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God in America | Article

People and Ideas: Cold War and Modern Era

From Vashti McCollum to Billy Graham, scroll to read about certain individuals who lived during this era and their beliefs (or lack thereof).

Vashti McCollum and her son, Jim.


Vashti McCollum

Vashti McCollum challenged the constitutionality of religious instruction in America's public schools. In the 1940s, students enrolled in Champaign, Ill., schools could receive voluntary religious education from Protestant, Catholic or Jewish instructors. Despite the voluntary nature of the religious classes, students and teachers ostracized McCollum's son Jim for not participating. "I ran into a great deal of hostility at that school," he recalled. McCollum sued the school district on her son's behalf, but lost at the local and state level. Her family suffered public harassment for its views. "We had a cat that was lynched," says Jim. "My mother answered the door one time and was deluged in a shower of garbage."

The case eventually reached the Supreme Court in 1948, and the high court ruled in favor of McCollum and her son. The case made McCollum one of the most prominent atheists in the country; she served two terms as the president of the American Humanist Association.

W. Deen Mohammed

W. Deen Mohammed was the son of Nation of Islam (NOI) leader Elijah Muhammad. In the 1950s and early 1960s, he served the church under his father. In 1961, he refused the draft and was sent to prison where he spent time soul-searching. Reading the Quran for himself, he began to question some of the doctrines and the theology of the NOI. His father excommunicated him three times; each time they eventually reconciled. W. Deen Mohammed ultimately rejected many tenets of the Nation of Islam, like the divinity of Wallace Fard Muhammad, the movement's founder.

Despite his skepticism and their many disagreements, Mohammed assumed leadership of the NOI when his father died. He quickly began to make sweeping changes to the organization, moving it toward mainstream Sunni Islam. He changed the name to the Muslim American Community, and changed his given name of Wallace F. Muhammad to Warith Deen Mohammed. Mohammed encouraged followers to study Arabic and the Quran, and to follow the five pillars of Islam: faith, charity, prayer five times a day, fasting during Ramadan and pilgrimage to Mecca.

In an effort to bring Sunni Islam's emphasis on unity to the forefront instead of continuing the NOI's prior emphasis on racial separation, Mohammed abolished the NOI's paramilitary organization and moved away from its reputation as a black supremacist organization it gained in the early 1960s. He retained much of its original intent to fight for social justice, but sought to make this fight more unifying and conciliatory. Active in interfaith initiatives, Mohammed sought cooperation with other religious communities, especially Christians and Jews. As the imam of the American Muslim Society, in 1992, he was the first Muslim to deliver an invocation at the U.S. Senate, and he led prayers, reading from the Quran, at both inaugural celebrations of President Bill Clinton. Mohammed died in September 2008.

Billy Graham

In the 1940s, Billy Graham emerged as the public face of a movement anchored in the National Evangelistic Association. These new evangelicals separated themselves from the abrasive sectarianism of fundamentalists, articulating a new evangelical theology. Graham became the first full-time preacher for Youth for Christ, an initiative to appeal to a new generation of evangelicals. Graham and his colleagues dressed in flamboyant outfits. Revivals featured Bible quizzes, ventriloquists and singing quartets. Thousands of young people responded. The revivals became the springboard for Graham's independent ministry. In 1949, Graham took his crusade to Los Angeles. He set down three stringent conditions: The sponsors must include as many churches and denominations as possible; they must increase the budget from $7,000 to $25,000 in order to invest more in advertising and promotion; they must erect a much larger tent than originally planned. 

Two days before the start of the rally, the Soviet Union had successfully tested an atomic bomb. With the specter of "godless communism" looming, Graham capitalized on his time in the spotlight to proclaim: "Communism has decided against God, against Christ, against the Bible, and against all religion." Scheduled for three weeks, the revivals stretched to more than eight weeks.

The newspaper magnate William Randolph Hearst instructed his editors to cover this crusade favorably and often. Graham made banner headlines and soon landed on the cover of Time magazine. The popularity of his Los Angeles crusade and the positive media treatment propelled him into the American mainstream. In the years that followed, Graham crisscrossed the country, packing football stadiums, convention centers and civil auditoriums. He preached a straightforward message of sin and salvation, urging his listeners to "make a decision for Christ." Graham moved farther away from traditional fundamentalism by reaching out to mainline Protestant denominations and forming friendships with Catholics and Jews. His decision to eliminate the ropes separating blacks and whites at one of his revivals illustrated his commitment to reaching out to every soul.

Graham transformed evangelism in America and opened the door for the re-entry of conservative Christians into the political arena.

