Review: God's Own Party
Daniel K. Williams. God's Own Party: The Making of the Christian Right. New York: Oxford University Press, 2010. 372 pp. ISBN 9780195340846.
Several historians seeking to understand the origins of the Religious Right have taken pains of late to contest the conventional wisdom that America’s evangelicals largely retreated from American society—and politics—following the Scopes trial in 1925. This interpretation (which I and others have advanced) asserts that evangelicals burrowed into a subculture of their own making before emerging once again in the mid-1970s as a cultural and political force. In From Bible Belt to Sun Belt: Plain-folk Religion, Grassroots Politics, and the Rise of Evangelical Conservatism, for instance, Darren Dochuk argues that southern California functioned as a kind of Petri dish for right-wing politics, especially among those who had migrated West from what he calls the “western South” in the 1940s and 1950s.
In God’s Own Party: The Making of the Christian Right, Daniel K. Williams, from the University of West Georgia, similarly argues that evangelicals were hardly quiescent during the middle decades of the twentieth century. “Conservative Christians had been politically active since the early twentieth century, and they never retreated from the public square,” Williams contends. “Evangelicals gained prominence during Ronald Reagan’s campaign not because they were speaking out on political issues—they had been doing that for decades—but because they were taking over the Republican Party” (2).
The author’s evidence for this claim is the formation of the National Association of Evangelicals in 1942 as well as the growing compatibility between evangelicals and the Republican Party in the 1950s and 1960s, especially their shared commitment to anticommunism. By the late 1960s, Williams says, evangelicals found further compatibility with the Republicans on social issues: opposition to abortion, feminism, pornography, and gay rights. Indeed, Billy Graham’s friendship with Richard Nixon, beginning in 1950, symbolized unity against communism, and the conservative takeover of the Southern Baptist Convention in 1979 provided heft to the Religious Right. Williams makes the compelling point that evangelical leaders in the South had used opposition to the 1954 Brown v. Board of Education decision as a rallying cry, but the “end of the civil rights movement facilitated the formation of a new Christian political coalition, because it enabled fundamentalists and evangelicals who had disagreed over racial integration to come together” (6).
There is much to commend this argument, not least the author’s prodigious research. But I wonder if he overestimates the influence of the National Association of Evangelicals, especially on politics. Williams asserts several times that the election of John F. Kennedy in 1960 caused evangelicals “to lose their influence in Washington, and an alliance with conservative Republicans seemed to offer a way to recapture it” (62). But we learn precious little about what evangelicals’ supposed influence had won during the previous decade. True, Graham strutted about the White House and offered diplomatic and political advice to Nixon and Dwight Eisenhower, but did evangelicals exercise any real political mojo? Williams cites the insertion of “under God” into the Pledge of Allegiance and the motto “In God We Trust” on the nation’s currency and coinage in 1954. Well, okay, but does that really bespeak evangelical influence, or can it more nearly be attributed to civil religion and cold war passions? The impetus for “under God” in the Pledge, after all, came not from the National Association of Evangelicals but from the Knights of Columbus, an organization not noted for its evangelical sympathies.
Williams also, in my judgment, reads far too much into the antics of outliers like Carl McIntire, John R. Rice, Bob Jones Jr., and “Fighting Bob” Shuler. These are colorful characters, to be sure, but to infer that they represented much more than themselves and small bands of followers gives them far too much credit.
God’s Own Party suffers from questionable characterizations and assertions. Williams identifies John Kennedy, a cold warrior reluctant to cast his lot with the civil rights movement, as a “liberal,” for instance, a label that historians would dispute. Too often the author conflates evangelicals with fundamentalists, and he places the evangelical embrace of premillennialism in the 1930s, about half a century too late. Williams also identifies Joseph Lieberman as an Orthodox Jew (“observant,” not Orthodox) and Harold Hughes, Democratic senator from Iowa, as a Republican. (Having lived in Iowa during Hughes’s remarkable and distinguished political career, I can attest in no uncertain terms that he was not a Republican; if he were still alive, Hughes might very well sue for libel!) Taken singly, none of these errors is egregious; the cumulative effect, however, gives the reader occasion to question the author’s judgment.
