I knew all the local John Birch leaders and members in Chattanooga in the early 70s. I was just a teenager at the time but even at a very young age I was already a junkie. I grew up enjoying watching the evening news with my dad (usually Walter Cronkite or Huntley & Brinkley.
But my far-right political bent was easy to understand: I had been born and raised in Chattanooga, Tennessee where we called people who lived up North as “Yankees” and where the common and casual way to refer to African-Americans was not “colored” but the N-word.
I did not realize it until years later that it finally hit me that from the day I was born in 1954, I had been fed a daily diet of left-over political ideas from my family, the defeated Confederacy, our local Republican newspaper (The Chattanooga News-Free Press) and my hyper-fundamentalist Baptist church.
These institutions taught me how to “see” the world as a white, male in the South. They taught me to be fearful, distrustful and dismiss anything that was not “Christian” and “Southern” (actually, “white” Christian and “white” Southern!).
So, even though I was curious, creative and had an intellectual bent towards learning and asking questions, all that was smothered in a daily avalanche of social, political and religious memes during childhood and young adulthood of fear, paranoia and the anti-intellectual traditions of the post-Civil War, Southern ethos.
My folks had supported Goldwater in 1964 and in 1968 they supported former Alabama Governor George Wallace’s third party bid through his American Independent Party. But don’t think for a second that my parents were part of some kind of extremist, political bent. Absolutely not. Their political leanings were “normal” for the majority of white Chattanoogans and white Tennesseans.
My love of reading also got me in with the John Birchers. I started out being an obsessive “Marvel Comic Books” in the 60s but when I started to mature, I grew tired of reading invented stories of Good Vs. Evil and found real history and stories more interesting. When I came across Birch books, they seemed to make sense and also alarmed me as they presented “facts” which showed America was being betrayed from within by leading politicians and institutions.
So, as a became aware of this controversial group known as The John Birch Society, I did a little research and discovered that there was a John Birch bookstore in Chattanooga on Brainerd Road (American Opinion Bookstores). I didn’t have a driver’s license yet so I had my dad drive me over to the address listed in the phone book and discovered that the bookstore was actually just a little cleared out area with bookshelves in the back of The Delaney Furniture Store. Nevertheless, I was still excited as I saw dozens and dozens of books and pamphlets explaining “the truth” about how America was being sold out and betrayed.
I learned from the older man who owned and operated the store, Mr. Earl Delaney, that the Birch Society held weekly meetings there and though they did not have any “young people” coming, I was welcomed to attend and be a part of their discussions and Birch film showings. For the next four years, I was hooked on all things John Birch! And outside my friends at school and on our block, these older John Birch members became my friends and family.
I also became good friend’s with Earl’s younger – and more energetic – wife – Sara Delaney, who was the main, local Bircher firebrand during that time.
At that time, it seemed that John Birch membership in Chattanooga was largely drawn from members of the fundamentalist Churches of Christ. I was very aware of this because my fundamentalist Baptist church had taught me that the Church of Christ were a “cult” which the religious error that salvation was by water-baptism (immersion) “plus faith” and not by “faith alone”. But for the sake of saving America from total collapse and communist take-over, our religious differences never became a point of contention or discussion.
So, John Birch members were largely middle-age, middle-class, white Americans who were un-nerved by the rapid social and political changes they were seeing and were attracted to the easy-to-understand John Birch conspiratorial way of thinking. The John Birch Society had a seemingly elegant and fact-based view which taught that all the social upheaval that was going on in America was being created by a small group of hyper-liberal-pro-Communists- and actual communists who happened to also be wealthy elites who were hell-bent on turning America into some kind of Soviet style, socialist police state.
The evidence of this conspiracy were self-evident: with Hollywood stars like Jane Fonda going to North Vietnam and giggling while being show how the communists shoot down American planes with their Soviet made anti-aircraft weapons to treasonous anti-Vietnam war demonstrators waving the flag of the Viet Cong Liberation Front!
The former Soviet President Nikita Khrushev had already said they planned to “bury” us (Capitalism and The West) so why are our leaders not going ahead and nuking the Soviets and “Red” Chinese to kingdom come!
Of course, many of the Birch beliefs were simply more extreme versions of ideas which were already current and common among American conservatives: anti-government, anti-regulatory, hyper-pro big business/corporate interests, anti-taxation, being “soft” racists and macho American militarism as a way to deal with any and all foreign issues; you know, God, Guns and Guts stuff! They were a continuation of the late Senator Joseph McCarthy’s politics of American paranoia with no nuance.
I never found the local Birchers to ever promote any type of direct racist or anti-Semitic views. Interestingly, two of the Society’s most popular national speakers in those days were minorities: the African-American Charles Smith, who went around denouncing MLK,JR and the Civil Rights Movement; and the prolific Jewish, John Birch writer, Alan Stang. I know the local Birchers in Chattanooga had refused to accept Klan and Minutemen who had wanted to join.
I eventually saw that all the over the top, The Sky-Is-Always-Falling rhetoric the Birchers used was simply untrue and so I shifted into a more mainstream GOP conservatism. But with more years of reading and simply paying attention to history and events, I eventually became one of those “damn liberals” I had been taught since childhood to despise! LOL!
Unfortunately, Birch-think is still very much with us. Their old paranoid and poorly evidenced form of political conservatism has in fact taken over the modern GOP via The Tea Party and now Donald Trump. And though billed as a “grass-roots” uprising by common Americans, The Tea Party was in fact funded in large part by the billionaire Koch Brothers (and others like them). The Koch Brothers father, Fred Koch, was on the Board of Directors of the John Birch Society for many years.
President Trump’s advisor, Steve Bannen, is a conservative in the John Birch tradition of paranoia, fear and beliefs not rooted in evidence and science. And, conservative pundit Glenn Beck has been a big promoter for the last ten years of old worn Birch views. He even went so far as to republish the old John Birch “The Naked Capitalist” text and gave away tens of thousands of copies to his listeners.