Review: Daniel K. Williams, God’s Own Party: The Making of the Christian Right (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2010).

The Christian Right has been a consistent if occasionally amorphous feature of the American political landscape for more than 40 years. It is arguably the most important constituency of the contemporary Republican Party; according to the Pew Research Center, 81 percent of white evangelicals voted for Donald Trump in the 2016 election. No less important, the Religious Right is an important facet of a larger evangelical subculture that crosses many denominational lines, and sometimes enters the American mainstream (think, for example, of the number of biblical and biblically inspired films in the last decade or so). In God’s Own Party, Daniel K. Williams studies the origins of the Religious Right and its effect upon American politics through the presidency of George W. Bush. This is an excellent study that offers readers much insight into recent and current American political culture.

Williams traces the Religious Right back to the surge of fundamentalist public presence that followed the First World War. The terminology is important; throughout the book, Williams pays close attention to the bafflingly diverse range of meanings attached to fundamentalist throughout the 20th century. William Jennings Bryan supported Prohibition and opposed Darwinism, eugenics, and unbridled free-market capitalism, describing himself in the 1920s as “a progressive in politics and a Fundamentalist in religion” (p. 14). At the time, fundamentalism and progressivism were not such a strange pairing. Despite popular assumptions today about Prohibition, it was in fact closely tied to the early women’s movement, and aimed at stemming social problems such as spousal abuse and alcoholism (before Prohibition, Americans consumed more than twice the alcohol that they consume today).[1]

Williams locates an important semantic shift for fundamentalism with the founding of the National Association of Evangelicals after World War II. Evangelical was used because it signified something “more optimistic-sounding” and “a time of ecumenical cooperation across regional and denominational boundaries” (p. 17). Although fundamentalists had long segregated themselves from both the wider world and from non-fundamentalist Christians, evangelicals in the postwar period aimed to do the opposite by engaging the world and working with many (but not all) other Christians. As the narrative continues, Billy Graham emerges as the standard-bearer among evangelicals. Meanwhile, fundamentalists become increasingly marginal in later chapters. A good example is Bob Jones, Jr., who criticized Graham for his willingness to work with non-fundamentalists on matters of common concern. Perhaps it is ironically telling that in the latter half of the 20th century, Jones and his sons continued to support racial segregation while demanding religious self-segregation — two positions that evangelicals came to firmly reject.

There was no single catalyst behind early evangelical political action; anti-Catholicism and anti-Communism were equally important. Other issues, notably abortion and gay rights, later played a similar role. Anti-Catholicism later faded in importance, but the early chapters of God’s Own Party note it repeatedly. Fundamentalists opposed Democratic nominee Al Smith in 1928 because he was Catholic (p. 14), and they opposed John F. Kennedy in 1960 for the same reason. Anti-Catholicism was not restricted to evangelicals and fundamentalists, but was shared by most of the Protestant mainline as well. In Williams’s words, the 1960 election offered “a rare moment of political ecumenism” among Protestants (p. 49), but whereas Smith lost, Kennedy won. When Jones predicted that Kennedy would take orders from the pope and force Catholicism upon all of America, he was not voicing a uniquely fundamentalist fear. Faced with the loss of a broadly Protestant national identity, fundamentalists such as Jones began to reject their earlier alienation from the wider world and instead pushed for fundamentalists to become politically active.

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Anti-Catholicism points to the profound religious divisions between fundamentalists and evangelicals — differences that were allowed to become political divisive and ultimately crippling. Williams records Jerry Falwell’s observation that when it came to doctrinal differences between evangelical and fundamentalist churches, in another political context “we would be shedding blood” (p. 174). Further examples of intra-Christian division punctuate Williams’s narrative. Southern Baptists refused to work with Falwell because he was not Southern Baptist (p. 177); when Pat Robertson created a March for Jesus on Washington, Falwell refused to give his endorsement and support because he was suspicious of charismatic/Pentecostal Christianity (p. 182). In light of this, it is quite surprising that the Religious Right, particularly the Christian Coalition, was willing to work with Catholics in the 1980s (p. 234). The Christian Coalition emerges as the most ecumenical political organization to come out of the fundamentalist-evangelical spectrum. Perhaps one might even push this conclusion further, and argue that the Religious Right’s eventual recognition of its need to work with other Christians ultimately led to the demise of traditional American fundamentalism, especially its self-imposed alienation from society.

