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.
In 1996, sociologist William Martin published With God on Our Side, a book that became the definitive history the Religious Right. Fourteen years later, historian Daniel K. Williams has issued a formidable challenge to Martin’s place atop the scholarship on politically conservative evangelicals. Williams’s book, God’s Own Party: The Making of the Christian Right, will likely become the new standard overview of the Christian Right. To be sure, a good part of his book closely follows the trail Martin blazed a decade and a half ago, but with Williams’s interpretation the historian has clearly surpassed the sociologist in two key areas: breadth of sources and extended periodization.
Williams’s sources are exhaustive. In constructing his study, Williams has seemingly traversed the entire country to mine archival material scattered in libraries and special collections along both coasts as well as holdings in such out of the way places as Abilene, Kansas, and Laramie, Wyoming. The author also incorporates material from dozens of niche magazines and scores of local and national newspapers. Given the explosion of writing—both scholarly and popular—on the Religious Right in recent years, this book could have easily succumbed to incoherency brought on by a surfeit of sources. To his credit, Williams masterfully avoids this potential problem, keeping his narrative focused and tight while demonstrating a keen eye for useful quotes and telling anecdotes. Coming in at 276 crisply written pages (notes excluded), Williams’s book will almost certainly find its way into college classrooms for years to come.
The relative brevity of God’s Own Party is even more impressive considering the scope of Williams’s inquiry. Unlike most accounts of the Christian Right, Williams begins his study not in the Carter Seventies, but in the Coolidge Twenties. Indeed, repositioning the birth of the Christian Right in the era of William Jennings Bryan rather than the heyday of Francis Schaeffer represents the first of two major contributions of Williams’s scholarship. In this respect, Williams is challenging popular notions that evangelicalism’s love-affair with politics began with the election of Ronald Reagan in 1980. According to Williams, “[t]he reality is otherwise. Conservative Christians had been politically active since the early twentieth century, and they never retreated from the public square” (2). Williams shows that the preservation of a Christian America, a hallmark of the Christian Right in the present century, was of equal concern to politically active fundamentalists in the opening decades of the last century. As Williams describes it, Christian fundamentalists in the 1920s, much like their latter-day descendants, saw the declension of their society at every turn and fought against the perceived attacks on the family that came in such forms as the loosening of sexual mores, disregard of Prohibition and the teaching of evolution in public schools (14). Unlike their descendants at the century’s end, however, conservative Protestants in the 1920s ultimately failed to effectively mobilize against the threat to Christian America because of divided partisan loyalties. In other words, the change over time that Williams identifies regarding evangelicals and politics is not interest, but strategy. “What was new in 1980,” Williams argues, “is not evangelicals’ interest in politics but, rather, their level of partisan commitment. Evangelicals gained prominence during Ronald Reagan’s campaign not because they were speaking out on political issues…but because they were taking over the Republican Party” (2).
Tracing how conservative Protestants began the process of appropriating the GOP is the second major contribution of Williams’s scholarship with this narrative comprising the lion’s share of the book. In Williams’s account, the evangelical-Republican alliance began as early as the 1940s and crystallized in two stages. During the first stage, which Williams chronicles as running from the 1940s to the early 1960s, conservative Protestants viewed the GOP as the best protection against the Communist threat that they saw menacing their imagined Christian society (18-19). Theological infighting, especially on the issues of race and ecumenism, plagued conservative Protestants during this first stage and kept them from becoming a staunchly unified political front.
After a period in the wilderness during the Kennedy and Johnson years Williams argues that an evangelical political consensus emerged in the late 1960s, thus commencing the second stage of the GOP/Christian Right alliance. Here, Christian conservatives once again flocked to the Republican Party, this time driven by an encroaching secularism that they saw emanating from the Left and manifesting itself in such ways as rising feminism, attacks on school prayer, and legalized abortion (3, 88). As Williams ably demonstrates, the alliance between conservative Christians and the Republican Party that was renewed in the 1960s persists unabated today with culture war issues like abortion—and increasingly in recent years, gay rights—serving to perpetuate the close relationship between evangelicals and the GOP.
