtaking America.
When George H. W. Bush invaded Iraq, I was in the Marine Reserves, and was activated to serve. I hunkered in the hull of the USS Tarawa, and later crunched my boots around the rocky sands of Iraq and Saudi Arabia. I had a small short wave radio that Joe, my youth pastor from Elkview, had sent me, but still could not get a lot of news. I certainly could not take part in the TV parties going on back home, watching and cheering as these amazing new smart bombs zeroed in on their target and blew right through the front door.
On March 6, 1991, Bush declared the advent of a “new world order.” In the same speech, the President admonished that surely, “if we can selflessly confront evil for the sake of good in a land so far away,” we can take care of a few domestic problems.
Browsing through a bookstore in the Christian Servicemen’s Center in Olongapo City on the way home from the war, I discovered Francis Schaeffer’s The Christian Manifesto. Schaeffer’s photo on back was not an author’s head shot, but the full man sitting on a rock in front of a calm sea. He was a strange looking man with a goatee, who still wore knickers, though, as far as I knew, grown men did not wear knickers even when they were the style. Still, I read the book in one sitting.
Schaeffer had written a response to The Communist Manifesto and The Humanist Manifesto I and II. A Christian Manifesto, published in 1981, called for Conservative Evangelicals to rise up and practice civil disobedience. Schaeffer allowed that they could ally with other groups who were co-belligerents against the overstepping government.
This civil disobedience “is biblical,” Schaeffer writes, “because any government that commands what contradicts God’s law abrogates its authority. It is no longer our proper legal government, and at that point we have the right and the duty, to disobey it.” His admonition: “There does come a time when force, even physical force, is appropriate.” UVA sociologist James Davison Hunter had recently coined the term Culture Wars to describe this conflict, and Pat Buchanan raised it as his campaign flag.
By the time I was finished with the book, I was convinced I must join this fray. I married J. when I returned from the war, and the two of us set off for Lynchburg, VA, where J. would finish her undergraduate degree at Liberty University, and I would train in the seminary to be a fighter in the Culture Wars. We found an apartment that would take dogs. We bought a black and white English springer spaniel and named him Zeke. I took a job in a juvenile lockup, and J. worked in the human resources department at LU. We labored away at school and work, and had a date night every Friday, got pizza and watched a new TV show called “Cops.”
The human resources office at Liberty was in the first floor of a dorm. J. tabulated time cards for payroll and fielded worker’s comp claims. One day Falwell came through to talk to the new director, a woman who was either his cousin or his niece, J. never could figure out which. He glanced at J. on his way through, but did not speak. (J. had a natural beauty that stood out among the self-consciously pretty Liberty girls. She also had a bright eyes and a friendly smile.) Several days later, the human resources director called a meeting with J. and asked her to move up to the mansion and be Falwell’s receptionist, sit right outside his heavy office door.
The mansion that housed Falwell’s office, and the senior staff, was a modified Georgian Revival style house, built in 1923 by U.S. Sen. Carter Glass, and dubbed Montview.
While J. was in the mansion, the front doors stayed open. From behind the receptionist’s desk in the wide front hall, she could see through the glass storm door, beyond Central Virginia Community College on the other side of Ward’s Road, an amazing view of the Blue Ridge Mountains framed in the wooden doorway like a picture postcard. The desk was in the middle of everything though, in the way of anyone coming or going. Out in the open, exposed.
To the right were the wide steps to the upstairs administrative offices. To the left was the heavy black door with a special punch pad lock above the knob. That was Falwell’s office, the inner sanctum, the seat of power.
Falwell was never to be bothered by J. with phone calls. His secretary decided which calls were important enough for him, and she herself was not to be disturbed by any but the most urgent calls. J.’s short time at the mansion was during what, without the intervention of Reverend Sun Myung Moon, would have been the financial crash of the entire Liberty University empire.
His apostasy notwithstanding, Moon had the cash Falwell needed, so an under-the-table alliance was forged. Falwell had the money funneled through a foundation, and men associated with this foundation—sanitized Evangelicals, not Reverend Moon. He celebrated these men, and not Moon, in front of his congregation for bailing out the school. He named the dining hall after them. Ron Godwin, a longtime Moon associate, went to work for Falwell.
