From 1946 to 1950, East Tennessee was embroiled in a bitter campaign over the radio preacher and evangelist, J. Harold Smith. More than a curiosity, this confrontation helps us understand a much broader struggle that cut deeply through American society in the post-World War II era. It was a conflict that grew out of a conservative political effort to roll back the New Deal, the union-led regime of collective bargaining, and the tide of modernist religion. These issues overlapped with concerns about African-American equality and the Soviet Union’s threat to the nation’s security. Although recent scholarship has revealed the symbiotic relationship between postwar evangelicalism and free-enterprise ideology, we know little about how and why that message resonated for many middling and working-class individuals. Fortunately, supporters of Smith’s radio program wrote thousands of letters that illuminate what normally anonymous people were thinking about God, society, and politics in the postwar years.
In this paper, we use the events in Knoxville as a window into the broader contest over religion and politics in postwar America. Smith’s struggle in Knoxville occurred during an especially tumultuous time in the South. As such, it reveals one regional context for the unsettling political changes and religious conflicts that were occurring nationally. Finally, a study of the responses of Smith’s supporters affords a rare opportunity to analyze one base of postwar fundamentalism and what drew them to the politics and theology of men like J. Harold Smith.