God’s Own Party: The Making of the Christian Right
By Daniel K. Williams
(Oxford University Press, 372 pp., $29.95)
From Bible Belt to Sunbelt: Plain-Folk Religion, Grassroots Politics, and the Rise of Evangelical Conservatism
By Darren Dochuk
(W.W. Norton, 520 pp., $35)
In the presidential election of 1976, the Democrat Jimmy Carter split the votes of American white evangelical Protestants almost evenly with the Republican Gerald Ford. With a clear plurality of at least ten percentage points, Carter did even better among the nation’s white Baptists. Four years earlier, white conservative Protestants, mostly from the North, had organized the first postwar interest group to campaign for a presidential candidate: it was called “Evangelicals for McGovern.” In that campaign of 1972, no Republican was as outspoken against abortion as Sargent Shriver, George McGovern’s Democratic running mate. In those same years the nation’s best-known selfidentified evangelical politician was Senator Mark Hatfield of Oregon. He was a fiscal conservative, but in Oregon he had led efforts to pass civil rights legislation; in 1970 he co-sponsored a measure calling for the complete withdrawal of American troops from Vietnam; and somewhat later he teamed up with Senator Ted Kennedy to seek a permanent freeze for nuclear arms. In the early 1970s, the press was making much of Billy Graham’s friendship with Richard Nixon, but in fact Graham was never as close to Nixon as he was to his fellow Southerner, Nixon’s predecessor Lyndon Baines Johnson.
One of the first gatherings by self-identified evangelicals aimed at advancing a national political agenda convened over Thanksgiving in 1973 at the YMCA in Chicago. Its “Declaration of Evangelical Social Concern” featured advocacy for civil rights, opposition to the Vietnam War, and strategies for alleviating poverty. The moderate to progressive stance of those initiatives was far from the whole political story for the nation’s large but amorphous population of white evangelical Protestants, but in the early 1970s they were among its most salient political signposts.
But almost immediately in the wake of Jimmy Carter’s election, the evangelical tide turned with a vengeance. In 1980, the white evangelical vote for Ronald Reagan exceeded the national count by nine percentage points, and four years later by sixteen points. The turn of the tide has been enduring. In the Bush-Gore election of 2000, the white evangelical differential was twenty-four percentage points; in 2004, for Bush-Kerry, it was twenty-seven points; and it remained just as high in the Obama-McCain contest in 2008, with a twenty-seven-point differential for McCain.
The rise and continued effect of right-wing evangelical politics has of course been the subject of much public commentary. Yet a depressing proportion of that writing has featured ideological excess instead of analytical rigor. Especially after Bush’s re-election in 2004, anxious books poured forth with titles such as Thy Kingdom Come: How the Religious Right Distorts the Faith and Threatens America; Kingdom Coming: The Rise of Christian Nationalism; American Theocracy: The Peril and Politics of Radical Religion, Oil, and Borrowed Money in the 21st Century; God’s Politics: Why the Right Gets It Wrong and the Left Doesn’t Get It; and Religion Gone Bad: The Hidden Dangers of the Christian Right. Counterblasts also occasionally appeared from the other side, such as In Defense of the Religious Right: Why Conservative Christians Are the Lifeblood of the Republican Party and Why That Terrifies the Democrats. Yet with a few exceptions, partisanship of the moment beclouded efforts to understand the not-so-new New Christian Right.
Recent studies have begun to do better, with two of the best being these books by Daniel K. Williams and Darren Dochuk. Williams, who works from the top down in attempting a broad national perspective, does as well as any writer to date in answering the basic questions of what went into making up the religious right and specifying when the movement coalesced. Dochuk, who works from below in a superbly researched study of grassroots political mobilization, goes far to answer the question of where it came from. The solid history in these volumes should be applauded by all as a welcome alternative to the frenzy of earlier efforts. Yet neither Williams nor Dochuk addresses directly what should be one of the most compelling questions about the political history they describe so well: what exactly is Christian about the Christian right?
