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Uncovering Aimee Semple McPherson's Demons in 21st Century Evangelicalism

No modern day celebrity preacher claims to follow in the footsteps of jazz-age evangelist Aimee Semple McPherson. Who would? She vanished in 1926 and returned a month later claiming to have been kidnapped while rumors abounded that she had actually been vacationing with a lover. She was a two-time divorcee who became the inspiration for Sinclair Lewis’s over-sexed fraudulent faith healer Sister Sharon Falconer. She performed vaudeville on Broadway, ran with Hollywood’s rich and famous, and died of a barbiturate overdose.

Yet despite her flamboyant history, McPherson was among the first religious activists to embrace the mass media revolution, building a powerful Christian radio station, incorporating a film company, and procuring a license for an experimental television station. Tapping into Hollywood’s celebrity culture, she employed publicity agents and public relations experts to help build a national image of divine diva that made her as much a cultural icon as Mary Pickford, Charles Lindbergh, and Babe Ruth. She became a strident nationalist and ventured into politics, convincing the faithful that their loyalty to God did not prevent them from campaigning on Caesar’s behalf. She believed that the United States was a Christian nation that needed to return to its spiritual roots, and she supported candidates who agreed—including Franklin Roosevelt who had admonished Americans to “return to the faith of the fathers.”

In many ways McPherson’s career foreshadowed the tensions and issues that still define evangelicalism in the twenty-first century. Nowhere is this clearer than in her sense of “true” Christians as a besieged minority at war with mainstream culture. Informed by biblical prophecy, McPherson interpreted daily events in spiritual terms, as had the Puritans before her and legions of evangelicals since. She believed that a cosmic battle between the forces of good and evil was raging in the heavens and that the forces of evil would temporarily prevail, sparking the apocalypse. The world would then plunge into chaos and turmoil, leaving humankind desperate for a savior. Many would turn to the Antichrist, a demonic force who, according to the biblical book of Revelation, would build his kingdom in partnership with the governments of this world. No matter how powerful evangelicals became, they could never lose sight of this horrific, secular, politically dismal future, which only they perceived. Hence, McPherson and her followers saw themselves as dwindling remnant of the righteous, never truly accepted by the broader culture, living in the shadows of the oncoming apocalypse. 

Most modern evangelicals feel the same way. While they establish media empires, attract enormous followings, and gain audiences with presidents and prime ministers, they still view themselves as social outsiders, as a minority destined for persecution. They believe that constant vigilance is necessary to spot the evil designs that threaten their nation and signal the rise of the Antichrist. This theological/ideological perception, when applied to social and cultural issues, produces devastating results, as McPherson’s ministry demonstrates.

The evangelist’s concern that America’s supposedly “Christian” foundations were in danger kept her constantly on the lookout for suspicious “outsiders” who might be conspiring against the faithful. Over the course of her life, the devil’s foot soldiers took different forms. In the 1920s, McPherson appealed to the Ku Klux Klan in an effort to undermine Roman Catholic critics of her work. As she struggled to overcome rumors of scandal, she emphasized the “alien” religion of Los Angeles investigators to challenge their accusations. In the 1930s, her primary targets became southern and eastern European immigrants, who were not “melting” into the American pot as she had expected. With social turmoil, labor strife, and radicalism abounding, McPherson was sure that foreigners were going to cause America’s downfall. In the 1940s, Satan’s cast of characters changed once again. This time, for McPherson, as for so many Californians, Japanese and Japanese Americans were Satan’s most likely saboteurs. She vehemently supported internment, justifying it on the basis of Japanese “atheism” and untrustworthiness. Although she died before the Cold War heated up, there is no doubt that communists would have been the evangelist’s next target, as they had been in the thirties. Although McPherson believed that the rise of the Antichrist was inevitable, she did not want to see it happen on her watch.

Like McPherson, many American evangelicals have long exhibited a powerful nativist streak. Indeed, the issues underlying the evangelist’s xenophobia still resonate with the faithful. Many modern day evangelicals, who have a much greater influence on government than McPherson could ever have imagined, have identified a new kind of threat to America’s “traditional” moral underpinnings. Gays and lesbians, more than any other group, have become the new targets of their fears. According to evangelicals, homosexuals are responsible for destroying America’s families, and with the families go the country’s religious foundations, putting the nation at risk of succumbing to the Antichrist. At the same time, terrorist attacks on American soil—much like the attack on Pearl Harbor in McPherson’s day—have heightened evangelicals’ sense of the imminence of Armageddon, producing an increased commitment to purge their communities of any and every threat. To do otherwise, in their worldview, is to fall victim to the devil.

Despite the outrageousness of Jerry Falwell and Pat Robertson’s statements blaming Americans’ “sins,” including homosexuality, for tragedies such as 9/11 and Hurricane Katrina, these ministers were in fact tapping into a long evangelical tradition evident in McPherson’s work and built on the model of Old Testament prophets who interpreted national calamities as the judgment of God. If tragedies are signs of God’s displeasure, they reasoned, than finding and destroying the causes of that judgment is essential. With increasing momentum behind the gay marriage movement and opportunistic if not Machiavellian politicians playing up the gay rights issue to pander to evangelicals’ fears, it is therefore no surprise that conservative religious activists have been at the forefront of the anti-gay movement. Like the Catholics, immigrants, and communists before them, America’s gays and lesbians have become the scapegoats for much that frustrates evangelicals about the state of their nation.    

Yet there is a rising contingent of predominately younger evangelical activists that is disillusioned by the Republicans’ politics of fear who are beginning to abandon evangelicals’ fixation on homosexuality. For a generation that is coming of age at a time when gays and lesbians are no longer closeted, shadowy deviants but rather classmates, friends, and colleagues, familiarity may defuse danger. McPherson’s eventual repudiation of sexism and racism offers hope. Yet the record of the past cautions us that, while the targets of evangelicals’ fears change, the xenophobia that sustains the practice of demonization is deeply rooted in the apocalyptic lens through which many evangelicals view reality .