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.

Saturday, December 18, 2010

God's Own Party: Interview with Daniel K. Williams, Part 1

Baldblogger presents part 1 of an interview with Dan Williams, author of the recently published God’s Own Party: The Making of the Christian Right (Oxford University Press, 2010).

There are posts on his book over at Religion in American History (here and here), and John Fea at The Way of Improvement Leads home offers his take here. There's also a great audio interview at Barry Lynn's site Culture Shocks. Dan is an assistant professor of history at the University of West Georgia.


Baldblogger (BB): God’s Own Party maintains that in order to understand evangelical political ascendancy vis-à-vis the 1980 presidential election, one must begin by examining the culture wars of the 1920s. Briefly connect the dots for us. Why is it important to consider this historical trajectory in order to understand evangelical Christianity and modern Republican politics? Does this perhaps help to explain your choice of subtitle—The Making of the Christian Right—as opposed to The Making of the Religious Right?

Dan Williams (DW): The contemporary Christian Right subscribes to a particular view of the relationship between Christianity and the public sphere that can be traced back to the fundamentalist movement of the early twentieth century. Fundamentalists of the 1920s believed that secular influences threatened the nation’s Christian identity, and that if Christians did not enter the political arena to defend the nation’s Christian values, the nation would face divine judgment and possible destruction. The conservative evangelicals who formed the modern Christian Right in the late twentieth century held this same view of America’s unique religious identity and the necessity of preserving the nation’s Christian values by fighting secular influences through politics. The culture wars of the late twentieth century were thus very similar to the culture wars of the 1920s.

Even some of the particular issues at stake in those culture wars were similar. Fundamentalists of the 1920s were concerned about sexual licentiousness, changes in gender roles, the state of the family, and the secularization of public education. Evangelicals in the 1970s and 1980s were concerned about these same issues. That’s not surprising, because late-twentieth-century American conservative evangelicalism was a direct theological descendent of early-twentieth-century fundamentalism. In fact, many of the conservative evangelical leaders of the late twentieth century had parents who had called themselves “fundamentalists” and had identified with the fundamentalist movement of the 1920s. Some had even worn that label themselves before exchanging it for the less pejorative term “evangelical.”

My book traces the story of evangelical political activism from the early twentieth century to the present, because the Christian Right is deeply rooted in the evangelical politics of the previous three generations. I think that some studies of the Christian Right have underestimated the connections between late-twentieth-century evangelical politics and those of an earlier era, but I think that one contribution that a historian can make to this discussion is to trace that political lineage.

Media reports of evangelical political activism in the 1980s commonly used the term “Religious Right” to refer to the movement, as though it were generically or ecumenically religious rather than distinctively Christian. During the 1990s, the phrase “Christian Right” became more common, perhaps because of the use of the term “Christian” in the most prominent Religious Right organization of the decade, the Christian Coalition. Today both terms are commonly used.

In my view, the term “Christian Right” is a more accurate descriptor, because the movement’s theology and worldview have always been distinctively Christian. Nearly all of the movement’s leaders have been evangelical Christians. Although a few Orthodox Jews and a number of conservative Catholics support some of the Christian Right’s goals, the movement’s leadership has always come from a rather narrow range of evangelical Christian denominations. And the movement’s history can be understood only in the context of the history of twentieth-century conservative Christianity, especially evangelical Protestantism.

BB: Can you briefly discuss pertinent moments in the history of the Christian Right where gender and race (either separately or together) figured (and/or figure) into this movement?

DW: The divisions between fundamentalists and evangelicals over race and civil rights prevented a unified, politically influential Christian Right from forming in the 1950s and 1960s. Although fundamentalists such as Jerry Falwell, Bob Jones, Jr., John R. Rice, and Billy James Hargis were becoming increasingly active in conservative politics at the same time that mainstream evangelicals such as Billy Graham were, the two groups were at odds over racial desegregation. In 1964, fundamentalists mobilized on behalf of Republican presidential candidate Barry Goldwater, who opposed President Lyndon Johnson’s Civil Rights Act, but many evangelicals supported Johnson.

Fundamentalists and evangelicals did not come together on issues of race until the end of the 1960s. At that point, fundamentalists were ready to abandon their defense of segregation, while evangelicals who were upset by urban race riots were ready to distance themselves from the civil rights legislation in the interest of maintaining “law and order.” Both groups united in support of Richard Nixon.

Race was thus a factor in delaying the formation of the Christian Right, but when the Christian Right mobilized, its leaders claimed to be completely racially tolerant. However, the presence of former segregationists, such as Jerry Falwell, in prominent positions of leadership in the movement alienated many African Americans. The Christian Right found it very difficult to reach out to non-whites, despite the efforts of Falwell, Ralph Reed, and others to do so.