Williams is an excellent guide to the developments of the mid-1970s that transformed inchoate religious and social convictions into an effective political movement, but he is least convincing when he tries to connect this mobilization with earlier religious beliefs and social worries of the nation’s fundamentalist and evangelical Christians. To be sure, Williams is persuasive in describing the attitudes and beliefs of those earlier decades, which included a pietistic stress on personal conversion, a strong aversion to liberal Protestantism and an even stronger antagonism toward Roman Catholicism, a profound attachment to the family as a fortress against spiritual decline, a passionate commitment to the Bible as interpreted by popular preachers, and an apocalyptic fear of communism. He is also informative on several of the figures who gained a national reputation promoting these opinions, including the anti-communist radio preachers Carl McIntire and Billy James Hargis, the fundamentalist gurus John R. Rice and Bob Jones, Jr., and the young evangelist Billy Graham. The book is likewise helpful in spotlighting developments that reflected conservative Protestant interests, such as the founding of the National Association of Evangelicals in 1942 and the inauguration of the National Prayer Breakfast in 1953, as well as events that heightened evangelical anxieties about the state of the country, such as the election of the Catholic John F. Kennedy as president in 1960 and the Supreme Court decisions of the early 1960s that banned mandatory prayer and devotional Bible reading in public schools.
The problem comes when Williams moves directly to the movement politics of the 1970s. In order for an evangelical political movement to emerge, it was necessary to overcome the fissiparous instincts of fundamentalist Bible preachers, transcend visceral anti-Catholicism far enough for political cooperation to emerge, and translate sometimes abstruse biblical interpretations into practical programs for political action. Above all, it was necessary to bridge the chasm of race.
From the mid-nineteenth century, the nation was populated by a near-majority of conservative Protestants of Anglo-Saxon origin, but for political and many other purposes that population had been cloven in two by the American Civil War. Southern evangelicals were white racists, lived and died by upholding Jim Crow, and were irrevocably Democratic. Northern evangelicals, while rarely active on behalf of African Americans, accepted the Civil War amendments, did not insist on systematic Jim Crow, and voted Republican. Until the inherent individualism of fundamentalist religion and the divide of the Civil War were overcome, there could be no national evangelical movement.
Williams misunderstands how this long history prepared the way for his narrative, but he is superb on what happened from the mid-1970s onward. Others have tried to isolate one or two key developments, but Williams shows that it was a confluence of many forces. Among the significant preliminary moves was a large evangelistic rally organized in the summer of 1972 by Bill Bright, the founder of the immensely successful Campus Crusade for Christ. Called “Explo ’72,” it was held in Dallas and featured Billy Graham and a telegram from Richard Nixon. Although the stated purpose of the rally was to proclaim the gospel with modern relevance (meaning lots of rock and roll), Bright’s behind-the-scenes political networking made the rally a stalking horse for Nixon’s re-election bid.
Other events from the early 1970s also pointed toward right-wing conservative Protestant organization. Phyllis Schlafly, a Catholic from Missouri, drew some evangelical support for her Stop-ERA organization, which raised money and recruited volunteers to combat what Schlafly described as feminism run amok. A dispute over school textbooks in Kanawha County, West Virginia, in 1974 likewise prompted a nationwide coalition to protest “secular humanism” in school curricula. The Roe v. Wade decision of 1973, which later became a prime factor in stimulating the New Christian Right, was not at first a major evangelical concern. It was, instead, regarded as a Catholic issue. The visceral antiCatholicism that made cooperation impossible on even non-doctrinal issues still had a year or two to run.
The political year 1976, with a close contest for the Republican nomination between the incumbent Gerald Ford and the challenger Ronald Reagan, and then a suspenseful battle between Ford and the Democratic standard-bearer Jimmy Carter, was transformative. During his run for the GOP nomination, Reagan, the two-term former governor of California, told a radio interviewer that he had had “an experience that could be described as ‘born again,’” and so positioned himself to enlist the nation’s white evangelical voters four years later after he won the Republican nomination. In Lynchburg, Virginia, a reverend named Jerry Falwell, the pastor of a large independent Baptist church and host of a popular radio program, reversed his early stance against political involvement in order to criticize Carter for granting an interview to Playboy magazine.
