Tuesday’s bombshell testimony before the Jan 6. committee from Cassidy Hutchinson, former assistant to White House Chief of Staff Mark Meadows, about President Donald Trump’s behavior before and during that day’s insurrection captivated Americans and set social media aflame. But 35 years ago this summer, it was another set of hearings that lured Americans to their televisions to watch Congress investigate a popular president’s alleged subversion of the rule of law.
Over the course of six days in early July 1987, Lt. Col. Oliver North testified in defense of his actions and those of his commander in chief, Ronald Reagan, in the Iran-contra scandal. In front of the cameras, North transformed himself from a disgraced soldier into a clean-cut, medal-bedecked national hero. A reality television star before the era of reality television, North was a harbinger of what was to come. Uniting religious and secular conservatives in a right-wing populist movement, North redefined patriotism and prefigured the current crisis of American democracy.
North stood accused of carrying out illegal covert operations involving the sale of arms to Iran to secure the release of American hostages while using profits to fund the Nicaraguan contras — something explicitly prohibited by Congress. The former National Security Council staffer admitted to lying to Congress and to shredding documents, but North was unapologetic. “This is a dangerous world,” he said. He did what he did for the love of God and country. And for North, the ends justified the means.
Many Americans concurred. That summer, “Olliemania” swept the country. A store in Albany sold T-shirts emblazoned with an American flag and the words “God, guns, guts and Ollie made this country.” A restaurant near Buffalo added an “Oliver North Sandwich” to its menu — made with “red-blooded American beef,” topped with shredded lettuce and served up on a hero roll. Pocket Books printed 775,000 paperback copies of North’s testimony transcript to meet anticipated demand.
North was found guilty on three felony counts (a verdict that would be overturned on a technicality). Before long, Olliemania began to fade for most Americans. One subset of the country, however, continued to celebrate North’s hero status. Conservative evangelicals embraced him not despite his illegal actions, but because of them.
In spring 1988, the Rev. Jerry Falwell started a national petition drive to pardon North and welcomed him to Liberty University as the school’s commencement speaker. Insisting that North was “a true American hero,” Falwell compared him to Jesus, “a savior who was indicted and convicted and crucified.” Within months, Falwell was selling $25 audiotapes of North’s commencement address. Beverly LaHaye’s Concerned Women for America followed suit, offering a “beautiful full-color picture” of North’s swearing-in at the hearings for a $20 contribution.
The affinities between conservative evangelicals and North ran deep. Although raised Catholic, North converted to charismatic Protestantism in 1978 under the proselytizing of his commanding officer, a born-again Christian. North credited evangelical psychologist James Dobson with saving his marriage, and while working at the National Security Council, he participated in Bible studies, prayer groups and Christian retreats. He also actively sought the assistance of the Christian Right when drumming up support for aid to the contras. As one of his friends explained, “To Ollie, religion, flag and family are all part of the same makeup.”
This profile was deeply appealing to evangelical leaders, who found North to be “a shining example of American righteousness.” For evangelicals steeped in Christian nationalism — the belief that America is God’s special nation and must be defended as such against enemies foreign and domestic — the perceived law of God took precedence over the rule of law.
In 1991, North was invited to speak at the Southern Baptist Convention’s annual meeting. For more than a decade, conservatives in the SBC had worked to seize control of the denomination, skirting norms and eschewing niceties in pursuit of what they believed was righteous. That year was the first in which their control would go unchallenged by moderates.
That made North a perfect speaker for their convention. He was a shining example of breaking the rules to achieve a greater good, and conservatives in the SBC shared both his vision of Christian America and the supreme confidence that God was on their side.
Standing before a 40-by-60-foot American flag, North urged the more than 15,000 Southern Baptists in attendance to become politically active to counter “a veritable Sodom and Gomorrah on the banks of the Potomac.” The president of the SBC Pastors’ Conference conceded that some found North divisive or problematic, “But to the vast majority of us he’s an American patriot.” The conflation of God and country was evident in the words of another man present: “There is a commitment to country and to God. I think Oliver North represents a commitment to God.”
North became a frequent speaker at evangelical churches, and with the help of direct-mail strategist Richard Viguerie, he raised an unprecedented $16 million in a single year to cover legal expenses and fund an unsuccessful run for the Senate in 1994. Appealing to “anti-gun control, pro-life, school prayer, strong defense, anti-gay, and the like,” North tapped a populist vein in American politics. His strategist and pollster explained North’s appeal in the words of country singer Garth Brooks: He resonated with the “hard-hat, gun rack, achin’-back, over-taxed, flag-waving, fun-lovin’ crowd.”
Critics warned of North’s authoritarian tendencies and of his disrespect for the truth, but for his supporters, there was “what’s right” and “what’s legal,” and the two were not always the same. Skirting the law was part of North’s appeal. When God is on your side, the ends justify the means.
In 2016, pundits struggled to comprehend how evangelical voters could support Donald Trump, a candidate who seemed the antithesis of the “family values” they trumpeted. These observers, however, missed an underlying affinity based on White evangelicals’ penchant for authoritarian populism — for rejecting political compromise, favoring strong, solitary leadership and breaking the rules when necessary. Trump’s willingness to thumb his nose at decency and democratic niceties to do what needed to be done made him a hero in their eyes — just like Oliver North 30 years earlier.
The aftermath of the 2020 election only exacerbated these tendencies. The Christian nationalism on display at the Jan. 6, 2021, Capitol insurrection reflects broader sympathies: 3 in 5 White evangelicals do not believe that President Biden was legitimately elected, and 1 in 4 agree that “true American patriots may have to resort to violence in order to save our country.”
For those committed to defending their conception of “Christian America,” the fact that America is no longer a majority White Christian nation means that the democratic process is no longer conducive to those ends. Voter suppression, gerrymandering, contested Supreme Court appointments and the decision to overturn Roe v. Wade and revoke the constitutional right to an abortion despite assurances that the decision constituted “settled law” all point to a higher commitment to White Christian rule.
There are other ways to be a Christian and an American, however, as Sen. George Mitchell (D-Maine) reminded North on the last day of his testimony. A devout Catholic with his own military pedigree, the soft-spoken senator informed North that the United States was a nation of many races, ethnicities and religions, and that what held the country together were the ideals of individual liberty and equal justice. Respectfully but firmly, Mitchell chided the zealous soldier, reminding him that it was possible for fellow Americans to disagree with him “and still love God and still love this country just as much as you do,” and that no matter how important or noble a cause, the rule of law must never be sacrificed. God, Mitchell added, “does not take sides in American politics,” despite being regularly asked to do so.
As the nation again turns its eyes to congressional hearings examining the role of a president in subverting the rule of law, the fate of American democracy hinges on which vision of patriotism prevails.