When Carl McIntire died a couple of weeks ago, most people even in the religious world didn't recognize his name. Associated Press and a few major newspapers carried his obituary-but mostly, it was the sad story of squandered talents and a wasted career.
Carl McIntire was perhaps the last of the fiery fundamentalists of the earlier 20th century. I was almost 7 years old when I first met him on June 7, 1948; this brilliant, eloquent champion of conservatives had flown all the way from New Jersey to our home in Iowa to help us take on the liberals. The theologically leftist bureaucracy of the mainline Presbyterian church was bullying my father and the little congregation he served as pastor. But that was the sort of situation Carl McIntire loved. He would swoop in, rally the troops, energize them with some fiery oratory, and perhaps end the week with one more congregation added to his tiny fundamentalist denomination.
What no one expected was that the county sheriff would show up that afternoon, wake Dr. McIntire from a nap as we all stood around watching, and serve a court injunction forbidding him to speak at our church that evening. In the minds of the liberal church bureaucrats, this fellow McIntire was a rabble-rouser of the first order. It was my introduction to the intolerance of liberals-and Carl McIntire became my boyhood hero.
Dr. McIntire spoke in another venue that night-to an infuriated and overflow crowd. Then he went back to New Jersey, where he devoted the next several issues of his weekly Christian Beacon newspaper to the emerging battle in Iowa between the liberals and the fundamentalists. "Meet the Sheriff," he proclaimed in his headline story.
It was the sort of thing out of which Carl McIntire built his career. Around the world, he found underdogs whose causes were righteous and who needed help. His own sophistication (he first made a name for himself at Princeton Seminary) and his network of communication let those underdogs get the sense they were part of something both global and vital. The tragedy is that all that promise might have been fulfilled-but wasn't.
WORLD writer Ed Plowman watched the McIntire story for 40 years. He notes that "he kept a schedule and pace that would alarm any cardiologist. In addition to being a broadcaster, publisher, globetrotting conservative activist, and relentless fundraiser, he also was the president and chief recruiter of a seminary and college, and he headed up national and international councils of churches. He had his hands in missionary and relief work around the world."
But nearly everyone who worked with Carl McIntire ended up disillusioned. It wasn't that his brilliance faded; I talked with him about five years ago, right after his 90th birthday, and he remembered the details of his visit to Iowa in 1948, and his confrontation with the sheriff, as if it had been just a week before. But something else never faded, either: his sense of always being right. When we talked, I asked him what single thing over his long career he would like to go back and do differently. "Nothing," he shot back confidently after less than two seconds of thinking. "Nothing at all." That was vintage McIntire.
So his congregation of 1,500 in Collingswood, N.J., dwindled to 50 and less. His Twentieth Century Reformation hour, airing on hundreds of stations in the 1960s, went silent. His Faith Seminary on the once spectacular Widener Estate in Philadelphia is now strewn with weeds and referred to as a diploma mill. His own family members increasingly distanced themselves from their father and grandfather.
A separatist of the separatists, he separated even from his friends. The tiniest disagreement from within his own camp was interpreted as treason and disloyalty. So in the 1960s and '70s, when the Federal Communications Commission wrongly took him off the air for refusing to include competing points of view on his broadcasts, virtually no one rallied to his cause. Very briefly, he broadcast from a converted World War II minesweeper anchored in Delaware Bay, but the Coast Guard shut down that operation as well. It was a devastating blow to the fading warrior, for it cut off his financial lifeline and his ability to rally a renewed supply of eager underdogs.
Carl McIntire's death just before his 96th birthday suggests a pair of warnings to those who, while sharing much that he believed, still found his style impossibly offensive.
The McIntire saga was a classic example of a brilliant and winsome man who chose his battles badly. Unyielding on petty issues, he divided where division was both unnecessary and costly to the very causes he championed. Too often, he seemed to love the fight more than the very valid issues over which the fights raged.
Even sadder has been the pattern by which hundreds of those who might otherwise have walked in at least part of the McIntire tradition have chosen not to do so. They saw a flawed leader-and rejected his cause as well as his tactics. They heard him called a fiery fundamentalist, and started disowning not just the fire but the fundamentals as well. That is a bitterly high price for any leader to pay.