Also in 1976, a conservative Presbyterian evangelist and apologist, Francis Schaeffer, returned from a decades-long stay in Europe with a book called How Should We Then Live? It urged Bible-believing Christians to take their convictions actively into the public square. Schaeffer’s appeal was broadened considerably by a movie accompanying the book and a speaking tour that drew thousands in many, mostly northern, locations. One of Schaeffer’s key injunctions was that when the fate of Western civilization was at stake, conservative Protestants should work as “co-belligerents” with others who saw the same decline but who might not share evangelical theology. For a mostly northern evangelical constituency, Schaeffer’s advocacy paralleled what Falwell was proclaiming to a mostly Southern, more fundamentalist constituency: organized political action in society was not a contradiction to the Gospel, but an expression of it.
It was also in 1976 that the political meaning of Roe v. Wade evolved into a new phase. For the first time, the parties divided systematically, with the Democratic national platform including a pro-choice affirmation and the Republican national platform responding with a pro-life plank. For one of the first times since the days of promoting Prohibition, evangelical operatives among Republicans were exerting an influence on a national party’s platform.
Once begun, the movement advanced with a rush. Many evangelicals and fundamentalists were disillusioned when, as they saw it, Carter left his personal evangelical convictions in the Sunday-school classes he taught without letting them influence the policies of his administration. In 1977, Anita Bryant drew nationwide support for her successful campaign to repeal a gay-rights ordinance in Dade County, Florida. When the IRS threatened to strip Bob Jones University in South Carolina of its tax exemption because of its policy of racial segregation, mass protests came from several directions. Some of that support rallied for the principle of segregation, but more was generated to protest overweening government power. In the congressional elections of 1978, evangelical activists joined or mounted movements in several states to defeat liberal candidates and elect conservatives. During 1979, in very rapid order, Beverly LaHaye established the Concerned Women for America as a counterforce to what she saw as aberrant feminism, Robert Grant founded “Christian Voice” to accelerate evangelical and Republican cooperation, Randall Terry (inspired by another book and movie from Francis Schaeffer that raised the possibility of civil disobedience to defend the unborn) began militantly pro-life rescue activity, and Jerry Falwell founded the Moral Majority.
Also in that momentous year, doctrinal conservatives in the Southern Baptist Convention showed what mobilization could mean for a religious body when they ran a get-out-the-vote campaign that resulted in the election of a Memphis minister, Adrian Rogers, as president of America’s largest Protestant denomination. This was the first step in a decade of internal politicking that secured the denomination for conservative theological principles and pushed it toward conservative political action.
Symbolic events in 1980 testified to a political movement that was up and running. In April, Pat Robertson organized a “Washington for Jesus Rally.” The crowd that showed up fell short of the grandiose goals Robertson had announced on his television network, but it was still an impressive number. In August, at the Religious Roundtable’s National Affairs Briefing, the candidate Ronald Reagan proclaimed to rapturous applause that “I know you can’t endorse me. But I want you to know that I endorse you and what you are doing.”
Finally, as has been well-documented elsewhere, the years following evangelical disillusionment with Jimmy Carter witnessed a burst of cooperation between politically energized evangelicals and professional pols of the GOP’s Goldwater wing (including Paul Weyrich, Richard Viguerie, and Howard Phillips). The result was a number of right-wing organizations with full evangelical support, including the National Conservative Political Action Committee, the Heritage Foundation, and the Committee for the Survival of a Free Congress. Such organizations gained the trust of white evangelicals and fundamentalists who saw them as vehicles for defending traditional morality. The novelties represented by this cooperation were national political organization and a close working relationship with the Republican Party.
The critical development in the mid-1970s was mobilization, and on a national scale. As that mobilization took place, it transformed well-established traditions of evangelical and fundamentalist religion into a political instrument. As religion, its primary elements were individual redemption as the overriding spiritual concern, family nurture as the critical means for preserving the faith, sexual immorality perceived as a particularly potent enemy of the family, biblical interpretation stressing the perennial clash between good and evil, and opposition to communism considered as the most dangerous world threat to Christianity. Over the course of the twentieth century, many developments in American society had given evangelicals multiple reasons for hastening to the barricades. Yet these evangelical convictions had existed for many generations—and America’s alleged rush to self-destruction had been going on for a long time-without the kind of political mobilization that took place in the mid-1970s.
