The Right Hand of God: Jesse Helms's Political Theology

By Guillory, Ferrel | Commonweal, January 27, 1995 | Go to article overview

The Right Hand of God: Jesse Helms's Political Theology


Guillory, Ferrel, Commonweal


From the high dais of the Republican National Convention as well as from a low podium in a small-town school hall, Jesse Helms has delivered what he must regard as the ultimate in motivation. "The Lord," he says, "may be giving us just one more chance to save America."

That ofen repeated line opens a window into the mind and motivation of the North Carolina Republican who is the new chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. It is a line that offers a starting point for explaining why so much of Helms's biting rhetoric, his persistent obstructionism, and his far-right politics springs from a certain religious reservoir. To know what motivates Helms is to understand what lessons he draws from the Bible.

Clearly, the seventy-one-year-old Helms is a mixture of Old South and New Right. He was reared in Monroe, North Carolina, a small town where his father was both police and fire chief. He grew up a Southern Baptist at a time when few of its white congregations questioned the prevailing racial segregation of the region and when the denomination's pre-Depression struggle between fundamentalists and modernists still echoed. To those who read the Bible literally and who rejected efforts to mesh the scientific with the religious, disagreements were more than mere differences of opinion between reasonable people. "Anybody who did not agree, it was automatically assumed that they were non-Christian, or even atheist," says Allen Page, the dean of undergraduate instruction and a professor of religion at Meredith College, a Baptist women's school in Raleigh.

When in Raleigh, Helms worships at the Hayes-Barton Baptist Church, located at the edge of his leafy midtown neighborhood. It is a church where the theology is as moderate and mainstream as its red-brick, tall-steeple architecture. And yet, in 1976, when he was still a little noticed junior senator, Helms published a collection of essays fully imbued with the mindset that Page describes. The 122-page paperback is titled, When Free Men Shall Stand, and it is subtitled, "A Sobering Look at the Supertaxing, Superspending Superbureaucracy in Washington" (Zondervan, 1976). But it is more than that; it is a sobering look at the deeply held Christianity that makes Helms a politician who seldom moves toward the center and who, though often isolated, ought not be underestimated for his tenacity and for his sense of mission in seeking to turn the political dialogue rightward.

"Our political problems are nothing but our psychological and moral problems writ large," Helms writes in the preface. He looks back fondly on his boyhood between the two great wars, and he observes, "I never detected in the days of the Depression the kind of spiritual desolation and cynicism, nor the urge toward violent revolution, that has gripped our country in the recent past." Helms assails the New Deal, the Fair Deal, the New Frontier, and the Great Society for having "regimented" and "federalized" the nation.

Americans, he says, "have bought every nostrum the liberals have been so insistent to sell us." To "halt the long decline," the senator proposes his brand of conservatism--a brand rooted in the Bible but practically oblivious to the implications of such critical passages as the Sermon on the Mount.

In subsequent essays, Helms defines liberalism far more broadly than its usage in conventional political discourse. Read the context in which Helms places liberals, and you begin to sense why he shows so little restraint in assaulting not only their political positions but also their characters. He speaks of the "incompatibility of liberalism with political freedom and biblical morality." And he writes "Atheism and socialism--or liberalism, which tends in the same direction--are inseparable entities: when you have men who no longer believe that God is in charge of human affairs, you have men attempting to take the place of God by means of the superstate. …

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