• 388 pages

The Old Christian Right

The Protestant Far Right from the Depression to the Cold War

Leo Ribuffo

This book is about three villains: William Dudley Pelley, Gerald B. Winrod, and Gerald L. K. Smith. All were strident anti-Semites in the 1930s and 40s who charged that sinister Jewish conspirators dominated American politics and world affairs. They are, in some ways, representative "extremists." Each emerged from devote Protestant backgrounds and grounded his politics and prejudice in religious faith.

The biographies of Pelley, Winrod, and Smith that form the center of this book intersect with four broader themes. First, their careers show that far right extremism often converged with the cultural and political mainstream. Many "normal" Americans shared their points of view.

Second, the author rescues the depression decade from its normal chronological isolation. The period was a cultural as well as an automatic consequence of rising unemployment. The lives of these three men show the complexities of the problems of faith, personal morality, and national purpose that run through the period.

Third, the far right agitation prompted a militant counter-attack—what Professor Ribuffo calls the Brown Scare. The liberal fear of the far right, in fact, undermined the Left's commitment to civil liberties and led to a conspiracy case against Nazi propagandists that set precedents for suppression that liberals would later regret.

Fourth, the author examines the concept of "extremism" as an aspect of American intellectual history. He suggests that the ideas crystallized during the Depression won general acceptance during the 1950s, and examines how postwar writers about the radical right translated Brown Scare motifs into social science idiom. Indeed, ideological legacies of the 1930s still influence analyses of the "new religious right" of the 1980s. The book concludes appropriately with a reflection on the current period.


"Ribuffo not only provides a perspective on recent phenomena in his concluding chapter but also sets forth research findings concerning unpleasant and half-forgotten episodes from the recent American past. His tone is quiet, and he is quite fair-minded about the unsavory folk he treats."
The Christian Century

"...essential for a balanced understanding of the so-called 'New Religious Right' in today's politics. His first-rate scholarship tells how some conservative Protestants of a generation ago were attracted to, and helped shape, extremist political movements of the right."Church & State

"This study of politically right-wing Fundamentalist Protestantism during the 1930s and World War II focuses upon three ‘villains’: William Dudley Pelley, Gerald B. Winrod and Gerald L. K. Smith.... Ribuffo has mined their published writings and materials...to trace their views and document their activities...and he illuminates how they reflected, and were shaped by, concerns and fears that antedated the Depression and that were shared by many ‘normal’ Americans."American Studies Quarterly

"Masterful.... a more genuinely insightful treatment of such a consistently politicized topic is hard to imagine."Journal of American History

"An interesting, able, and in its way, bold book, of much greater importance than its apparent subject might suggest."Reviews in American History

About the Author(s)

Leo Ribuffo (1945-2018) was an Associate Professor of History at George Washington University.