Despite what some Americans might wish to believe, Williams shows that racism was not the catalyst for contemporary conservatism. Earlier supporters of segregation such as Falwell changed their attitudes along with much of the wider American nation (e.g., pp. 85–87). In addition to an almost blindly impassioned American patriotism, two issues drove the alignment between Republicans, fundamentalists, and evangelicals. First is opposition to Communism. Even in the 1950s, when Communism was resisted across the political spectrum, Republicans were often harder on Communism than Democrats were. Although most contemporary right-wing discourse against communism is utterly asinine — one thinks, for example, of the repeated allegations that President Obama was a socialist — the simple truth is that Soviet Socialism was a genuine threat during the whole of the Cold War period. When Republicans proved more opposed, fundamentalists and evangelicals offered their support — but usually because of opposition to atheism rather than support for an unregulated free market (one wonders if the same reasoning would hold today). Even if the McCarthy trials proved overblown, other matters justifiably set the wider American nation on edge. Here Williams could have talked a good bit more about the effects of Communism upon the American public, especially the Cuban Missile Crisis, which receives only passing comment (p. 57) but which actually brought the world to very brink of mutual assured destruction.[2] There were good reasons for fearing Communism in the postwar period, and the current state of right-wing anti-socialist polemics should not be allowed to obscure that reality.

The second major issue that aligned the Religious Right with the GOP was Roe v. Wade. One of the elements of Williams’s narrative that surprised me is his observation that opposition to abortion originated among Roman Catholics. In the early 1970s, Southern Baptists struck a moderate line on abortion, allowing it in some instances (p. 115), and the GOP had no interest in opposition abortion at all (p. 111). Anti-Catholicism was so strong among fundamentalists and evangelicals that they refused to work with Catholics, which fatally undermined the success of conservative Protestants’ initially sporadic opposition to abortion (pp. 116, 119).

The Republican Party became increasingly opposed to abortion out of political necessity. Ronald Reagan courted the vote of evangelicals and fundamentalists and changed his views on abortion in the late 1970s. But Reagan was only one such step. The next step came from Christian Coalition leader Ralph Reed, who had previously been president of the College Republicans at the University of Georgia. Reed was willing to support pro-choice Republicans in the early 1990s, but this earned him the rebuke of James Dobson of Focus on the Family; Reed subsequently relented, which led to the final solidifying of the Religious Right’s expectation that Republicans be uncompromisingly opposed to abortion on demand (pp. 239–40). In subsequent elections, when Republicans showed themselves unwilling to support the Religious Right’s opposition to abortion, the Religious Right responded by withholding its support. With the Religious Right now the most important voting bloc for Republicans, the GOP cannot afford to ignore it.

Women’s political activism fills these pages. Here too, Williams’s study offers an important check on the current state of partisan argument. Despite what some (many?) feminists may wish to believe, and despite what the ACLU claimed in the 1980s, the Religious Right was not some sort of fundamentalist or evangelical version of Islamic fundamentalism. Phyllis Schlafly, a conservative Catholic who earned the respect and support of Falwell, among other leaders in the Religious Right, spearheaded opposition to the Equal Rights Amendment, instead supporting conservative gender roles. Anita Bryant, a Southern Baptist, led one of the earliest movements against gay rights. In both 1978 and 1979, readers’ polls for the mainstream magazine Good Housekeeping named Bryant the “Most Admired Woman” of the year. In the pages of God’s Own Party, one finds the geographically widespread political revolt that defined the outcome of the 2016 election — not just the election of Trump as President, but the remarkable success of Republicans in both the House of Representatives and the Senate. (For a good pictorial illustration, see the GIS graphic “Trumpland and Clinton Archipelago.”) I suspect that many Americans would not think of Good Housekeeping as a useful political metric. Perhaps we should.

God’s Own Party contains plenty of fascinating bits that nuance and complicate both insider and outside perspectives on the Religious Right. Early in the text, Williams looks at responses to the banning of school prayer and Bible reading in the early 1960s. These have become lynchpins in evangelicals’ declension narrative about modern America, but at the time they were little opposed. Public school prayers were not explicitly Christian, which caused many evangelicals and fundamentalists to oppose them. Catholics and mainline Protestants proved the major opponents of removing school prayer. School Bible reading was much the same, with evangelicals and fundamentalists largely indifferent. Graham was the only nationally known Southern Baptist to speak against these developments (p. 67).

