Oct 24, 2014

Nelson Bunker Hunt, 1926-2014

Nelson Bunker Hunt, a Texas billionaire oilman who financed evangelical Christian causes, has died at age 88.

While remembered mostly for his financial ventures -- especially an attempt to corner the market on silver -- Hunt was also the money behind numerous conservative Christian and rightwing political projects. Half hidden, larger than life, Nelson Bunker Hunt bankrolled the religious right.

He came from one of Texas' premier oil families. His father was H.L. Hunt, a wildcatter who became something of a legend, buying his first oil rights with poker winnings, laying claim to a lot of the East Texas oilfields and becoming the inspiration for the malevolent patriarch of the soap opera "Dallas." The second son, Bunker, who went by his middle name, discovered his first oil in Scurry County Texas while working for his father. He was 22. It was worth $7 million.

Shortly after, Hunt struck out on his own and made a fortune in his own right.

With financial backing from British Petroleum, Hunt discovered the Sarir oil deposit in Libya in 1961. The field is considered to be one of the largest in Africa. Hunt's half interest held about 5.5 billion barrels of crude oil, according to the Dallas Morning News, and brought Hunt about $30 million a year. The oil was nationalized by Moammar Gadhafi in 1973, but by then Hunt had divested, putting his money in everything for Greek coin collections to Mississippi farmland, from sugar beet processing plants to lots and lots of racehorses.

Time Magazine called him "a man who could play Monopoly with real money."

He then went bust in the 1980s when his attempt to corner the market on silver led to a crash in silver prices. By some estimates, Hunt and one of his younger brothers succeeded in buying half of the deliverable silver in the world. That was so much silver that, according to the New York Times, for every $1 increase in the price of an ounce of silver the Hunts made a $100 million profit. That demand for silver drove the market crazy, and the price soared to more than $50 an ounce, which caused government regulators to step in, the bubble to burst, and Hunt to go bust.

The brothers lost $1.7 billion in what has been called "Silver Thursday."

Hunt's droll comment, when called to testify before Congress, was that "A billion dollars ain't what it used to be."

By the end of the 1980s, however Hunt was bankrupt, owing five times more than the $100 million he then had to his name.

The attempt to corner the market on silver might have been motivated more by religion that money, though Hunt was clearly interested in money. According to journalist Harry L. Hurt III, who wrote a history of the tycoon family, Hunt wanted the silver because he thought the world's monetary systems would crash in the coming apocalypse.

"The guy was a fanatic," Hurt is quoted as saying by the Dallas Morning News. "He really believed that stuff."

Hunt was, by all accounts, a true believer.

The family was part of the First Baptist Church of Dallas, a flagship church of the Southern Baptists, pastored by legendary fundamentalist preacher George W. Truett until 1944 and then by W.A. Criswell from 1944 to 1993. Hunt accepted that fundamentalist faith. He believed that the Bible was the inspired, infallible, inerrant Word of God and to be read literally, that accepting Jesus' death on the cross was the only way one could be reconciled with God, and that the end of human history was coming soon.

As a young billionaire, Hunt put his money to evangelistic use.

The most notable example is his long support of Campus Crusade. Hunt said that Campus Crusade founder Bill Bright was "the closest thing to Jesus on earth." According to historian John G. Turner, Hunt started supporting Campus Crusade in the early 1960s.

He was the major funder for the "Berkley Blitz" in 1967, an effort to make inroads among the radical students at University of California Berkley. The evangelistic campaign was considered a flop, however.

"Dollar for dollar," historian Randall Balmer quoted one Campus Crusade veteran as saying, "it was one of the weakest things we ever did."

Nevertheless, those dollars did have a long term effect. The four staff members hired by Campus Crusade to head the '67 project, Jack Sparks, Pat Matrisciano, Fred Dyson, and Weldon Hartenburg, went back into Berkley two years later as the Christian World Liberation Front. This was one of the early Jesus People organizations. Historian Larry Eskridge writes that the four men were inspired by the Berkley Blitz, despite its failure and they were initially backed by Campus Crusade and, at least indirectly, by Hunt.

Hunt's support for Campus Crusade only increased in the following decade. In the late 1970s, though Bright had denied being funded by rightwing billionaires, Campus Crusade was making plans with Hunt's money in mind. When Bright conceived of a major evangelical outreach plan to reach the entire world with the message of Jesus' salvation by 1980, Hunt was on board. The project, called, "Here's Life, World," cost about $30 million. That money came from Hunt and other rich rightwing men, including the star Roy Rodgers and Wallace E. Johnson, the founder of Holiday Inn.

