Last weekend, Pastor Robert Jeffress’ First Baptist Church in Dallas, Texas, held its annual Freedom Sunday, which is technically a church service that includes “patriotic music, a salute to our armed forces and more!” according to the website. That “more” would be guest speaker David Barton, a self-proclaimed historian on a mission to creatively reframe America’s founding heritage to be far more explicitly Christian that it actually was. In 2012, the Washington Post labeled him “the most influential evangelist you’ve never heard of.” The Post was unable to verify a single one of Barton’s historical claims.
Barton says most students can identify only Jefferson and Franklin in paintings: “Isn’t it interesting that we’ve only been trained to recognize the least religious founding fathers?”
— Ruth Graham (@publicroad) June 27, 2021
The whole thing calls to mind a quote often attributed to Sinclair Lewis: “When Fascism comes to America, it will be wrapped in the flag and carrying a cross.”
That quote also popped up in response to a “sermon” from Tennessee Pastor Greg Locke, who used his pulpit time to spew wild tales from the scuzziest corners of QAnon, including conspiratorial allegations of subterranean tunnels under the U.S. Capitol building being used for sex trafficking.
“When fascism comes to America it will be wrapped in the flag and carrying a cross”
— Black Leeds (@LeedsBlack) June 27, 2021
(In the above case, the quote was attributed to Upton Sinclair, a contemporary and friend of Lewis …but not the same guy.)
Locke’s antics are far more extreme than Jeffress’s Freedom Sunday, but it’s true that both raise eyebrows about just how far into bed the church is willing to get with Christian Nationalism. The quote attributed to Lewis certainly rings plausible in both cases, and ought to provide a pause for Christians who are aware of how easily religion can be manipulated by the powerful to coerce the religious.
But if we’re going to be in the business of fact-checking others, we need to be careful with the truth ourselves. And in this case, we could find no evidence that Lewis ever said such a thing.
It wouldn’t have been out of character for him. Lewis, author of books like Babbitt and Arrowsmith, was also a political activist whose stories included biting commentaries on American capitalism. He was the first American novelist to win the Nobel Prize for Literature, and his works were enormously successful during his lifetime, although his posthumous legacy hasn’t quite the same gravitas as the likes of Ernest Hemingway or F. Scott Fitzgerald.
Lewis likely would have agreed with the sentiment about fascism and the cross. In fact, Illinois State’s Sinclair Lewis Society has dug up several quotes that sort of mirror its point. In his famously prescient It Can’t Happen Here, Lewis wrote, “But he saw too that in America the struggle was befogged by the fact that the worst Fascists were they who disowned the word ‘Fascism’ and preached enslavement to Capitalism under the style of Constitutional and Traditional Native American Liberty.”
Similar ideas have been expressed elsewhere too, including — surprisingly enough — a 1936 issue of Christian Century, which covered a James Waterman Wise Jr. address, in which he told his audience fascism would not come with a “shirt” or “insignia” but “wrapped up in the American flag and heralded as a plea for liberty and preservation of the constitution.”
Snopes also found a passage in John Thomas Flynn’s As We Go Marching which echoed the sentiment in 1944.
But when fascism comes it will not be in the form of an anti-American movement or pro-Hitler bund, practicing disloyalty. Nor will it come in the form of a crusade against war. It will appear rather in the luminous robes of flaming patriotism; it will take some genuinely indigenous shape and color, and it will spread only because its leaders, who are not yet visible, will know how to locate the great springs of public opinion and desire and the streams of thought that flow from them and will know how to attract to their banners leaders who can command the support of the controlling minorities in American public life. The danger lies not so much in the would-be Fuhrers who may arise, but in the presence in our midst of certainly deeply running currents of hope and appetite and opinion. The war upon fascism must be begun there.
We just can’t find the first actual instance of someone saying “when Fascism comes to America, it will be wrapped in the American flag and carrying a cross,” verbatim, although the general idea has clearly been around for nearly a century, at least. The quote’s warning is worth considering. But its origins remain mysterious.