Hargis, Billy James

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HARGIS, Billy James

(b. 3 August 1925 in Texarkana, Texas), fundamentalist Christian minister and evangelist and founder of the Christian Crusade Ministries, known for his fervent anti-Communist crusades during the 1960s.

Hargis was the only child of Jimmie Earsel Hargis, a railroad worker, and Laura Lucille Fowler, a homemaker. He grew up in a deeply poor but deeply religious household where daily Bible readings were a form of entertainment, and his church ministry began when he was ten years old. Hargis made a promise to God in a cow pasture while his mother underwent major surgery: If his mother survived, he "would do anything that [God] asked." Because his prayer was answered, Hargis "became very interested in church work of any kind." At seventeen he was ordained by the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) at the Rose Hill Christian Church in Texarkana. Hargis attended Ozark Bible College from 1943 to 1945, but a lack of money forced him to leave without a degree. Years later, in 1957, he obtained a B.A. degree from Pikes Peak Bible Seminary and a Th.B. degree from Burton College in 1958. On 21 December 1951 he married Betty Jane Secrest; they had four children.

Hargis served as a Christian Church evangelist before becoming a full-time minister at churches in Oklahoma and Missouri. In 1947 Hargis organized the Christian Crusade as a ministry "to fight 'for Christ' and against godless Communism," after a fellow evangelist alerted him to the "threat of Communism internally." He first attracted national attention in 1953, when he and Dr. Carl McIntire floated "Bible balloons" (Bible scriptures attached to helium balloons) from Western Europe over the Iron Curtain as a way to introduce Christianity to Communist countries.

In 1961 Bob Jones University awarded Hargis an honorary doctorate in recognition of his fight against Communism. Moreover, his anticommunist sentiments echoed those of many everyday Americans, who held bomb drills in their schools, built bomb shelters in their backyards, and watched the spy thriller television show The Man from U.N.C.L.E., in which two secret agents battle the forces of evil. For the burgeoning fundamentalist religious right, Hargis's ultraconservative message was an anchor to which they clung in a stormy decade marked by rapidly changing religious, political, and moral institutions, coupled with unstable political situations in Vietnam and the Soviet Union. Thus, Hargis built a consensus among fundamentalists through a shared set of beliefs—and fears. For example, he attacked American popular culture in his 1964 pamphlet entitled Communism, Hypnotism and the Beatles. He maligned the Beatles and rock-and-roll music as a Communist plot to overthrow America's youth. And during the civil rights movement, he stated that God had ordained segregation. As for the hippies, yippies, and radicals of the antiwar movement, Hargis blamed "the Playboy philosophy of permissiveness," Communism, liberal clergy, and the media.

In the early 1960s Hargis's Christian Crusade made national headlines when the press reported that a U.S. Air Force manual alleging Communist infiltration in the National Council of Churches used one of Hargis's pamphlets as its source. During this period Hargis wrote five widely circulated books: Communist AmericaMust It Be? (1960), Communism: The Total Lie (1961), The Facts About Communism and Our Churches (1962), The Real ExtremistsThe Far Left (1964), and Distortion by Design (1965). His fourth book, The Real ExtremistsThe Far Left, touted the idea that President John F. Kennedy's assassination was the result of a Communist conspiracy. Next Hargis became overtly involved in national politics. At a 1962 meeting of his Anti-Communist Leadership School in Tulsa, Oklahoma, he endorsed national conservative political candidates and rallied for the defeat of liberal politicians in Washington.

Because of his political activities, Hargis's ministry lost its tax-exempt status, (although it was reinstated several years later). Hargis claimed, however, that the Internal Revenue Service (IRS) blocked his tax-exempt status because he supported the Bricker Amendment, which would return school prayer to the public schools. Hargis's 1964 radio broadcast attack against Fred Cook, the author of Goldwater—Extremist on the Right (1964), resulted in Red Lion Broadcasting Co. v. FCC (1969). In this case, the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) ruled that, under the Fairness Doctrine, the victim of an on-air personal attack such as Cook could demand free airtime to answer that attack. In 1965, boosted by his rising success, Hargis founded the Church of the Christian Crusade in Tulsa and built a $750,000 cathedral. His ministry went international with the formation of the David Livingston Missionary Foundation. At the height of Hargis's ministry, his broadcasts appeared on 140 television stations and 500 radio stations.

The hallmark of Hargis's 1960s war against Communism was his numerous anticommunist rallies, which incorporated political and military leaders as speakers (for youth he ran a summer Anti-Communist Youth University in Colorado). He attacked liberal political leaders of the time such as John F. Kennedy and Robert Kennedy, Lyndon Johnson, and the Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr. In 1969, at the eleventh national convention of the Christian Crusade, the speakers included retired Brigadier General Clyde G. Watts, retired Major General Edward A. Walker, and former Alabama governor (and 1968 presidential candidate) George C. Wallace. Hargis's notoriety even led to guest appearances with national television talk-show hosts, including Phil Donahue, Tom Snyder, and Mike Wallace.

In 1970 Hargis established the American Christian College in Tulsa. He envisioned this as a Christian educational institution of higher learning that taught "God, government, and Christian action." This feat was ultimately his downfall. Hargis's ministry and leadership came to an abrupt halt when students of both sexes accused him of sexual misconduct. He was forced to resign his presidency in 1974, and the college closed in 1977 owing to financial insolvency. Hargis was not defeated entirely. He remained active in the Church of the Christian Crusade and the David Livingston Foundation and returned to the evangelical circuit, founding the Billy James Hargis Evangelistic Association. Nevertheless, his heyday was over, and he never regained his former status. In 1992 Hargis left Tulsa to run his international Christian Crusade Ministries from his Rose of Sharon Farm in Neosho, Missouri. He has written more than 100 books.

During the 1960s Hargis, a fundamentalist religious broadcaster whose efforts were chronicled and abetted by the new medium of television, qualified as an achiever of Andy Warhol's "fifteen minutes of fame." The endurance of the religious right, the Moral Majority, and the Christian Coalition in U.S. politics, however, remains as a testament to the power of his original anticommunist message, which joined together fundamentalist Christians in the "flyover states" of the United States into a right-wing coalition.

Hargis's autobiography is My Great Mistake (1968). John Harold Redekop, The American Far Right: A Case Study of Billy James Hargis and the Christian Crusade (1968), provides an overview of Hargis's organization in the 1960s.

Laura Barfield