According to Dirk Smilie’s Falwell Inc., Godwin became Falwell’s closest advisor. Godwin met with him every morning at Bob Evans to have breakfast and strategize. Ever the physical intimidator, Falwell, even in his decrepitude, menaced his waiter with surprise fist jabs to the gut. Godwin had an idea: an online school like the University of Phoenix. Online boomed, and took LU from financial insolvency to having, according to Nick Anderson, writing for The Washington Post, “$1 billion in net assets for the first time, counting cash, property, investments and other holdings” by the end of 2012.
While J. was in the mansion, before Sun Mung Moon rode to the rescue, the senior administration was in a panicked frenzy. Outside financial advisors arrived, and there was a small scandal because many of them were not Christians. Shortly on their heels came buildings and grounds workers with shredding machines. Everyone in the mansion sat with stacks of paper, garbage bags, and a shredder—including J. at her receptionist desk.
At one point, Falwell walked by her desk as she shredded and boomed down at her, “You are not reading those.”
She assured him that she was not, and she didn’t. She shredded documents without looking at them, filled garbage bags with shredded documents. She sat and fielded endless calls from panicked Christians who had sacrificed to buy bonds in support of the school. More than a few investors abused her over the phone in their anger.
While J. was shredding documents along with senior staff, I sat in class during the day learning Hebrew, Greek, church history, homiletics, and then go to work at the lock up. It was late when J. would regale me with her horror stories of unsavory—and possibly even illegal—goings on in the mansion. She was growing bitterer by the day, and had come to despise everyone at the mansion.
One day she accompanied the secretary to an old warehouse building on Carroll Avenue, beside Rt. 29, near where the school still holds its Scaremare every fall, and the two of them loaded up more boxes of records to be shredded. She discovered that there were also stacked boxes—box after box, hundreds of books, maybe more—full of the fat preacher’s autobiography. The secretary told her that the school had purchased them in order to push the book up the Christian best-seller chart.
“Is that ethical?” she asked me that night in their Madison Heights apartment.
“Doesn’t seem like it,” I said.
“I didn’t think so,” she said. “Is it illegal?”
“I don’t know.”
“I don’t know if all that shredding is either,” J. said.
We did not discuss it further. We were both tired.
In less than a month, J. asked to be moved back down to human resources, and the mansion staff agreed it was for the best—pretty as she was, they agreed she was not good fit.
J.’s experiences up at the mansion continued to eat at her; it ate at me too, though I did my best to defend Falwell to my disenchanted wife. Then one day in class, one of my fellow students complained that when he counted attendance on Sunday mornings at Thomas Road Baptist Church, he was instructed to swell the numbers with creative math.
“Isn’t that lying?” he asked the seminary professor.
The professor went into a long response that included this defense of Falwell: “All great leaders lie,” he said.
“He’s a slave to his vision,” another professor offered, when more students raised questions about Falwell’s questionable financial dealings, which was the buzz all over campus. A slave to his vision. I heard this applied to Falwell more as an honorific than an excuse more than once while at the seminary.
It had become clear to me by this time that the fat preacher was simply a narcissist. He did what he damn well pleased as he built his small empire on the family mountain in Lynchburg, VA. The words he used in justification however, those fit nicely into the narrative of trouble he and others were spinning to gather the faithful to the fight and drum up money. This movement was much larger than the fat preacher was—this was an all-out war.
When you march to war, you get to change the rules of moral and ethical behavior. Another of my seminary professors elucidated for the class the whole ethos of the growing Religious Right in this Culture War. He called it the doctrine of the ruse de guerre, the trick of war: it is moral to do whatever is necessary to win when you are at war and the war is just, and, conversely, failing to win by any means necessary amounts to a moral failing. “Like Stormin’ Norman,” the professor told his class, referring to General Schwarzkopf’s use of inflatable tanks to fool Saddam in Operation Desert Storm, which was still fresh in everyone’s memory.
