Every session of the Republican Convention opened with an invocation (after the presentation of the flag and the singing of the anthem), and closed with a benediction. A different man of God was called upon on each occasion. The benediction at the very end, after the acceptance speech by Mr. Reagan, was spoken by Dr. W. A. Criswell.
Dr. Criswell is the pastor of the First Baptist Church of Dallas, and in Dallas he is famous, not only because he is a powerful preacher, but also because his church and church buildings, which are in a cluster in downtown Dallas, are now—with the boom—valued at $200 million. Money is revered everywhere but in Dallas it is holy; and something like grace—a reward for faith in God’s land—attaches to real-estate success. Every day in Dallas (since journalists are obedient people, and also want to do what other journalists do) I read an article about, or an interview with, Trammell Crow, the local real-estate king, who has built many of the glass skyscrapers and hotels. Again and again I read that Trammell Crow was worth about a billion dollars. Dr. Criswell wasn’t in that class, but—offering benediction to the Republicans where Trammell Crow could offer only welcome and money—he trailed his own double glory.
On the Sunday after the convention, when most of the delegates and press had gone away, and the congregation was nearly pure Dallas again, Dr. Criswell preached on “The White Throne Judgment.” The title of his sermon was displayed in movable letters—like the title of a film or play—outside his redbrick auditorium. The auditorium—big, square, plain except for the colored glass—was packed.
People like myself, arriving late, or without reserved places, stood at the back. The time came when we all had to kneel; and it was hard for me then, kneeling with the others, heads bowed in prayer all around me, to continue making notes on my own Sheraton-Dallas Hotel bedside pad.
The choir wore dark red gowns. Dr. Criswell, like Mrs. Reagan at her first appearance in the convention hall, wore white or cream or a very pale color. The color contrast would have helped the television picture. There was a television camera in the aisle between the pews of Dr. Criswell’s church. The service was being televised live, and a note in the program sheet (which also contained a “decision card”) said that video cassettes of the service could be obtained from the “Communications Department” of the church.
Dr. Criswell, working up to his Judgment theme, spoke of homosexuality. His language was direct. No euphemisms; no irony; no humor. He was earnest from beginning to end. He moved about on the platform and sometimes for a second or so he turned (in his white suit) to face his red-gowned choir.
“In our lifetime we are scoffing at the word of God…and…
This is exclusive content for subscribers only.
Get unlimited access to The New York Review for just $1 an issue!
Continue reading this article, and thousands more from our archive, for the low introductory rate of just $1 an issue. Choose a Print, Digital, or All Access subscription.