The great strength of Darren Dochuk’s book lies in his discovery of New Christian Right origins in postwar California. He skillfully traces a continuous narrative stretching from the Dust Bowl to Ronald Reagan, and demonstrates with prodigious research how this narrative fits into a much broader American canvas of demographic, political, economic, and ideological change. If there is a weakness in his book, it is that he does not document with similar care the moves that in the mid-1970s made California’s story a national story. But about the rest his book is utterly convincing.
The story begins with massive migrations in the 1930s of Okies, Arkies, and their Depression-driven fellow-sufferers who streamed out of the Southwest to California. In 1920, the population of Oklahoma and Arkansas was larger than the population of California by about 400,000 souls. In 1950, California’s 10.6 million dwarfed the 4.2 million left in those two states. The magnet for this great internal migration was jobs. Some jobs were waiting for Dust Bowl migrants when they arrived in the 1930s. Many more flowed from the economic cornucopia created by World War II, the surge of oil and gas industries, and a massive infusion of defense contracts. To an unusual degree, workers from the Southwest and South filled the demand for labor. In turn, well-compensated workers settled, raised families, built schools and churches, entered local politics, and otherwise made themselves at home.
The key early developments in Dochuk’s revisionist history were clashes between the liberal labor and political organizations of wartime California and the Southern migrants who wanted to preserve aspects of the culture that they had carried with them to the far West. Against the backdrop of the social strain that has long been identified as the spur and the product of such migrations, housing and labor were the flashpoints. The newcomers wanted jobs, but not what they considered heavy-handed unions. They wanted the freedom to build new towns, businesses, and shopping malls, but not laws compelling racial integration.
Over-represented in the waves of Southern migrants were members of the lower- and middle-class Protestant movements that had long flourished in that part of the country. Representatives of this “Southern plain-folk religion” were usually members of independent Baptist churches, the Christian churches arising from the nineteenth-century Restorationist movements, various Holiness churches, and early twentieth-century Pentecostal churches. As migrants established their churches in the sprawling new suburbs of southern California, they were led by an energetic cadre of persuasive pastor-entrepreneurs. Many of these pastors also proved remarkably successful in attracting large numbers of the state’s older residents and migrants from other parts of the United States.
Their religion was historically Protestant in many theological particulars. It featured God’s grace active in Christ to redeem individuals, restrain personal moral waywardness, and build strong families. Culturally considered, Southern plain-folk religion was instinctively congregational, fiercely independent, usually preacher-centered, and largely self-taught. It was also, since the mid-nineteenth century, militantly racist.
The transplanted ideology that took root in California at the very time when that state became the forerunner of postwar national prosperity embodied a potent synthesis: theology stressing individual redemption, church culture emphasizing local independence, and social instincts trained by segregation to resist outside interference from Yankee do-gooders and intrusive Big Government. As adherents of this ideology purchased homes, built businesses, sent their children to school, looked for recreational opportunities, and helped their entrepreneurial pastors build large churches and then mega-churches, the traits of their Southern plain-folk religion became the nutritive medium for political mobilization.
Already in the 1930s, early Southern immigrants patronized a California movement known as “Ham and Eggs” that advocated a scheme for income assistance related to Huey Long’s famous “Share the Wealth” in Louisiana. It drew most of its support from Southerners who looked upon relief as hands-off assistance to individuals. Supporters of Ham and Eggs were also mostly Democrats, but of the local Southern sort instead of the big-government Northern variety.
Immediately after World War II, a perfect storm of threatening initiatives stimulated extensive counter-measures. When, in 1946, the CIO backed Proposition 11 on the California ballot to outlaw racial discrimination in hiring; and when it mounted its Operation Dixie program to unionize workers in the South: and when in the same year new laws were proposed to ban restrictive housing covenants in Pasadena, Glendale, Eagle Rock, and other southern California communities; and when these reforms received strong support from leaders of the liberal Federal Council of Churches and key members of the Roman Catholic hierarchy; and when it looked like these moves were coordinated by the same forces that had supported world government at the founding of the United Nations in San Francisco only the year before—it was then that the New Christian Right was born.
