Response to Forum Reviews of God's Own Party
I want to express my thanks to the Journal of Southern Religion for arranging a forum of leading scholars in the field of twentieth-century American evangelical politics to discuss God’s Own Party. I appreciate the careful attention that Randall Balmer, Darren Dochuk, J. Russell Hawkins, and Mark Silk gave to my book, and I am grateful to them for their thoughtful comments.
Balmer’s review highlights the challenge that my study poses to the conventionally accepted chronology of the Christian Right’s origins. Like Dochuk and a rapidly growing number of other scholars, I believe that there is a plethora of evidence for evangelicals’ pre-1970 commitment to political conservatism. Christian periodicals such as Moody Monthly, Sword of the Lord, and Christianity Today championed conservative politics long before the formation of the Moral Majority, as did many fundamentalist and evangelical leaders. Polling data indicate that a majority of evangelicals have voted for the Republican presidential candidate in every presidential election from 1952 to the present, with only two exceptions: 1964 and 1976. When Christianity Today magazine surveyed its readers in 1960, it found that Republicans outnumbered Democrats by four to one.
Balmer asks what provided the “catalyst” for the modern Religious Right if it “had been there all along … in nascent form.” Because I view the Christian Right as the product of a longstanding evangelical view of politics as a tool to preserve America’s Christian moral order, I think that it is unprofitable to search for the single issue that mobilized evangelicals in the late 1970s. Rather, the modern Christian Right developed when many evangelical leaders began to interpret a whole range of changes in social mores—including the feminist movement, the increased availability of pornography, the gay rights movement, and other perceived challenges to the two-parent nuclear family—as products of “secular humanism,” which they thought they could fight in the political sphere. That view, combined with evangelicals’ rising socioeconomic status and greater awareness of their numerical power, gave them the impetus they needed to attempt to reclaim their nation through an unprecedented political mobilization and partisan alliance.
If there is evidence for evangelicals’ longstanding interest in conservative politics, why have Balmer and a number of other scholars adopted the view that evangelicals abstained from political activity for the half-century between the Scopes Trial and the Moral Majority? In part, I think, it is because this is the view that evangelicals themselves have generally promoted. Balmer is hardly alone in his experience of a lack of overt politicking in the evangelical churches of the 1950s and 1960s. Even the evangelicals and fundamentalists who were the most overtly political during these years—figures such as Billy Graham, Jerry Falwell, and Carl McIntire—claimed that they eschewed politics, despite their active effort to mobilize support for Republican presidential candidates and organize political coalitions of fellow believers for conservative causes. To them, preaching against “godless” communism was not politics; it was simply preaching the gospel. Similarly, warning about the dangers of a Catholic in the White House was not politics; it was merely exposing the threat of Catholicism. But as I argue in my book, these actions fostered a latent alliance with the Republican Party that would become more overt after the late 1970s. There was a conservative political culture developing in most of the ostensibly apolitical evangelical churches of the mid-twentieth century.
Scholars have too often assumed that premillennial dispensationalism discouraged fundamentalists and evangelicals from political activism. In fact, for many, premillennial dispensationalism gave them the framework they used to endorse conservative political causes. During the 1930s, dispensationalist periodicals, including Moody Monthly, frequently borrowed from the apocalyptic language of biblical prophecy to denounce the New Deal and interpret it as a sign of the end-times. Similarly, in the late twentieth century, Tim LaHaye, a former Moral Majority board member and longtime activist in the Christian Right, wrote a best-selling series of end-times novels that interpreted biblical prophecy in ways that favored those who were on the “right” side of America’s culture wars. Hal Lindsey’s The Late, Great Planet Earth (1970) was the bestselling book of the same decade that produced the Moral Majority, a phenomenon that suggests that many believers had no trouble reconciling a belief in Jesus’s imminent return with a commitment to take back the nation through politics.
Balmer is correct in saying that I give only passing attention to the evangelical left in the early 1970s. I am aware of the excellent work that is being done on that subject by David Swartz and others, and I think that it is an important topic. As recent studies in the field have noted, many evangelicals supported Progressivism, the New Deal, and the labor movements of the left. American evangelicalism encompassed a diversity of political perspectives in the past—and still does, as subscribers to Sojourners magazine can attest. Nevertheless, for the past half-century, left-leaning evangelicals have been a beleaguered minority. In 1972, only 16 percent of white evangelicals voted for George McGovern, in spite of his campaign stop at Wheaton College. In 2008, only 24 percent of white evangelicals voted for Barack Obama, despite his appearances at Rick Warren’s Saddleback Church and at Messiah College in Pennsylvania. God’s Own Party explains why the Republican Party can still count on the votes of three out of four white evangelicals, and why predictions of the Christian Right’s demise have not been realized.
Hawkins raises some excellent questions about my treatment of race, and I commend to readers some of the studies that he mentions, as well as Steven Miller’s Billy Graham and the Rise of the Republican South, Joseph Crespino’s In Search of Another Country, and David Chappell’s A Stone of Hope, all of which offer thoughtful analyses of white evangelicals’ response to the civil rights movement. No doubt I could have said more about racial issues in my work (and I did include more discussion of race in some earlier drafts of the volume), but in the end I made the coverage choices that I did because I wanted to avoid giving the impression that the Christian Right originated primarily as a backlash against the civil rights movement or school integration.
Those who favor the idea that the Christian Right mobilized primarily because of racial issues have a difficult time explaining why the movement said so little about race and so much about sex for most of its post-1970 history. It is difficult to situate the political activities of Anita Bryant or Beverly LaHaye into a race-based analysis of the Christian Right, and even more difficult to apply such an analysis to the political mobilization of Francis Schaeffer. I will concede that race was more important to Falwell— and to an even greater degree to Bob Jones, Jr.—but I address the racial politics of these fundamentalists at some length in my book.
Hawkins is correct to note that I interpret the division between evangelicals and fundamentalists during the late 1950s and early 1960s through the lens of race, and that I also argue that racial issues played a role in the political reconciliation of these two groups after 1968. I could have said more about the Southern Baptist Convention’s complicated response to civil rights issues in the 1950s and 1960s, but that subject has been treated at length in other studies, and it seemed to have limited relevance to Southern Baptists’ conservative politics in the 1970s and 1980s.
I concur with Darren Dochuk’s thoughtful suggestions for ways in which future scholars can expand on my analysis. God’s Own Party follows the conventional narrative in emphasizing the role of pastors and movement leaders in the Christian Right, and I hope that future books on the subject will move beyond this framework to discuss not only the role of the financiers of the movement, as Dochuk suggested, but also the role of local activists who never operated on a national level. More local studies in the mold of Dochuk’s From Bible Belt to Sunbelt would be helpful, as would more cultural studies that explore how Marabel Morgan’s view of Christian femininity, James Dobson’s parenting advice, or David Barton’s brand of Christian history have contributed to a particular strand of evangelical political culture. Eileen Luhr’s Witnessing Suburbia offers a model of this approach, but there remains much to be done in this area. Dochuk is right to note that my section on evangelical political activity before 1950 is only cursory and could easily be expanded. I am eagerly anticipating Matthew Sutton’s forthcoming study of evangelical politics during the interwar years.
I also hope to see more discussion of the movement’s international connections in future work. God’s Own Party barely mentions evangelicals’ interest in Israel, their support for right-wing governments in Latin America, or their global mission and humanitarian work. All of these issues need to be explored in greater depth. A future history of the Christian Right will probably say a lot less about Falwell and a lot more about the numerous other figures who contributed to the movement in ways that we are only beginning to realize.