If the Christian Right took steps to portray itself as racially tolerant and distance itself from its segregationist past, it made no apologies for its conservative record on gender issues. The culture wars of the 1970s largely revolved around issues of gender or sexuality, and the fight against the Equal Rights Amendment was one of the movement’s earliest political causes. In the battle against the ERA, conservative evangelical women united with conservative Catholics to oppose feminism and protect traditional gender roles. Women played a leading role in mobilizing the Christian Right, but they did so as defenders of a “separate spheres” ideology of gender roles that was directly opposed to the gender egalitarianism of feminists and cultural liberals.

BB: Integral to understanding the history of the Christian Right is the fascinating history of communication styles and communication technologies of the 20th and 21st century. How did (and do) evangelicals and partisans of the Christian Right use print culture and visual culture—and in our own times social networking technology—to present their message, attract new followers, and in general attempt to impact American society?

DW: In the 1950s, politically active fundamentalists and evangelicals were masters of the use of radio and television. Jerry Falwell’s success on television, first in his own community and then nationwide, was one of the primary reasons for the rapid growth of his church and his fundraising ability. Fundamentalist radio broadcasters of the 1950s spread an anticommunist political message on hundreds of stations throughout the South and Midwest. Magazines also played a central role in spreading the gospel of political conservatism. Christianity Today promoted a moderately conservative Republican brand of politics among evangelicals, while the Sword of the Lord championed a more overtly right-wing political ideology among fundamentalists.

In the 1970s, televangelism and, to an even greater extent, direct mail, gave pastors such as Falwell a national political platform that they had never had before. Computer-generated direct mail allowed them to mobilize followers and raise money on an unprecedented scale. By the end of the 1970s, Falwell was raising more money per year than the Republican National Committee.
Evangelicals were also masters of the printed word. The bestselling nonfiction book of the 1970s was not The Joy of Sex, Roots, or All the President’s Men, but was instead Hal Lindsey’s The Late, Great Planet Earth. James Dobson became a household name among evangelicals primarily through his books, which sold millions of copies, and his radio program Focus on the Family, and he then used his national reputation as an author and Christian radio show host to become an influential political lobbyist. Francis Schaeffer was another bestselling evangelical author of the 1970s who used his books to shape evangelicals’ political thinking. In more recent years, Tim LaHaye, a former board member of the Moral Majority, has done the same with his Left Behind series of novels about the end-times.

BB: In your account of the history of the Christian Right, the 1990s seems to be an important and somewhat overlooked decade. How does the history of the Christian Right in the 1990s explain the making and unmaking of George W. Bush?

DW: During the 1990s, the Christian Right became far more effective at legislative lobbying than it had been before. Most of its gains in that decade came through the success of Ralph Reed’s Christian Coalition. Before Reed and Pat Robertson formed the Christian Coalition in 1989, the Religious Right had received a lot of national publicity, but it had not had much success in influencing Congress, getting legislation passed, or even reshaping the Republican Party. Reed was determined to change that. Instead of seeking a national stage, as Falwell had done, he worked quietly at the local level to move state Republican parties to the right. By the mid-1990s, the Christian Coalition controlled more than one-third of the state Republican parties in the nation.

Reed then used that influence to elect social conservatives to Congress. By the late 1990s, congressional Republicans were far more conservative on social issues than they had been a decade earlier, and the GOP was becoming the party of the Christian Right. But this was not enough to ensure the success of the Christian Right’s agenda. When Congress passed a Partial-Birth Abortion Ban, President Bill Clinton vetoed it, and when conservatives in Congress impeached Clinton, he survived the attempt to remove him from office. Christian conservatives ended the decade frustrated, but more determined than ever to elect one of their own to the White House.

Several Christian Right leaders considered George W. Bush the perfect candidate. He was a born-again believer who read his Bible every day and was not shy about praying in public. He seemed to have a genuine opposition to abortion. He also had the name recognition and connection with business leaders and economic conservatives to allow him to win the nomination. In other words, he was not Pat Robertson or Gary Bauer, evangelical candidates who never had a serious chance of becoming president.

Eventually, though, many evangelicals became frustrated with Bush when they felt that he was not following through on his promises to them during his second term in office. Although Bush did give evangelicals the Partial-Birth Abortion Ban that they had long sought, his administration was not able to deliver most of the other items that they wanted, including a Defense of Marriage amendment to the Constitution. Evangelicals discovered that even when the White House and both houses of Congress were in their hands, they could not change the cultural direction of the nation. Politics alone could not curb the nation’s growing acceptance of gay rights, for instance.

Wednesday, December 15, 2010

W.E.B. on the Web

About a year ago, I conducted an interview with the eminent historian Gerald Horne about his new biography of W.E.B. Du Bois. Read part 1 of that interview here, and part 2 here.

In recent weeks the magazine Political Affairs has interviewed Horne as well. Part of the interview comes as a podcast, with the full interview, "W.E.B. Du Bois in Global Contexts," available here. This interview of course highlights Du Bois's politics, but Horne also discusses Du Bois's international, Pan-African vision of the world.