Leadership in opposing these moves came overwhelmingly from the residents who had been enjoying California’s economic opportunities long enough to have a real stake in local development but not long enough to have cut ties with family, church, and friends in Oklahoma, Arkansas, Texas, and Louisiana. For their opposition to flourish, California’s distinctive political climate was crucial. It favored grassroots organizations that could put individual propositions on the ballot for statewide vote; it encouraged exurban instead of urban centers of power; and it was geared to the rapidly shifting dynamics of postwar population and economic growth.
Early opposition to postwar labor and housing reforms was led by local operatives who called Gerald L.K. Smith back from Detroit to help. In the 1930s, the ardently anti-communist Smith had been a featured speaker at Ham and Eggs rallies. Now he led larger rallies under the banner of his “Christian Nationalist Crusade” at which he garnered subscribers for his magazine, The Cross and the Flag. And Smith was far from alone in joining themes of home rule and home-owners’ rights to anti-communism and the gospel.
The roster of key organizers who appear in Dochuk’s book as the true founders of conservative Christian politics is lengthy. It includes pastors such as Tennessee-born Bob Shuler, who from early in the century had made Los Angeles’s Trinity Methodist Church a beacon of Christian evangelism and right-wing populism, and Texas-born J. Vernon McGee, who did the same at Los Angeles’s Church of the Open Door from 1949. Christian businessmen also played central roles. George S. Benson, Oklahoma-reared and a missionary to China with first-hand experience of Maoist atrocities in the 1930s, was president of Harding College (Church of Christ) in Arkansas, but also the convener of influential seminars in California on business, politics, and faith. George Pepperdine, the Kansas-born founder of the Western Auto franchise, devoted his wealth, strong Church of Christ convictions, and deep commitment to a hands-off free enterprise system to founding a Los Angeles university that bore his name and perpetuated his beliefs.
Somewhat later the same networks came to include Bill Bright, the Oklahoma-born founder of Campus Crusade for Christ who tried to keep his religious and political activities separate, but did not always succeed. Pastor Bob Wells, born in Alabama and a young colleague of John R. Rice at the latter’s Sword of the Lord, came to Orange County in the mid-1950s and established the popular Central Baptist Church that made no excuse for combining fundamentalist faith and right-wing political advocacy. The singer Pat Boone, Tennessee-born and a dedicated member of Church of Christ congregations, was the best-known representative of California’s entertainment industry, before Ronald Reagan, to evangelize for conservative politics. A still different role was played by Demos Shakarian, whose family had come to Los Angeles from Armenia and became wealthy as dairy farmers. In 1951, Shakarian organized the Full Gospel Business Men’s Fellowship, which began as a vehicle for camaraderie among Pentecostal and charismatic businessmen but then broadened to take in a wider variety of believers who sometimes blurred the line between Christian fellowship and political networking.
Two themes are most important in Dochuk’s lively book. The first is the ideological synergy that Dochuk describes as Jefferson (and the principles of a government-averse yeomanry) in league with Jesus (and the principles of a God-offered salvation). The second is the California setting where voterregistration drives, fund-raising for the purposes of lobbying, incumbents targeted for defeat, interest-group advocacy on statewide referenda, and many other practical political strategies were a taken-for-granted fact of life decades before Jerry Falwell or Francis Schaeffer had even thought about Christian political action.
Dochuk’s revisionist account is strengthened by its nuance. He never contends that California was the whole story. Billy Graham’s famous evangelistic crusade in 1949, as one instance, strengthened ties between California’s conservative Protestants and evangelicals elsewhere in the country. Dochuk also recognizes that some political events touched religion only indirectly. Thus, the Senate election of 1950, in which Richard Nixon rode anti-communist attacks to victory, is important for the larger story mostly because it solidified the move of erstwhile Southern Democrats into the right-wing of the Republican Party. Perhaps most importantly, Dochuk also demonstrates that the California experience significantly modified certain aspects of the Southern plain-folk worldview. He is especially convincing that over time explicit racism gradually faded as a primary component of California’s conservative Protestants. But he is also persuasive that the anti-government ideology and pro-local entrepreneurialism that always accompanied Southern white racism did not fade away.
