by Kristin Du Mez.
I’m not sure I’ve assigned a monograph in a history course before that was more eagerly devoured than Daniel Williams’ God’s Own Party. “I can’t believe I didn’t know any of this before!” was a frequent refrain, and this in a class of upper-level History and Political Science majors, self-proclaimed political junkies, many of whom had grown up in subcultures significantly shaped by the Religious Right.
Students in my Culture Wars course found Williams’ narrative to be essential reading for understanding our current (and at times seemingly inexplicable) political context. We’re grateful that Dan Williams was kind enough to respond to some of our questions, and reflect on how his history of the Religious Right informs our present circumstances.
In some accounts of the rise of the Religious Right, race (or racism) plays a central role. In God’s Own Party, race seems less significant than other factors such as anticommunism and abortion (or sex and gender more broadly). Is this an accurate interpretation of the history you tell?
Daniel Williams: Yes, I think that some previous scholars have overstated the importance of race in the formation of the Christian Right, largely because they place a lot more emphasis than I do on the conservative Christian reaction against the IRS’s directive regarding segregated private schools in the 1970s as a catalyst for the Religious Right. The narrative that I present shows that that was simply one factor among many in the formation of a conservative Republican evangelical coalition; it was not the defining factor that created the movement.
Racial issues do receive a lot of attention at several key points in my narrative – such as in the early chapters of the book, where I argue that a split between southern fundamentalists and northern evangelicals over segregation in the 1960s delayed the formation of a unified national conservative evangelical political coalition – but I also argue that issues of gender, sexuality, and nationalism played a much greater role than race in the mobilization of Christian conservatives during the postwar era and the late twentieth century. I am not alone in making this argument. In the last five years, since the publication of my book, much of the leading scholarship on American evangelical conservatism (including studies by Darren Dochuk, Matthew Avery Sutton, and Kevin Kruse, among others) has downplayed the significance of race and highlighted other factors as catalysts for Christian conservative mobilization.
Throughout your narrative you pay particular attention to theological and cultural distinctions between fundamentalists, charismatics, and evangelicals. Today those groups are often lumped under the broad umbrella of “evangelicalism.” Do you think these distinctions remain important in today’s political landscape?
Theological distinctions among evangelicals still matter today, although the ones that count the most in our current era are probably not the ones that mattered in the 1970s. Today there are far fewer self-identified fundamentalists than there were forty years ago, and there is far less of a political divide between charismatic and non-charismatic evangelicals on issues of politics than there was in the pre-Reagan era. But there is a political division between young emergent or social justice oriented evangelicals and middle-aged white Southern Baptists. There are also divisions between Reformed evangelicals and those who borrow from Anabaptist theology. There is a huge difference between the political trends at Fuller Theological Seminary and the political norms at Southern Baptist Theological Seminary. So, yes, theological divisions among white evangelicals still result in political differences, but the contours of these divisions have changed considerably in the last three or four decades.
God’s Own Party came out in 2010. What are the most surprising developments in the Religious Right since that time? In light of recent events, would you change anything in your book? Or would you perhaps want to include an epilogue to address these developments?
I think that the argument that I presented in the conclusion of my book – namely, that conservative evangelicals will remain committed to pursuing their project of cultural regeneration through the Republican Party, and that the Republican Party will not give conservative evangelicals the culture war victories that they seek – still holds true, and I suspect that we will see more evidence of that truth in the next few years, regardless of the outcome of this election. But I have been surprised by evidence in this election season of a growing political division between evangelical laity (who, in some regions of the country, have expressed strong anti-immigrant sentiments and have given strong support to Donald Trump) and evangelical leaders such as the Southern Baptist Convention’s Russell Moore and the editorial board of Christianity Today who, for the most part, have eschewed Trump and have been much more supportive of a path to citizenship for undocumented immigrants. Ten years ago, we were talking about a different political division among evangelicals – the division between millennial evangelicals and their parents. I briefly noted that division in the final pages of my book, but the division between evangelical laity and leaders may prove even more consequential for American politics.
You write about the tendency of the Religious Right to throw their support behind candidates who could win, not necessarily behind those who were most faithful to conservative Christian values, and about a long history of the Republican Party failing to carry through with promises made to the Religious Right. Should this history inform how we understand the rise of Donald Trump, and his prospects to win the nomination and the presidency?