The professor went on to use the doctrine of ruse de guerre to justify all the horrific things ancient Israel did to its enemies as well. Those who disagreed with the Fundamentalist Christian view of right and wrong were the avowed enemies of God—that is secular humanists, homosexuals, abortionists, (the radical blacks Falwell so despised in the sixties had been replaced by Muslims, who were by definition radical)—and they must be defeated by any means necessary.
This sounded to me like the very situational ethics that sparked the textbook crisis in Kanawha County back in 1975, almost got people killed, and got me sent off to Elk Valley Christian School. Still, there was no doubt a culture war was raging.
George W. Bush had lost the first Presidential election to Al Gore, but with the help of his younger brother in Florida and the Supreme Court, had managed to steal it. Bush saw his being elected as part of God’s plan for his life, as he told the Southern Baptist Christian Life Commision’s Richar Land, “I believe God wants me to be president.” No matter if he had to grab it by subverting the election process. A ruse de guerre. This was war. God approved. After the attacks of 9-11, Michael Dufy reported in Time magazine that Bush spoke of himself as “being chosen by the grace of God to lead at that moment.”
Bush lied the United States into war after 9-11. In his 2003 State of the Union address, he called on the God, “behind all of life, and all of history” and said, “we go forward with confidence, because this call of history has come to the right country. May He guide us now.” Off went our troops riding hell-bent into two foreign wars, ostensibly, among other things, to rid the world of Iraq’s weapons of mass destruction. It was also to free the people of Iraq and Afghanistan. If that meant torturing people—things like waterboarding and “rectal feeding”—then so be it. A trick of war. Anything goes in the good fight for God.
I sat in my living room in the evenings during the beginning of that war, while J. worked at our restaurant and their children slept. I stared at the continual stream of war footage and commentary. How the troops rolled through Iraq without so much as a speed bump, how shocked and awed Saddam’s best troops were. How they crumbled before U.S. might. How the living human souls were churned into inanimate piles of ripped and rotting bones and organs and meat. A sickness grew in my soul at the thought of it. This was what good defeating evil looked like?
With the wars grinding on, and still sure of God’s call on his life, Bush cheated his way to a second term in office. The ruse de guerre came in handy in accomplising God’s will in the world. A March 2015 report from Physicians for Social Responsibility titled Body Count reveals that Bush’s God-ordained “war on terror” has so far left one million dead in Iraq (5% of the total population of the country), 220,000 dead in Afghanistan, and 80,000 dead in Pakistan—numbers tantamount to genocide. Bush was an Evangelical Christian. The White House was in godly hands.
When a black man with Muslim ties won the White House, the executive branch was no longer in godly hands. The Culture War would continue however, and the president himself would have to take his place among the enemies of god. When Hobby Lobby went to war against the Affordable Care Act (Obamacare), they cited in the brief before the SCOTUS, that providing birth control—or even filling out a form to have the government provide it instead of them—was a “substantial burden” on their religious freedom as some of the methods may cause what they would deem abortion. It appeared straightforward. They were Conservative Christians with the highest moral and ethical standards—Hobby Lobby had used subterfuge in the early 2000s to help Falwell obtain a massive piece of property for his “nonprofit” that the city council wanted to keep as a source of tax revenue—and they did not want to have anything to do with these methods of birth control.
Molly Redden outed, “Hobby Lobby’s Hypocrisy” in Mother Jones.As it turned out, Hobby Lobby’s retirement plan invested in companies that manufactured the very forms of birth control they were going all the way to SCOTUS to avoid providing their employees. Hobby Lobby won their case against Obamacare, yet continued to invest in the birth control companies just as before.
In a followup article, “Hobby Lobby’s Hypocrisy, Part 2: Its Retirement Plan STILL Invests in Contraception Manufacturers,” Redden called out Steve Green, Hobby Lobby president. Having defeated Obama, he was no longer interested in saving babies. He fired back at Redden, “do those companies also provide a lot of life-saving products that our employees are dependent on?” Having won their actual goal—dealing a defeat to the black socialist president—they were back to business as usual.
Lie, cheat, steal? Sure. It is not situational ethics, it is a ruse de guerre. God hates the one and loves the other.