There is much more, as Dochuk continues the story from postwar mobilization to the emergence of Ronald Reagan on the national stage. Along the way he explains how the John Birch Society moved from pivotal to peripheral, how Reagan could become the champion of pro-life Christian conservatives despite approving pro-choice measures during his tenure as California’s governor, how a few African Americans such as Pastor E.V. Hill of Mount Zion Missionary Baptist Church in Los Angeles aided conservative causes, how in the 1960s the destructive Watts riot and the Berkeley free speech movement worked to legitimate conservative political demands, and how the governorship of Edmund G. “Pat” Brown along with the early stages of his son Jerry Brown’s political career responded to evangelical conservatives.
From Bible Belt to Sunbelt is an important book. It is also a perfect complement to Daniel Williams’s national survey in God’s Own Party. Yet neither of these writers carries out the moral evaluation that, especially in tandem, their volumes make possible.
Such an evaluation needs to begin by recognizing that the singularly American merger of Jesus and Jefferson flowed through channels defined by a particular history. The evangelical political conservatism of the recent American past can be traced to the era after the Civil War, when white evangelicals turned away from social involvement and, especially in the South, accepted a racist ordering of society. It moved from latently political to actively political in a postwar era marked by governmentinspired economic growth, unprecedented demographic mobility, apocalyptic anti-communist ideology, near universal acceptance of civil rights for African Americans, and much social experimentation with gender, sex, and family order. When the political mobilization occurred that Dochuk studies in its origin and Williams in its fruition, its character reflected these postwar developments as well as a longer evangelical history.
The merger of Jesus and Jefferson that propelled the New Christian Right was neither made in heaven, as in the eyes of its proponents, nor was it a cynical exercise in hypocritical self-interest, as often portrayed by its opponents. It was rather a historically constructed contingency that, judged from a broad Christian perspective, deserves to be both applauded and denounced.
It can be approved in classical Christian terms for trying to protect the lives of unborn innocents, but criticized for not seeing the need to mobilize on behalf of other weak and marginalized members of society, such as those who are trapped in urban ghettos. It can be praised for efforts at protecting families from the ravages of modern sexual and gender revolutions, but criticized for not acknowledging the stress placed upon families by postwar economic growth, 24/7 advertising, and runaway consumption. It can be praised for standing firm against atheistic communism, but criticized for treating the complex realities of the modern political world as a Manichean cartoon. It can be praised for insisting on personal responsibility in the face of Big Labor and Big Government, but also criticized for not exercising the same vigilance with respect to Big Finance, Big Insurance, and Big Business.
Above all, both books make abundantly clear that, in the recent United States, evangelical conservative politics has been a movement without a philosophy. The great irony of Dochuk’s story is that the jobs that drew practitioners of Southern plain-folk religion to California—and that enabled them to become advocates for local rights opposing dictates from Washington—were either created directly by government action or facilitated by government subsidies to oil, gas, aerospace, and defense industries. Yet to deal with such complexities—to bring together solidly grounded conceptions of government, employment, education, capitalism, race, history, world affairs, and even Christianity into practical political action—requires political philosophy of the sort that American evangelicals have never possessed. Theirs is not the tradition of Rerum Novarum, Quadragesimo Anno, or Mater et Magistra. It is instead the tradition of Charles G. Finney, who in the 1830s declared that the problem of slavery could be resolved “in three years’ time” if only slaveholders would recognize that slaveholding was a sin. It is the lineage of Billy Sunday, who in 1919 predicted that Prohibition would empty American prisons and transform the country into a heaven on earth.
The flourishing of conservative evangelical politics in recent American history has done considerable good through the exercise of instinct, anger, energy, and zeal. It would have done much more good, and also drawn nearer to the Christianity by which it is named, if it had manifested comparable wisdom, honesty, self-criticism, and discernment.
Mark A. Noll teaches history at the University of Notre Dame and is the author of God and Race in American Politics: A Short History (Princeton University Press). This article originally ran in the June 9, 2011, issue of the magazine.
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