First, watch this video, so that you'll know what I'm talk about. The video was apparently shown at the youth conference for First Baptist Church, Hammond, Indiana, currently pastored by Jack Schaap, but served for over forty years by Jack Hyles.
There are a number of things that are so striking about the video--the linkage of key American moments (most relating to war) with the need to be "resolved" to take a stand; the way Hyles was worked into the video, placed on the same level as George Washington, Jack Kennedy, and Douglas MacArthur; and the clear promotion of "martyrdom" in tones that would be indistingishable from an extremist piece from another world religion.
But clearly the most striking part of the video was the ending--splices of Hyles intoning "who's gonna fill that chair" with clips of the current pastor, Jack Schaap, in some of his more fiery preaching moments. It seems to me that the intention is to relay the affection and authority that Hyles had in his own congregation to the current pastor, who has been there for four or so years.
Even more, I was struck by the way that Protestant fundamentalism has always seemed to be attracted to these muscular personalities--real manly men battling against the forces of wickedness and evil in our culture. The result is a cult of personality in which these "gladiators for truth" are set on a pedestal and create independent fifedoms that spin off colleges and publishing ventures, as well as very comfortable lifestyles. (For an academic historian's treatment of some of these issues, see William V. Trollinger, Jr., God's Empire: William Bell Riley and Midwestern Fundamentalism [Wisconsin, 1990].)
The question that I've always wondered is why? Why do these men attract such attention, such adulation, such support? Well, one reason has to be that they provide very simple, black and white, answers to the challenges that face most American families--your teenager is rebelling? Cut his hair short, burn his rock music, involve him in youth group, send him to Bible college. Your marriage is on the rocks? Get involved in church more. Your job not working out? Do Bible studies on your work break; develop a work ethic.
Not only in personal life, but especially in their analysis of the world, these muscular fundamentalists are able to divide the world into heroes and devils in ways that make sense for their adherents: the media, academic elites, bureaucrats (especially Democrats), and pluralists are evil; preachers, missionaries, and evangelists "resolved" to stand for truth, justice, and the American way are good.
Most of all, I believe that these fiery leaders attract others based on their sheer charisma--as men who know what they believe and who know what they are about, they are attractive even when their harshness would otherwise repulse. In that regard, this quality stands true across cultures, religions, or regions--the hypnotic powers of harsh, believable rhetoric can motivate people and create cult-like adherence.
One of the many reasons that I moved away from American fundamentalism (though I continue to be endlessly fascinated by it) was how different this all is from Jesus as presented in the NT. Especially in places such as Mark 10, Jesus presents a different approach to leadership--not lording it over as the Gentiles do, with angry words and strong charisma, but with service that may lead all the way to the death of our reputations, plans, and dreams. Such a humble willingness to serve Christ was missing in my more muscular heroes of my college days; and eventually, while their personalities continue to draw my attention and study, they cannot claim my adherence.