In 2015, I picked up a novel that is one of my favorites, and one I return to every few years: The Brothers Karamazov. In the famous Grand Inquisitor section of Book V, in which the Catholic inquisitor, who is overseeing the burning of heretics, admits to a silent Jesus, who has returned to earth, that he is in league with Satan against Christ, because Christ’s burden of freedom is too much for poor humanity to bear. He reminds Jesus of his temptation in the wilderness, in which Satan first tempts him to turn stones into bread, second tempts him to throw himself from a tower see if God will save him, and third, offers him control over the kingdoms of the earth.
These three questions, the Inquisitor tells Jesus, “contain the entire future history of man…” He says, “There are three forces, only three, on this earth that can overcome and capture once and for all the conscience of these feeble, undisciplined creatures, so as to give them happiness. These forces are miracle, mystery, and authority.” He complains that Jesus rejected these three forces, instead choosing to allow to humanity their own freedom of conscience.
While Dostoevsky is arguing against both Socialism and the Catholic church, I had a spark of recognition at this reading: the decrepit old Inquisitor has returned to earth, much as Jesus himself did in Ivan’s poem; he has returned in the form of Falwell and all of the other Dominionist preacher-politicians of the Christian Right.
The first temptation to turn the stones to bread: take control of food, of people’s means of sustenance—which includes their ability to secure gainful employment, earn a living wage and feed themselves and their families. The economic policies of the right amount to stripping away the dignity of the working poor (it is almost impossible to discuss this without mentioning race but that is for another essay), and leaving them destitute. Hold people’s bread and you control them. Take the wealth and you control them.
Regarding actual bread, there is a current spate of legislation designed to control access to food for the poor. In a damning post “First Quote Jesus; Then Punish the Poor,” Connie Schultz gives a number of examples. Like the pending House Bill 813 in Missouri that stipulates, “A recipient of supplemental nutrition assistance program benefits shall not use such benefits to purchase cookies, chips, energy drinks, soft drinks, seafood, or steak.” Shultz calls our attention to the fact that the bill was introduced by state Rep. Rick Brattin, “who identifies himself and his family on his website as ‘devoted Christians.’”
The second temptation, to jump from the tower and force God’s hand: take control of God’s promises in scripture and bend them to your own personal goals. Falwell was a master at this. He jumped quite often, trying to grow his Virginia empire far beyond its resources. True, when God failed to come to his rescue he was perfectly willing to take his money from the likes of the blasphemous Sun Myung Moon, let the cult leader bear him up in place of God’s angels. Convince the people you have God’s ear, you have his blessing and approval, and they will follow.
The third temptation, to take control of the kingdoms of the world: go and sieze political power, rule over people, Satan tells Jesus. While Jesus rejects him, the Grand Inquisitor does not. He takes Satan’s bargain—as have the preacher-politicians of the Religious Right. They claim the dominionist mandate comes from Genesis, but they are deceiving themselves and their followers. Their mandate comes not from God, certainly not from Jesus, who commands compassion for the poor and marginalized; their mandate comes from the father of lies, who promises to them worldly wealth and power.
How do they get that wealth and power? By any means necessary. How do they justify it? This is a Culture War, the moral absolutes we preach do not apply to us. Since the very beginning of this Culture War, when Conservative Christians began “fighting back” as they did in Kanawha County, West Virginia in the 1970s, they have given up on Jesus’ mandates.
In waging the Culture War, the Religious Right has abandoned Christ, and taken up Satan’s bargain.
Vic Sizemore’s fiction is published or forthcoming in StoryQuarterly, Southern Humanities Review, Connecticut Review, Portland Review, Blue Mesa Review, Sou’wester, Silk Road Review, Atticus Review, PANK, Fiction Fix, Vol.1 Brooklyn, Ghost Town and elsewhere. His fiction has won the New Millennium Writings Award for Fiction, and been nominated for Best American Nonrequired Reading and two Pushcart prizes. “The Army of the Lord” is an excerpt from Get Thee Behind Me, a memoir in progress. You can find Sizemore here.