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In 1951, while studying for a Greek exam at Fuller Seminary, William R. Bright had a revelation. He felt called to create a new ministry outside the traditional institution of the church, concerned with spreading the gospel to college students, and then the world.
With the help of his wife Vonette Z. Bright, William Bright conceived of Campus Crusade for Christ — now known as Cru in the United States — at the University of California, Los Angeles. Cru’s primarily evangelical purpose would be “winning people to faith in Jesus Christ, building them in their faith and sending them to win and build others.”
The ministry grew rapidly. Today, it is one of the most widely known “parachurches” — a typically evangelical ministry that operates outside the institutional bounds of a single church — in the United States.
Cru is one of many parachurches that flourished during the 1970s and 1980s. Others include Focus on the Family and the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association. Together, these parachurches formed a powerful network over Southern California, spreading into the nation and beyond.
There are two — equally valid and equally important — lenses by which to read this growth: as a result of thousands authentically accepting the gospel into their lives, and as an undercover arm of the Republican Party. Both understandings carry important implications.
The contemporary coalition between evangelicalism and conservative Republicanism, in the mind of modern-day media and our collective imagination, is often associated with the South or rural pockets. Yet it is the stereotypically liberal enclave of Southern California that holds the hidden history of these powerful religious and political networks.
In 1972, Cru brought tens of thousands together in Dallas for Explo ’72, a “landmark conference” that featured “evangelism and discipleship training, contemporary music concerts, and lots of rain.”
For many students and young evangelicals in attendance, this was a huge celebration of faith. But there was another narrative present. As explained by Darren Dochuk in his book “From Bible Belt to Sunbelt:” “Explo ’72 was orchestrated by and for conservative Republicans as they prepared for the elections that fall.”
While not all parachurches started out in the Sunbelt, the 1970s saw the ‘southernization’ of “Southern California evangelicalism,” led by people like Bright and Reverend E.V. Hill, and sponsored by the well-known Billy Graham. The result: a robust, powerful political force that changed the face of American evangelicalism and the political landscape forever. According to Dochuk, entrepreneurial values honed within these ministries forged a “creative, centrist, youthful, colorblind conservatism.”
The Republican Party quickly grafted Cru onto its arm of conservative politics. Two years post-Explo ’72, Graham convinced then-President Richard Nixon’s advisers to seek a relationship with Bright “in hopes of using Campus Crusade to mobilize Christian collegians for the GOP.”
This was the political mobilization of what we now know as the Christian right. “We believe the life of our nation is at stake,” voiced local chapters of Cru and hundreds of other ministries. A moral universe for the evangelicals had been created in 1970s Southern California, and along with it, the urge to legislate such dogma.
This initial association of parachurches and the Republican Party continued into the 1980s with President Ronald Reagan. It’s hard to say which came first — the bottom-up acceptance of conservative tenets by the Southern California evangelicals or the top-down assertion of Republican values from political advisers and candidates — but the result brings us to today, with headlines like “Why ‘Evangelical’ Is Becoming Another Word for ‘Republican.’"
The term “parachurch” is not a familiar one to those outside of the evangelical world. For those within it, though, parachurches are everywhere. Cru, Christian Union, Reformed University Fellowship, Asian American Christian Fellowship, Young Life, the Navigators, Fellowship of Christian Athletes: These are all organizations that strive to spread the gospel and cultivate Christian community.
On face, the mission of a parachurch must not be inherently political. Under the same tax exempt 501(c)(3) status as churches and other religious organizations, they cannot lobby.
Yet some parachurches are especially skilled at placing themselves in positions of political influence. While they do not advocate directly for the United States to be a Christian nation, parachurches often imply that the nation will be made better under Christian values and politicians.
Take Capitol Ministries, which aims “to create disciples of Jesus Christ in the political arena throughout the world.” Founded in part by Ralph K. Drollinger, an avid Donald Trump supporter, and funded in part by “agribusiness kings,” according to Katherine Stewart in “The Power Worshippers,” Capitol Ministries held weekly Bible studies for lawmakers in 2018 that at times “included as many as eleven of fifteen cabinet secretaries.”
Similar ministries that attempt to reach the upper echelons of the U.S. government and beyond include the Fellowship Foundation and Well Versed — central to both are regular prayer gatherings and Bible studies among the most influential leaders in the world.
