Wednesday, December 29, 2010

God's Own Party: Interview with Daniel K. Williams, Part 2

BB: You are one of a number of scholars writing about the Christian Right, thoughtfully archiving and critically reflecting on its history (and in many ways what is happening currently). For interested readers, how do you situate your work alongside other scholars of the Christian Right?

DW: Most of the other studies of the Christian Right that have been published recently (or that will soon appear in print) are narrower in scope than my work. Darren Dochuk has produced a highly insightful study of evangelical political mobilization in California during the postwar era, and Steven Miller has published an excellent study of Billy Graham’s role in creating a Republican South. Other scholars have studied the Cold War’s influence on the Christian Right, the place of megachurch pastors in contemporary political culture, or gender issues in conservative evangelicalism, among other topics. Many of those studies are excellent resources, and I think that readers who are interested in the topic may find it helpful to read those works alongside mine. I am certainly the beneficiary of a larger trend in the profession that is giving new attention to political conservatism and religion in postwar America. I have gained a lot of insights from conversations with other scholars in the field and from the works that they have produced. I look forward to more studies of conservative evangelicalism from emerging scholars in the field during the next few years. But most of these studies do not offer the breadth that my survey of the movement does (nor do they claim to do so).

My work is the most comprehensive, broadly based narrative history of the Christian Right currently in print. As a result, I think that my work highlights connections, long-term trends, religious nuances, and diversity within the movement that previous studies may have overlooked. One of the central themes of my book is that the contemporary Christian Right has deep historical roots. It did not emerge merely as a reaction to the cultural shifts of the 1970s. Instead, its success depended on alliances with the Republican Party and religious developments that had started decades earlier. In order to understand the Christian Right, one must understand something about the fundamentalist movement of the 1920s, the impact of World War II and the Cold War on conservative Protestants, and the division – and then reconciliation – between fundamentalists and evangelicals in the 1950s, as well as shifts in their understandings of race, gender roles, and the place of Catholics in the nation. I think that my work provides this.

I also emphasize the partisan history of the movement to a greater degree than most other scholars do. A central theme of the book is the argument that the Christian Right’s success depended on its alliance with the Republican Party, so the story of the Christian Right is essentially the story of the making of this alliance. Thus, my book draws on the archives of presidential libraries and evangelical publications to trace the development of this partisan alliance in much greater detail than most other works on the Christian Right do.

BB: As one who has studied the Christian Right for a decade a more, you are in a unique position to consider claims that the Religious Right is in decline, or perhaps dead (due to the 2006 midterms, and the 2008 election of Barack Obama). Yet as you point out in the closing chapter of God’s Own Party, evangelicals like Rick Warren maintain conservative theological positions but embrace a kind of social gospel that allows activist collaboration across party lines. At the same time, the emergence of Sarah Palin as a national political figure (and celebrity) of the Christian Right suggests a possible return to the combative style of recent Christian Right politicians. Given the long history of the Christian Right, how do you assess these assertions? In this regard, what might the 2010 midterm elections portend for the future?

DW: Few political movements have been pronounced dead as many times as the Christian Right has. And few have experienced so many unexpected resurrections. Pundits proclaimed the Religious Right dead at the end of 1982, after the Moral Majority was unable to prevent Democratic victories in the midterm elections. They said the same thing in 1989, when Pat Robertson’s lack of success in the Republican Party presidential primaries, the collapse of Jerry Falwell’s Moral Majority, and the high-profile scandals of several leading televangelists left the Christian Right temporarily leaderless. But on both occasions, the pundits who proclaimed the end of the Religious Right were surprised to see it emerge with even greater strength than it had had earlier. Ralph Reed’s success with the Christian Coalition in the 1990s put to rest any notion that the Christian Right was in decline. Similarly, when the Christian Coalition faded from the scene, Focus on the Family and other organizations quickly stepped into the void. I argue that the cultural polarization that led to the Christian Right’s emergence will assure its longevity even in the absence of national leaders. Christian Right organizations will come and go, but the cultural polarization that produced the movement is not likely to end anytime soon.

Nor are evangelicals likely to leave the Republican Party in the immediate future, despite some pundits’ assertions to the contrary. Despite an unprecedented outreach to evangelicals on the part of the Democrats, approximately 73 percent of white evangelical voters – and an even higher percentage of those in the South – voted for John McCain in 2008. Conservative evangelicals have invested too much in the Republican Party to leave it, and Democrats have not yet found a way to appeal to more than a minority of evangelicals. Even among evangelical voters under the age of 30 – the ones that the Obama campaign thought it had the greatest chance of reaching – approximately two-thirds voted Republican in 2008.

I do think, though, that we may see a shift in political style. While many younger evangelicals are still politically conservative, they have less patience for the strident culture war rhetoric associated with an older generation of Christian Right activists, such as Pat Robertson and James Dobson. Rick Warren may represent a new type of conservative evangelical leader. Warren tries to downplay his partisan preferences and avoid overt politicking, yet he is still strongly opposed to abortion and same-sex marriage, and he has not been afraid to take those beliefs into the political realm.

BB: What projects currently occupy your time? What might interested readers expect from the pen of Dan Williams in the future?

DW: My next book project will be a comprehensive history of the pro-life movement from the early 1960s to the present. I plan to discuss how and why the movement organized, who its leaders and activists were, and why the movement was able to achieve some degree of success in transforming the nation’s political debates and shifting Americans’ opinions on abortion even though the pro-life movement itself was often plagued with bitter internal divisions. I will discuss why pro-lifers ultimately mobilized on the right despite their early efforts to win the support of liberal Democrats, and why their relationship with conservative politics has often been uneasy. I also plan to analyze the divisions in the movement between Catholics and Protestants or between moderates and radicals, and how those debates have affected the movement’s history. Most of all, I want to examine the pro-life movement on its own terms, as a self-perceived struggle for human rights. Previous studies of the movement have often portrayed the debate over abortion primarily as a gender issue, and as a result, I think that they have overlooked key aspects of the pro-life movement that are critical to understanding its full history. As the first comprehensive scholarly history of the movement, my book will break new ground in this area.

I am also co-editing (with Laura Jane Gifford) a book on conservatism in the 1960s. Our anthology will present the latest scholarship on the transformations in the conservative movement that occurred during that decade. Our focus will be on local and transnational trends that have previously been overlooked in the focus on movement leaders. Instead of focusing on National Review or the leaders of the Republican Party, we want to examine what sorority members on southern college campuses or working-class women in Boston were doing during the 1960s that led them to abandon their Democratic Party heritage and embrace the party of Richard Nixon and Ronald Reagan.


Dan Bryan said...

Very good interview.

I would love to increase my knowledge of the Christian right in the 1970s and 1980s, and perhaps write some content about it. It looks like this book could be a very good resource for doing so.

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