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.
Daniel Williams could not have timed it any better. Not only has he written a wonderfully thorough account of the Christian Right, but he has delivered it at a moment when scholars and pundits, weary from ongoing political happenings (see Tea Party, Michelle Bachmann, the debt debate), have wondered aloud whether Washington will ever be free of the pulpit and the pew. It is unlikely, he says. Not much changed in the twentieth century and probably little will change in the twenty-first. Just as it was in Hoover’s day, so it has been in Bush’s and Obama’s: millions of Americans who look to scripture and their sacred leaders when measuring their political convictions still insist that God needs to be heard on Capitol Hill and that the GOP is his best messenger.
Williams’s book is more than an exercise in opportunism, though; it is also a bright example of sound methodology, clear and concise prose, and rigorous analysis. Based on years of painstaking research in a multitude of periodicals, personal and political papers, and organizational records, God’s Own Party effectively transports the reader through time, charting the development of Christian right-wing activism over the course of ninety years. Bucking trends, which typically locate the roots of this activism in the 1960s or 1970s, Williams carves out a more ambitious path by beginning in the 1920s. It was during the Roaring Twenties, he writes, when those who felt besieged by the forces of secularism first “committed to the idea of a Christian nation with a Protestant-based moral code” and politics as the way “to realize that vision” (2). Bombarded by new secular past-times—jazz, gin, the bob cut—evangelicals “decided to fight back,” and though fractured by partisan divides, they began reshaping the political landscape by championing the prohibition of alcohol and evolutionary theory and countering liberal trends on a national scale.
Skimming across the surface of these developments in five pages, Williams employs the next 260 to unpack the two stages of sophisticated political mobilization evangelicalism undertook after its breakout moment. The first of these transpired during the 1940s and 1950s, when evangelicals used ecumenical organizations like the National Association of Evangelicals (NAE) and anti-communist activism to leverage a relationship with the GOP. “By the early 1950s,” Williams argues, “the NAE had so closely aligned its anticommunist campaign with the GOP that it was sometimes difficult to distinguish between the statements of evangelical ministers and those of the Republican politicians they supported” (21). Anticommunism was thus the glue that brought evangelicals of all regional, denominational, and partisan heritages closer together and closer to the GOP—and a new crop of culturally aware preachers like Billy Graham were the primary architects of this arrangement. While leaving plenty of room in his narrative for the barnstorming anti-communist crusaders of Billy James Hargis and Carl McIntire’s ilk, Williams isolates Graham and his ability to identify “Christianity with American ideals” and fashion a relationship with Dwight Eisenhower and Richard Nixon as the critical turn in evangelicalism’s political fortunes (24). Thanks to this collaboration, evangelicals had, by the end of the 1950s, “begun to think of the … Republican White House as an ally in a righteous cause” (31).
By no means did they enter the 1960s completely united in their political worldview, however. With great care, William describes the depths of animosity and tension that kept the infighting between separatist fundamentalists and centrist evangelicals at a healthy boil. Readers learn of a mounting “Fundamentalist Right,” fueled by southern separatists, which took harder-edged, confrontational stands against communism, Catholicism, and civil rights, placing it at odds with the “Evangelical Right” of Graham’s cohort. As Williams shows, fundamentalists thrived in a Cold War atmosphere of fear, where strong rhetoric ruled the day. But this is precisely what prevented them from realizing a prosperous future. On one hand, their belligerence relegated them “to the margins of American political life” (48). External political circumstances, on the other, dulled their agenda. Politicians did not need to pay attention to fundamentalism’s voices of protest, Williams emphasizes, because they had little “legislative influence in Washington or among voters” (42). And so, for reasons within as well as beyond their control, fundamentalists lost the fight that Graham’s centrism won.
With increasingly rich detail, Williams shifts his narrative into the second stage of Christian Right politics, that which transpired between the late 1960s and 2000, when conservatives in Graham’s camp “succeeded not only in making alliances with Republican politicians, but in changing the agenda of the party” (3). They achieved this transformation by turning their attention to the culture wars, trimming their extremist edges regarding race and Catholicism, and constructing a “united front” against “feminism, abortion, pornography, and gay rights” (3). Through the 1970s, as legal developments in these areas seemed to undermine their Christian values, evangelicals mounted a grassroots counterassault in concert with national campaigns by Nixon, Jimmy Carter, and especially Ronald Reagan. While in California they fought school board battles to stop the teaching of sex education, in Texas and Virginia they helped outlaw textbooks that seemed too friendly to Darwin, Dewey, and the New Deal; while in Oklahoma and Louisiana they railed against the ERA, in Florida they rallied against gay rights. In the process, these Sunbelt “suburban warriors” shed some of their earlier prejudices, devised new strategies to mobilize an interdenominational army of activists against “secular humanist” influences in their communities and nation’s capital, and built an expansive network of organizations that could assist the larger conservative movement and the party of Nixon and Reagan. Williams follows a familiar path here, paved by earlier scholars like William Martin, but his analysis of the pre-1980s period is instructive and clearly informed by the latest in historical scholarship.