Hunt also underwrote the Campus Crusade film "Jesus," which cost $6 million in 1979 and was translated into 21 languages. He gave money to the film production and put up more money as collateral for a loan.

Even as Hunt's failed plans to own all the world's saleable silver was costing him more than $1 billion, he continued to find ways to put money into evangelical causes. Between family trusts, other sources of wealth, and his connections with other businessmen, Hunt could still be a serious financial supporter of things he believed in.

It's not clear exactly how much support Hunt lent to Campus Crusade over the years, but it was sizable and had a sizable impact.

When Bill Bright, linking the Cold War fears with the religious mission to fulfill the "Great Commission," cited "one of the most outstanding financial figures in America" as predicting the "almost-certain collapse of the US economy and the possible loss of our freedom to a foreign power unless there is a supernatural moving of God's spirit throughout the world," he may have been talking about Hunt.

For Hunt, evangelical Christianity and rightwing politics were deeply interlinked.

His father, H.L., had gotten involved in the presidential election of 1960 by funding the printing of 200,000 copies of one of his pastor W.A. Criswell's anti-Catholic sermons. The younger Hunt was also active in agitating against John F. Kennedy. He helped fund an ad accusing Kennedy of treason, which ran in the Dallas Morning News the day the president was assassinated in that city in 1963. More than one conspiracy theorist has dubiously connected the family to the assassination plot.

Hunt's politics were not specifically anti-Kennedy, though. His money went to a wide range of far-right groups and causes and, as time went on, to the rising religious right.

He was active on the board of the John Birch Society, the rightwing anti-communist group committed to fighting what it believes is a world-event-controling conspiracy. Hunt backed the segregationist George Wallace's campaign for president in 1968 and was a major mover in various far-right groups, including the Southern States Industrial Council, the International Committee for the Defense of Christian Culture, the National Conservative Political Action Committee and several organizations run by Jesse Helms. Along with the money he gave to Campus Crusade, he also sponsored a rally for Pat Robertson in 1980 when Robertson was considering a run for president.

There is a broader list of groups and causes that Hunt is said to have supported that are difficult to verify. He reportedly gave $1 million to the founding of Jerry Falwell's Moral Majority in 1981. He is said to have given Texas property to the Wycliffe Bible translators. It's reported he even funded an exploration to find Noah's Ark.

Other efforts have been more well documented, though. After funding Campus Crusade, Hunt's most influential efforts to bankroll the religious right may have come in 1981, when he financed the founding of the Council for National Policy.

The CNP is a secretive religious right group started by Tim LaHaye, the future author of the rapture fiction phenomenon Left Behind and, like Hunt, also once member of the John Birch Society. The CNP has been seen as the conspiratorial power behind the religious right. That seems to be an exaggeration. Linda Kintz writes it is an umbrella organization that helps various religious right groups coordinate their efforts.  In 1996, for instance, the group coordinated to influence the Republican Party platform at the national convention in San Diego. It helped elect George W. Bush in 2000 and had an influence in his administration.

Hunt's own involvement in coordinating religious right efforts seems to have dissipated after his 1989 bankruptcy, however.

He spent more of his time raising and breeding race horses. He devoted some of his energy to his local church. In 1991, he was a founding member of Park Cities Presbyterian Church, a conservative megachurch that split from Highland Presbyterian Church when it failed to withdraw from the increasingly liberal mainline Presbyterian denomination. Hunt was an elder of the new church for some time.

It's also possible that Hunt, who was still a millionaire even in bankruptcy, was still involved in religious right causes, but was simply more careful to shield his philanthropy from the public eye. His activities were always half hidden, and scandal and scorn could have pushed him to be more secretive.

In his moment of notoriety, Hunt's Christianity was seen as an example of his eccentricity, along with his taste for canned chili over Frito chips, his cheap suits, and his preference to fly coach rather than first class. His religion and politics were often seen as a kind of strange hobby.

In that "hobby," though, he was bankrolling a movement to change America. With his support, he helped make the religious right's rise to dominance possible.

Hunt suffered from dementia in his last days and died of congestive heart failure earlier this month. He is survived by his wife of more than 60 years, their son, three daughters, 14 grandchildren and 13 great-grandchildren. The family has suggested the memorial contributions can be made to Park Cities Presbyterian Church or to Cru, formerly known as Campus Crusade.