Francis Schaeffer

A Presbyterian minister, maverick theologian and prolific author, Francis Schaeffer is credited with providing American evangelicals the intellectual framework that encouraged them to enter the political arena in the 1970s. Schaeffer disdained secular humanism, the worldview that cast aside the core message of the Christian faith in favor of one devoid of Christian values. He stated: "...the consensus of our society no longer rests upon a Christian basis, but upon a humanistic one." The result, Schaeffer argued, was a society that had lost its moral foundation and threatened to shipwreck itself on the shoals of Western civilization.

Schaeffer produced and appeared on-camera in two film series: How Should We Then Live?: The Rise and Decline of Western Thought and Culture and Whatever Happened to the Human Race?, a powerful indictment of abortion, euthanasia and indifference to life. Thousands of evangelicals heard Schaeffer's message and became persuaded that they had a duty -- indeed, a moral obligation -- to set aside their long-standing aversion to politics and step into the political arena. Buttressed by Schaeffer's thinking and philosophy, evangelicals marched to the polling booths and voted overwhelmingly for Ronald Reagan in 1980 and George W. Bush in 2004. While evangelicals did not achieve their ultimate goal of reforming American culture, they decisively and permanently changed the political and religious landscape of the country.

Jerry Falwell

Jerry Falwell was a fundamentalist preacher who co-founded the Moral Majority and reacquainted disaffected religious conservatives with politics during the 1970s and 1980s. Born in Lynchburg, Va., in 1933, Falwell experienced spiritual rebirth and was baptized at age 18. By 22 he had established the Thomas Road Baptist Church in his hometown. He soon began to broadcast his weekly sermons as The Old-Time Gospel Hour. Like many of his fellow fundamentalists, Falwell had firmly believed that politics and religion didn't mix. Following the Scopes trial, fundamentalists had retreated from active participation in public life.

Influenced by Francis Schaeffer and dismayed by the 1973 Supreme Court ruling in Roe v. Wade, Falwell changed his mind. He began to speak out against the ruling and urge Christians to end their self-imposed exile and enter the political arena. He staged "I Love America" rallies, a potent mix of religion and patriotism that attacked what he believed were evils threatening to bring down the country: the Equal Rights Amendment, homosexuality, pornography and women's liberation.

In 1979 Falwell was recruited by several conservative and Republican operatives to co-found an organization known as the Moral Majority. Leading up to the 1980 presidential election, Falwell himself barnstormed the country in his private jet, giving speeches, appearing at conferences, delivering sermons and overseeing a sprawling media empire. The Moral Majority was widely credited with delivering the White House to Ronald Reagan.

Falwell's outspoken and flamboyant rhetoric inflamed detractors and eroded his credibility, and he never became popular with the majority. In 1989 Falwell disbanded the Moral Majority, announcing, "Our mission is accomplished." He remained a controversial figure. In the aftermath of 9/11 he suggested that the terrorist attacks were God's punishment for America's sinful behavior, including support for abortion and gay rights. He later retracted his remarks. Jerry Falwell died in September 2007.

Madalyn Murray O'Hair

Madalyn Murray O'Hair was an outspoken advocate of atheism and the founder of the organization American Atheists who gained notoriety when she sued Baltimore public schools for requiring students to read from the Bible and to recite the Lord's Prayer at school exercises. Children were excused from the practice if they supplied a note from their parents. But O'Hair argued that the practice violated the First Amendment rights of her and her son as professed atheists "in that it threatens their religious liberty by placing a premium on belief as against non-belief and subjects their freedom of conscience to the rule of the majority; it pronounces belief in God as the source of all moral and spiritual values, equating these values with religious values, and thereby renders sinister, alien and suspect the beliefs and ideals of your Petitioners, promoting doubt and question of their morality, good citizenship and good faith."

The case reached the Supreme Court where it was joined to another similar case and tried as Abington School District v. Schempp. In 1963, the court ruled 8-1 in favor of the plaintiffs. The decision effectively ended Bible reading and prayer recitation in public schools. The case also shifted the debate about the meaning of religious freedom, which had before been defined as the freedom to choose a religion. Schempp introduced a new option: the freedom to choose no religion.

The case catapulted O'Hair to national prominence. She became an outspoken, aggressive and even abrasive champion of atheism, quick to condemn those who did not subscribe to her views. In 1964, Lifemagazine reported that O'Hair was the most hated woman in America. Vilified, she relished the role of provocateur as the public voice of atheism. Her abrasive style seemed to some to misrepresent the principles of atheism that she had laid out in her lawsuit and on which she founded the organization American Atheists: "An Atheist loves himself and his fellow man instead of a god. An Atheist accepts that heaven is something for which we should work now -- here on earth -- for all men together to enjoy. An Atheist accepts that he can get no help through prayer, but that he must find in himself the inner conviction and strength to meet life, to grapple with it, to subdue it and to enjoy it. An Atheist accepts that only in a knowledge of himself and a knowledge of his fellow man can he find the understanding that will help lead to a life of fulfillment."

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