His assessment of the post-1980 period brings a greater payout. Indeed, God’s Own Party is at its strongest in its final three chapters, the thickest of the book. In them, Williams explores recent developments in evangelicalism’s Republican dispensation. Through a close read of the Reagan administration he accounts for Jerry Falwell and his follower’s mounting frustrations as they won a few symbolic victories on Capitol Hill but lost most everything else. “Religious conservatives cheered when Reagan proclaimed 1983 the ‘Year of the Bible,’” Williams notes, “But the Christian Right’s major goals remained elusive” (203). In order to achieve these goals, evangelical politicos began adopting other means. Displaying some of his most innovative research, Williams charts Ralph Reed’s recasting of Christian Right activism from an emphasis on presidential politics to a focus on precinct-level mobilization, congressional elections, and legislative drives. Reed was a tactician who shunned the spotlight for the surreptitious: “‘I want to be invisible,’” he proclaimed. “‘I do guerilla warfare. I paint my face and travel at night. You don’t know it’s over until you’re in a body bag. You don’t know until election night’” (230). Reed’s plan drew energy from the militancy of Randall Terry and Rousas John Rushdoony, leadership of James Dobson and Gary Bauer, and perceived threat of Bill Clinton’s presidency, all of which Williams covers in depth. This more savvy Christian coalition made swift strides, but ultimately overreached when trying to remove Clinton from office. Still, its momentum found an outlet in the presidency of George W. Bush, which proved to be evangelicals’ godsend. As Bush’s appointments “made his administration the most overtly evangelical in American history,” his testimonials made it abundantly clear that he was Christian to the core (252–253). Following the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, as Bush became a “wartime leader,” evangelicals from coast-to-coast thus openly anointed him “‘God’s man at this hour’” (255). With this, Williams concludes, evangelicalism’s decades-long march to power was fulfilled.
Of course the march continues, something Williams acknowledges in his epilogue, but his core initiative in writing his book was to have readers appreciate the Christian Right and GOP’s tangled history between 1920 and 2008. Williams achieves this goal. With encyclopedic range and a judicious tone he tracks all the major characters and developments through this long history, pausing at each pivot point to assess the paths pursued, taken, reconsidered, and denied. Along the way readers are reminded of some of the familiar components of this story, but also introduced to new angles: the vexing role of Vietnam in evangelicalism’s divided political consciousness, for instance, and evangelicals’ skillful rhetorical repositioning in the post-Reagan years as an embattled minority. To his credit, Williams never portrays the Christian Right’s march to power in straight-line terms; the movement he describes is plagued by fits and starts whose engagement with the political is characterized by compromise, negotiation, and contingency rather than complete assurance.
Readers will come away from God’s Own Party with a full view of evangelical politicization in the twentieth century, but also with a few lingering curiosities. Three stand out in particular, all of which grow out of Williams’s drive for comprehensiveness.
The first has to do with proportion. In tracking the story of the Christian Right back to the 1920s Williams offers a corrective to scholars’ shortsightedness, which limits the long view of evangelical political action. Yet in condensing his treatment of the pre-World War II period to just a few pages he essentially adopts the truncated narrative such troubling shortsightedness prescribes: namely, a story about some angry WASPs screeching against moral vices who, upon realizing their powerlessness, retreat into the shadows of “prophetic speculation” until reawakening as a political force in the postwar years (3). On one hand, this trajectory leaves readers wondering whether such haphazard politicking is worthy of being deemed the “origin” of such a formidable movement. If it is, what separates this dispensation of evangelical conservatism from earlier ones—during Billy Sunday’s or D. L. Moody’s heydays? On the other hand, it leaves readers wondering whether such cursory treatment glances over too much. Had Williams devoted more time and space to the interwar period, might he have unearthed and unpacked more substantial evidence of a politically charged, coordinated, and powerful evangelical citizenry that refused to retreat? Asked another way, much has been written lately about the religious politics stirred up by Aimee Semple McPherson, Huey Long, labor activists in Missouri and Mississippi, Bible-believing businessmen in Chicago and Los Angeles, and many others in their generation. Where do Williams’s subjects fall in this equation?
This first curiosity spawns a second, which has to do with perspective. Just as historians have done a splendid job of thickening our understanding of evangelical political awareness in the pre-World War II period, they’ve also done a first-rate job of incorporating other key actors in the story of modern conservatism and the Republican Right. In an effort to keep his tale intact and in sync with broad, national trends, Williams focuses mainly on preachers, who played on their parishioners’ heartstrings when sparking political change. But what about those who played on parishioners’ pocketbook concerns, or sustained the Christian Right’s momentum by way of monetary investment—businessmen and media moguls, industrialists and middle manager types, for instance—who worked behind the scenes? Williams mentions a few of these individuals in passing—Campus Crusade’s Bill Bright, for example—yet those who controlled the Christian Right’s purse strings are, by and large, relegated to the periphery. Yet, is this the proper balance? Do preachers deserve such foregrounding when they have been more of the face than the muscle of the evangelical Right?
Finally, and in a related way, Williams must-read history provokes questions about power and hegemony and the use of the label “Christian Right” itself. By outlining such a full account of evangelicalism’s rise to influence, capped by George W. Bush’s presidency, Williams leaves readers utterly convinced that the Republican Right is not merely welcoming of evangelical sensibilities, interests, and agendas but in fact beholden to them. Those who claim secular sympathies or fiscal priorities while still supporting something called a Republican Right seem now to be relegated to minority status at best. Recent trends connected to the Tea Party and GOP leadership race, in which evangelicals and evangelicalism are everywhere, leaving pundits befuddled, furthers Williams’s point, even as they beg for further investigation. Does the label “Christian Right,” which has always presumed a second-class status for evangelical conservatives, still hold as an effective moniker when surveying the current political landscape? Does it blur more than it clarifies? Likewise, as scholars dig deeper into the history of evangelical political activism since 1920, will the notion of a “Christian Right” hold up to scrutiny as a useful term? Or are we at a point when evangelicalism can no longer be cordoned off so easily as a political entity set apart, its history no longer told as merely an addendum to (rather than centerpiece of) the political development it has long dictated?
By steering an ambitious course, God’s Own Party has thus raised the possibility of much fruitful questioning and debate, even as it has already answered so many lingering queries and doubts. This is the ultimate proof of a book with impact.