Williams makes clear that the GOP/Christian Right relationship is by no means a one-way street. Indeed, a recurring theme in God’s Own Party is that as evangelicals drew close to the Republicans, the GOP drew close to them. In the nascent years of their relationship in the 1950s, for instance, Republican officials reciprocated evangelical support by adopting measures of civil religion that reaffirmed the religious heritage of the United States (26-28). As the alliance deepened in the 1980s, Republicans continued to pay lip-service to ideas of civil religion, while at the same time shifting to the right on social issues to ensure evangelicals’ continued support (194, 207). Williams concludes that by the 1990s the symbiotic nature of their relationship had resulted in an iron cage of mutuality for evangelicals and the GOP that continues to this day: “If evangelical Christians had become Republicans, the Republican Party had also become Christianized…. Evangelicals had become too committed to the GOP to reject a Republican president even if they had reservations about him. And Republican presidential candidates had become too beholden to the evangelical vote to be able to ignore the demands of the Christian Right, because they could not support any other demographic group” (231, 232).
Narrating nearly a century of religion and politics, God’s Own Party is a much needed and welcomed addition to the ever-growing historiography of American conservatism. In constructing such a sweeping study, however, there are instances when Williams’s breadth of coverage comes at the expense of in-depth analysis. In places, that decision weakens the overall interpretive purchase of the book. Readers of this journal who are well-versed in the history of twentieth-century religion in the South may be less than persuaded by Williams’s treatment of evangelicals, fundamentalists, and the issue of race. Indeed, given the centrality of southerners to his story and the primacy of race within southern religion, Williams’s overall handling of race is surprisingly underdeveloped.
In Williams’s account, race seems to be an issue for the Christian Right only insofar as it kept fundamentalists and mainstream evangelicals divided and prevented them from capitalizing on their political potential prior to the 1960s. On a national level, according to Williams, fundamentalists before the mid 1960s rejected civil rights initiatives, while evangelicals were willing to accept them (33, 48). The categories of “fundamentalist” and “mainstream evangelical,” however, become problematic when applied to the South where the dichotomy between the two groups was never as stark as Williams’s work might suggest. In fact, for Williams, the major fault line between evangelicals and fundamentalists was not on theology but on race. In the context of the South, Williams’s claim that “[s]outhern fundamentalists’ stance on segregation also separated them from most evangelicals” runs counter to much prevailing historiographic wisdom (47). As historians from Paul Harvey to Jane Dailey have demonstrated, a belief in God’s desire for segregation was an accepted truism that spanned the vast majority of the theological spectrum in the South. Racially moderate southern evangelicals such as Billy Graham—a central figure in Williams’s study—were the exception and by no stretch the rule. Furthermore, for Williams, southern religious claims about the divine nature of segregation are often dismissed as masks for anti-communist politics or southern resentment of federal interference in local matters, an interpretive move that suggests Williams does not fully appreciate the depth and character of white southern belief in this period.
Eliding the deep-seated pervasiveness of segregationist folk theology among white southerners in the 1950s allows Williams to significantly downplay the issue of race as southern evangelicals began the march to the Republican Party at midcentury. When their political mobilization began in earnest in the late 1960s, Williams casually suggests that “[b]y moving beyond the blatant racism of their past, evangelicals and fundamentalists positioned themselves for national political influence” (92). How this past was overcome—or evidence that it in fact was—remains outside the scope of Williams’s analysis. Williams mentions, for instance, that when Jerry Falwell inaugurated his Lynchburg Christian Academy in 1967, the future head of the Moral Majority did not mention race as a justification for the school’s existence, a stance that Williams claims demonstrates that “fundamentalists were no longer as willing as they once had been to defend racial segregation” (85). Yet in this same section, Williams points out that Falwell’s private school’s establishment coincided with the same year that Lynchburg schools were desegregated, a connection begging for analysis that Williams chooses not to make. Similarly, Williams is content to label the 1978 IRS attempt to challenge the tax-exempt status of Christian private schools because of their racial exclusivity as a “seminal event in mobilizing Christian conservatives” without explicating the implications of these racialized motives for the Christian Right (164).
With all the ink that has been spilled in recent years about the role of race in the conservative resurgence generally and within the Religious Right specifically, Williams missed an opportunity to leave his interpretive mark on the debate. For readers looking for a broad history of the Christian Right, this book is a major contribution and its scope is an undeniable accomplishment. Yet because of its breadth, God’s Own Party may very well leave other readers asking for more.