In some cases, the juxtapositions are odd, even contradictory. In the course of pointing out (correctly) that evangelicals were ambivalent at best about abortion, Williams recounts a gathering of evangelicals in August 1968 and a follow-up article in Christianity Today that offered no consensus on opposition to abortion. In the opening sentence of the following paragraph, however, Williams asserts that “northern evangelicals strengthened their opposition to the procedure” (114, italics added). A couple of pages later, Williams quotes W. A. Criswell’s endorsement of the Roe v. Wade decision. Later in the narrative, Williams recounts what was arguably the turning point in the 1980 campaign, the National Affairs Briefing, the evangelical political rally in Dallas where Ronald Reagan famously declared, “I know that you can’t endorse me, but I want you to know that I endorse you and what you are doing.” The author immediately goes on to say that “no one had equaled Reagan in speaking out about abortion,” but he fails to note that in Reagan’s speech to fifteen thousand evangelicals, a peroration laced with lamentations about America’s moral decay, Reagan did not include abortion in his laundry list of iniquities (187).
What I find most curious about Williams’s thesis is that his own evidence very often contradicts it. The author points out, for example, that evangelicals by and large—Graham excepted—did not protest the school-prayer rulings of the early 1960s. In fact, such venerable evangelical publications as Eternity, Moody Monthly, and Christianity Today applauded the decisions, and “most evangelical leaders decided that the Court had acted wisely in putting an end to a tradition that violated the Constitution’s establishment clause” (67). So what provided the catalyst for the Religious Right? I surmise that, having already ruled out school prayer and the Roe decision, Williams is left with the somewhat nebulous argument that it had been there all along, since the 1930s and 1940s, albeit in nascent form, only to spring to life in the late 1970s in opposition to gay rights and Jimmy Carter.
This “sleeper cell” thesis, however, lacks nuance, and it fails to explain fully—or even in part, for that matter—the conundrum of evangelicals’ opposition to Carter, one of their own. Williams’s selective use of evidence, moreover, leaves the impression of inevitability, that—of course!—evangelicals would align themselves with the hard right.
Not so fast. What does Williams do with left-leaning evangelicals and, more specifically, with the Chicago Declaration of Evangelical Social Concern, crafted and signed by fifty-five prominent evangelicals in November 1973? This statement contained blistering condemnations of racism, militarism, capitalism, and sexism—all from an evangelical theological perspective. While no one would argue that these sentiments represented a majority of evangelicals, the mere existence of such a statement suggests something short of a consensus on conservative politics. Although Williams mentions Jim Wallis several times, he neglects the Chicago Declaration altogether.
Paradoxically, when Williams treads close to the true source of the Religious Right—the 1971 Green v. Connolly decision that led to the rescission of tax-exempt status at “segregation academies” and places like Bob Jones University—he stumbles. The author dates evangelical resistance to the Internal Revenue Service to 1978, whereas Bob Jones University, after years of warnings, lost its tax exemption on January 19, 1976—which Paul Weyrich and the apparatchiks of the Religious Right tried to pin on Carter, even though Carter was only beginning his quest for the Democratic nomination in January 1976. (Carter, in fact, won the Iowa precinct caucuses the same day that Bob Jones University lost its tax exemption.)
Williams is on steadier ground in recounting the fortunes of the Religious Right in the years since 1980, from Ralph Reed’s “body bag” tactics and Pat Robertson’s quixotic bid for the Republican presidential nomination in 1988 to George W. Bush’s declaration that Jesus was his favorite political philosopher. But that is more familiar terrain, and it does little to shore up the author’s sagging thesis about evangelical political influence in the middle decades of the twentieth century.
By now I suspect it’s clear that I’m less than persuaded by Williams’s argument, although I readily acknowledge that my resistance is based not only on my own research but on reminiscences from the 1950s and 1960s. In the evangelical world I inhabited in the middle decades of the twentieth century, the National Association of Evangelicals was toothless and little more than symbolic. Politics was considered “worldly” and not all that important because of our premillennial convictions: If Jesus will return at any moment, why bother with social amelioration? To make his case, Williams would have to demonstrate that characters like McIntire, Shuler, and Rice amounted to anything more than the cranks—part risible, part embarrassing—that we knew them to be.
Yes, evangelicals did retreat from the public square following the Scopes trial of 1925 or thereabouts; neither Williams nor Dochuk has persuaded me otherwise. Evangelicals spent the middle decades of the twentieth century constructing their own institutions—congregations, denominations, Bible camps, Bible institutes, Christian colleges, seminaries, missionary societies, publishing houses—institutions that finally, by the mid-1970s, were mature enough to provide a foundation for an evangelical return to public life. The interesting, and still largely untold, part of the story is why they chose that moment, how they discarded premillennialism to do so, and why they turned so rapidly—and rabidly—against Jimmy Carter, their fellow evangelical.
And once that story is told, an even larger one awaits: How a movement notable in the antebellum period for its concern for those on the margins of society, those Jesus called “the least of these,” mutated into an engine for the hard right.