Later in the text is much interesting material about Pat Robertson, who is probably best known today for his failed prophecies about impending divine judgment against the United States in the 1980s. More interesting is that he earned a degree from Yale Law School but decided in 1956 to sell all of his goods so that he might live with and serve the urban poor in Brooklyn (pp. 179–80). Given the seeming alliance between the Religious Right and capitalism, it is even more interesting to learn that in Robertson’s failed 1988 presidential bid, he advocated the forgiveness of private debts every 50 years (p. 215). Perhaps most surprisingly, given the alliance of the Religious Right with the Republican Party, Graham became the greatest critic of allying evangelicalism with the Republican Party. Graham dabbled in politics during the 1950s and 1960s, and gave President Nixon considerable support, but Nixon’s fall left Graham disillusioned. In 1981, Graham warned Falwell against allying with the Republicans, cautioning him: “The hard right has no interest in religion except to manipulate it” (p. 198–99). Graham’s words were ignored.

Williams’s narrative is very much one of high politics and major players. He helpfully analyzes developments in Washington’s corridors of power, but this imposes a limit upon his work because he ignores much of the larger cultural influence of the Religious Right. This is less a complaint than a simple fact — no book can cover everything — but there is a difference between political gains and cultural gains. A complementary study on the cultural influence of the Religious Right would likely reveal much: for example, just as Prohibition gave us our current cultural awareness about the dangers of alcoholism, the Religious Right’s emphasis on the family — even when naïve — did much to shore up traditional notions that were indeed under attack from the late 1960s onward. However surprising it might sound, it seems to me incontestable that the recent cultural push for gay marriage is an unwitting result of the Religious Right’s emphasis on family politics. One early gay liberation chant was “Two, four, six, eight / smash the church, smash the state,”[3] but same-sex marriage points entirely away from such anarchy and toward something much more stable and even mainstream.

In his conclusion, Williams looks at demographic shifts among younger evangelicals and the increased desire of Democrats to court the evangelical vote. Starting with Al Gore in 2000, Democrats have increasingly sought to reframe themselves as a party with values that Christians should get behind. The development of the Christian Left since the same time is outside of Williams’s scope, but having witnessed this development in my lifetime, I cannot help but suspect that the Christian Left will prove entirely like the Christian Right in both its firm adherence to a political party and in its ultimate inability to separate its religious vision from the same. The Episcopal Church primarily consists of Democrats at prayer, and the upper echelons of church leadership seem largely incapable of distinguishing between the Democratic Party platform, that of the United Nations, and that of historic Christianity. Sadly, political partisanship runs churches today.

Williams has written a study that deserves to be widely known. It might also be read as a warning.

Footnotes

[1] An excellent recent study is Lisa M.F. Andersen, The Politics of Prohibition: American Governance and the Prohibition Party (Cambridge University Press, 2013), esp. ch. 3, which analyzes women’s involvement.

[2] See Robert F. Kennedy, Thirteen Days: A Memoir of the Cuban Missile Crisis (Norton, 1999), which contains an up-to-date analysis of the crisis by Arthur Schlesinger, Jr., and a host of relevant primary documents in addition to Kennedy’s unfinished memoir.

[3] See Tommi Avicolli Mecca (ed.), Smash the Church, Smash the State! (City Lights Publishers, 2009).

 

About The Author

Dr. Benjamin Guyer is a lecturer in the department of History and Philosophy at the University of Tennessee Martin. At present, he is working on two projects: first, transforming his dissertation,”The Semantics of Reformation: Discourses of Religious Change in England, 1414-1688,”  into a monograph; second, preparing a collection of essays on the Lambeth Conference, which he is co-editing with Paul Avis (forthcoming, T&T Clark Bloomsbury).

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Thanks for the interesting review Ben. I look forward to reading the book at some point. One basic question and one observation. First, the question. When you say that American’s today consume half the amount of alcohol as the amount consumed before prohibition, do you know if that’s calculated on a per capita basis, or a total amount? In other words, if it was a total amount, then the amount that the average person drank would seem to have been a magnitude larger than double prior to prohibition. In regard to race and the rise of conservatism, it would take… Read more »
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