Yes. Donald Trump’s willingness to adopt a pro-life position on abortion, after a twenty-year record of pro-choice statements, demonstrates the importance of the Christian Right vote for non-evangelical Republican candidates, and follows a decades-long pattern in Republican presidential primaries of candidates who shift positions on social issues in order to win the support of evangelicals. And conservative evangelicals’ willingness in many cases to support Trump in spite of their doubts about his personal morality or his loyalty to their cause may be reminiscent of evangelicals’ past willingness to overlook personal flaws in some of their preferred candidates in order to secure election victories. Of course, in many of these cases, evangelicals who supported candidates who paid only lip service to their cause were disappointed when those politicians ignored them as soon as the election was over.
When evangelicals have felt secure in their degree of political power, they have usually felt entitled to ask for a lot more from the GOP, but when they feel powerless and angry, they are usually more willing to support any strong leader who pays at least lip service to their cause. In 1980, evangelicals who were frustrated and angry with the Carter administration were willing to support a divorced former Hollywood actor who had opposed them on gay rights only two years earlier, but in 2008, evangelical leaders who had been used to eight years of influence in the George W. Bush White House held John McCain to a much higher standard and pushed him to the cultural right by pressuring him to add an evangelical to the ticket. The fact that so many white evangelicals have been willing to support Trump this year in spite of his deviations from evangelical orthodoxy may be a sign of how angry and disempowered some evangelicals feel.
God’s Own Party makes clear how important an evangelical media empire was to their political mobilization. Does this empire still exist, or has it—and thereby evangelicalism itself—become too fragmented to be effectively mobilized?
All media (both secular and religious) has become much more fragmented than it was in the late 1970s and 1980s. There are no televangelists today who have the same political influence that Jerry Falwell and Pat Robertson did in the early 1980s, and there are probably no Christian radio broadcasters today who have the same reach that James Dobson once did. Yet Christian Right mobilization is still taking place. Seventy-five percent of white evangelical voters are still casting their ballots for Republicans in presidential elections, and state legislatures in conservative regions of the country are still passing restrictive abortion bills.
What is the most important lesson history can teach the Christian Right today?
The lesson that I would take from the Christian Right’s history is the one that I suggested in the last paragraph of my book: Political victories do not translate into cultural victories. The Christian Right has been remarkably successful in its quest to take control of the Republican Party, but it has experienced defeats on most of the culture war issues that it cares about, ranging from gay rights to school prayer to pornography to gender equality. If history is any guide, one could predict that conservative Christians will experience no more success in stopping legally-mandated gender-neutral public restrooms than they did in their attempt to stop same-sex marriage – regardless of whether Ted Cruz (or another conservative evangelical Republican) is elected president.
Tell us how your research for God’s Own Party led you to write your most recent book, Defenders of the Unborn.
Abortion is the great exception to the trend of Christian Right defeats; social conservatives have continued to win victories on abortion policy even while losing ground on most other issues. I wanted to examine the history of the nation’s abortion debate in greater depth, because I realized in the course of researching God’s Own Party that it would likely be fascinating and surprising.
Indeed, it was. I discovered that the reason for the pro-life campaign’s continued saliency is that it is a human rights cause grounded in liberal arguments (and thus capable of attracting a much broader range of support than opposition to gay rights might), and that at one time the movement attracted support from some of the nation’s most prominent liberal Democrats. The liberal origins of the movement have largely been forgotten today, but I uncover them in Defenders of the Unborn: The Pro-Life Movement before Roe v. Wade.
I also had another reason for writing this book: After devoting several years to researching evangelicals, I welcomed the opportunity to spend some time becoming acquainted with the political thinking of Catholic intellectuals. It was certainly a rewarding experience.
What is your next project? (Optional…it seems a little cruel so soon after your last one…maybe a vacation is in order?)
I’m in the very preliminary stages of research for a new book project on the history of Christian apologetics and intellectual engagement with the arguments of anti-Christian skeptics. It will be a few years before anything is ready for publication, but this is what I plan to work on this summer.
These questions were composed by members of Calvin’s Spring 2016 HIST 353 Culture Wars (Studies in US Intellectual & Religious History): Katie Clune, Jenna Hunt, Jake Konyndyk, Zachary Klomp, and Max Madewell. Many thanks to Daniel Williams for taking the time to answer them.
Kristin Du Mez is associate professor of history at Calvin and teaches courses in recent America, US social and cultural history, and Gender Studies. Her book A New Gospel for Women: Katharine Bushnell and the Challenge of Christian Feminism was recently published with Oxford University Press. Follow her on Twitter @kkdumez.