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.
It was in 1980 that the Christian Right—or Religious Right, if you prefer—became a readily identifiable national force associated with the Republican Party. If you’re looking for a smart, up-to-date, and readable account of how this came about and how the association has fared since, then this is the book for you. While much of the ground is familiar, Williams provides important new background, context, and insight, based on archival research as well as published sources. It is a fitting successor to William Martin’s 1996 narrative, With God on Our Side.
The book begins with prehistory stretching back to the 1920s, when fundamentalists conceived a “vision of reclaiming America’s Christian identity through politics” (3). Williams traces a line of conservative Protestant leaders who even during the Depression—when southern evangelicals voted overwhelmingly for national Democrats—found a congenial home in the Republican Party. In the 1940s, the GOP’s embrace of partisan anticommunism began drawing evangelicals to their side in greater numbers. Beginning in the late 1960s, the emergence of culture wars issues—feminism, abortion, pornography, and gay rights—enabled evangelicals to shift the GOP agenda in their direction, setting the stage for the religiously inflected party that it has now become.
As useful as the book’s pre-1960s background is, it does not fundamentally revise our understanding of how the Christian Right came about. In that regard, a richer and less familiar tale is told by Darren Dochuk in his new book on evangelical politics in southern California, From Bible Belt to Sun Belt(2011). But however the blanks are filled in, there really was a changing of the terms, and a changing of the guard, in the 1970s. Here, Williams provides the best account available of how the various strands of conservative religious thought and engagement were woven into a national movement. His portrait of Francis Schaeffer, the independent-minded Presbyterian missionary in Switzerland who single-handedly turned evangelicals against abortion, is worth the price of admission itself. Indeed, the importance of Schaeffer’s 1976 book How Should We Then Live? in creating a generation of evangelical activists can hardly be overemphasized.
The fulcrum of God’s Own Partyis the Carter presidency. Jimmy Carter, the born-again Southern Baptist from Georgia, represented a serious challenge to the southern strategy that was conceived under Richard Nixon as the ticket to a permanent Republican majority. Southern evangelicals voted heavily for Carter as doubly one of their own, but it did not take long for evangelical leaders to become disillusioned with him. Their success in turning their flocks against him—and away from the Democratic Party—transformed American politics by welding a disparate array of state, local, and national protest efforts into the base of the GOP.
If Williams’ survey has a particular lesson for the current political moment, it is that the “values voters” or “social conservatives” of the Christian Right have from the beginning had low-tax, small-government, free-market DNA in their genetic make-up. The Tea Party may look like something new under the sun, but it draws on attitudes about government and economic policy that hark back to the 1920s, when fundamentalists turned their backs on the populism of William Jennings Bryan and embraced the gospel of anticommunism. It should come as no surprise that so many Tea Partiers are white evangelicals, or that so many of the political figures they support come out of the Christian Right. As conceived by Max Weber, the spirit of capitalism was a moral imperative, and as such, it is alive and well among conservative American Protestants. No wonder they prefer to blame big government rather than the invisible hand of the global economy for the ills that beset them.
The Christian Right has become the longest lasting political movement, religious or otherwise, in American history. The challenge for historians is how to integrate it into the larger story of American conservatism since the Gilded Age. Among its other virtues, God’s Own Party will help them meet that challenge.