Christian Union, an evangelical ministry located specifically at Ivy League universities and Stanford University, takes a different approach. By “developing bold Christian leaders at the most strategic and profoundly influential universities in America,” Christian Union works to “help bring sweeping spiritual change to America” — and hopefully a “national revival.”
The ministry’s website is clear: With 68 percent of the most prominent American leaders in history produced by only 20 undergraduate institutions, ensuring Christian influence within these places is of paramount importance.
Here’s the kicker: Christian Union is the original parent organization of Harvard College Faith in Action.
HCFA is not the only parachurch on Harvard’s campus. Cru (known on campus as Harvard Christian Impact), Reformed University Fellowship (known here as Harvard Undergraduate Fellowship), and Asian American Christian Fellowship (stylized with the Harvard-Radcliffe name in front) are all also on campus.
Christian Union attributes Cru as one of its founding ministries: A Cru member founded Christian Union, which in turn is the original parent organization of HCFA. The historical lineage stretches from 1970s Southern California to us today.
This is not to say that all of the parachurches at Harvard go hand-in-hand with the Republican Party and Christian nationalist ideals. But we cannot be so quick to forget the history of how these organizations came to prominence.
On its website, HCFA states that they are “an independent student organization resourced by Christian Union Gloria.” However, in an interview, the current HCFA co-presidents Katherine Wang ’23 and Felix D. Perez Diener ’23 rejected the idea that Christian Union has any influence over the decisions made and values disseminated within the organization.
HCFA is “student-led and completely autonomous from Christian Union,” Perez Diener says.
“Christian Union resources and supports HCFA primarily through the staff by providing paid positions for those people to help us,” he continued. “But it doesn’t dictate decisions about events, retreats, speakers, or policy.”
HCFA seems to have disengaged from Christian Union in values, but it does not in funding.
I, for one, am encouraged by this. I applaud HCFA’s decision to prioritize the sentiments cultivated on campus by students, rather than adhere to some larger, bureaucratic structure disseminating values in a top-down manner.
Yet, HCFA does not appear to be wrestling with the history of how their own organization came to be. The case of parachurches brings us to a much larger question: How should Christian groups act within a pluralistic society?
I fear my answer will not make anyone happy.
Some will demand a complete condemnation of parachurches; others will argue that I do not understand the mission of Christianity. I hope to challenge each of these sides to recognize the truth in the narrative of the other.
Hold both at the same time: the mysticism of religion and the political consequences to those who do not believe the same.
For Christians, parachurches like Cru and Capitol Ministries are fantastic enactments of the Great Commission — the demand by Jesus to go out into the world and create disciples of Christ. They provide wonderful communities on college campuses and beyond for Christians to gather.
But for individuals who do not identify as Christian, parachurches — especially those that engage in the political sphere — feel incredibly dangerous. The existence of groups with fingers in the Capitol holding conservative, traditional, exclusionary-skewing values seems to directly attack the religious freedoms of others and the pluralistic society at large.
My intention is not to dismiss the evangelical, Biblical mission of Christian parachurches, nor the sense of belonging they provide; rather, I implore a recognition of their political consequences.
If you have an issue with my painting of religious groups in a political, sociological light, I ask you: What are you shying away from?
Recognition of political consequences does not mean that such groups are reduced to their sociological repercussions. You can hold historicization alongside a recognition of parachurches as extensions of deeply held, sincere beliefs.
I want to push back against the characterization that the sole motivation of parachurches is political. Religion is hard to study — although politics and sociology are facets of it worth considering, religion should not be reduced to them alone.
I challenge HCFA and other parachurches on Harvard’s campus and beyond, as well as individuals who do not identify as Christian, to hold these seemingly diametric narratives at the same time: Personal fulfillment and vital religious community can come from within parachurch organizations, and we can recognize and rectify the political and sociological consequences of their development.
Only with the whole truth of the matter on the table can we, together, hone the meaning and enact a functional pluralism democracy.
Ellie H. Ashby ’24, a Crimson Editorial editor, is a Social Studies concentrator in Adams House. Her column, “A Leap Into Faith,” runs tri-weekly on Fridays.
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