Few phenomena in American politics over the past forty years have received more attention in the popular media than the Christian Right. From the time of its rise in the late 1970s, through Pat Robertson’s 1988 presidential campaign and the emergence of the Christian Coalition in the 1990s, to the 2008 vice presidential candidacy of Pentecostal Christian Sarah Palin, this movement has been the subject of constant scrutiny from the media and academia. There has never been a shortage of prognostications of the movement’s success or defeat, of triumphant claims about its prospects, of apocalyptic warnings over its perils, or even of simple hand-wringing and finger wagging.
The Tea Party, which emerged after the 2008 elections, is receiving nearly the same level of attention, in part because this new movement appears connected to the Christian Right. Although the Tea Party’s main political grievances have to do with levels of government spending and taxation, and it is not explicitly religious in its political agenda, the movement has much in common with the Christian Right. Rep. Michele Bachmann, a Tea Party favorite for the Republican nomination for president in 2012, attended the Coburn School of Law at Oral Roberts University where she studied Dominion Theology, and she has talked about being influenced by the writings of conservative Christian theologian Francis Schaeffer (Lizza 2011). Texas Governor Rick Perry, another candidate supported by the Tea Party, attended a Christian mega-rally in August 2011 where participants were asked to pledge their obedience to Jesus (Posner 2011).
Yet the strength of the connections between the Tea Party and Christian Right are unclear. Are the people turning out at Tea Party rallies the same people who have supported the Christian Right over the last forty years? Is the Tea Party’s opposition to taxes and government spending logically connected to the Christian Right’s opposition to abortion and support for school prayer? Missing from all the media noise has been a sustained historical investigation of the fundamental motivations and outlook of the Christian Right, and that absence leaves us unable to understand either its continued influence or its connections to the Tea Party. Even Jill Lepore’s In the Whites of Their Eyes: The Tea Party’s Revolution and the Battle over American History (2011), which offers a close reading of the Tea Party’s understanding and appropriation of early American history, sheds little light on its historical relationship to its immediate antecedents on the far right or to the Christian Right of the 1980s and 1990s.
Fortunately, three new studies point us in the direction such scholarship might take. Marking a new generation of historical work on the Christian Right, recent books by Darren Dochuk, Bethany Moreton, and Daniel K. Williams are certain to become the new standards in the historical literature on this subject. Their achievements are built on the work of a first generation of interpretations that included Michael Lienesch’s Redeeming America: Piety and Politics in the New Christian Right (1993) and William Martin’s With God on Our Side (1996). Additionally, these three new books have incorporated several more recent and important studies of American Evangelicalism into their narratives, such as the work of Joel Carpenter (1997), works on southern religion and race in the twentieth century by scholars such as Paul Harvey (2005), Barry Hankins (2002), and David Chappell (2004), as well as works covering political mobilization in the Sunbelt by Lisa McGirr (2002) and Steven Miller (2009).
This first generation of scholarship established a narrative, exemplified by Martin’s With God on Our Side, that went something like this: After the 1925 Scopes Monkey Trial, Fundamentalists faced scorn from without and disarray from within. In such a state, they retreated from the public and political spheres and focused instead on building their own subculture and maintaining personal piety. They kept a long period of political silence, only springing back up like a jack-in-the-box from time to time. Incidents of temporary political mobilization—such as the anti-communist movements of the 1950s and 1960s, opposition to the candidacy of Catholic John F. Kennedy, Barry Goldwater’s 1964 presidential campaign, and Richard Nixon’s “southern strategy” of 1968 and 1972—developed conservative political-religious networks and a conservative voting base in the Sunbelt. In the 1970s, conservative Christians began to perceive more ominous threats to religion and family in the form of Supreme Court decisions that outlawed school prayer (Engel v Vitale, 1962) and legalized abortion (Roe v Wade, 1973), the proposed Equal Rights Amendment (ERA), and the teaching of evolution and sex education in public schools. Recognizing an opportunity, conservative political activists like Paul Weyrich of The Heritage Foundation used the emerging networks to create a new nationwide political movement. This movement’s new leaders, such as Jerry Falwell at the Moral Majority, wove these ills into a jeremiad of God’s displeasure with his chosen nation, a jeremiad that identified the enemy in the land as “secular humanism” and called on Fundamentalists to make common cause, even with Roman Catholics, in order to defeat it. In 1980, the movement stormed the national political scene in support of Ronald Reagan’s presidential campaign.
But after 1984, the historians’ reigning narrative on the Christian Right becomes one of declension for the Christian Right itself, as movement members quickly became dissatisfied with the token bones tossed to them by Reagan and the GOP. The failure to achieve passage of any substantial “values” legislation during the Reagan administration and Pat Robertson’s ill-advised presidential run in 1988 pushed the Christian Right into decline and disarray. In the 1990s, the primary advocacy group for the Christian Right—Ralph Reed’s Christian Coalition—focused on local politics with only occasional forays onto the national political scene. The Christian Right’s failure to remove Bill Clinton from office in 1996 appeared to mark its demise, and this is where much of the literature on the movement ends. Or so the story has been told.
The three works under review here enhance, enlarge, and complicate this narrative in at least five ways. First, they challenge the chronology of the Christian Right by pushing the beginning of the movement back to as early as the 1920s and by showing that it remained at full strength through the 2008 elections. To push the narrative back, these authors rely especially on Joel Carpenter’s Revive Us Again (1997), which demonstrates that, rather than disappearing after the Scopes Trial in 1925, Fundamentalists regrouped and built an educational and media empire that would eventually sustain a strong upsurge of Evangelical public activity in the post-war period, exemplified by the fierce anti-communism of folks like Billy James Hargis and the popularity and political influence of Billy Graham. These books add, however, that not only did these Fundamentalists (some of whom began calling themselves “Evangelicals”) establish educational and media empires, they also remained politically active. These three works thus stress the continuities between the crusading Fundamentalism of the 1920s and the Christian Right that emerged after 1976. Moreover, Williams and Moreton extend their analysis through the 1990s Christian Coalition era and past the year 2000 and, in doing so, revise if not overturn the post-1984 declension narrative. In fact, Evangelical support as a percentage of the vote for Republican candidates was never higher than in 2008.
Second, although the Christian Right has been associated with the Sunbelt, these works, drawing on Lisa McGirr’s work (2002), demonstrate beyond a doubt that Southern California was the incubation chamber for the Christian Right that spread across the Sunbelt after 1968. Conservative political strategies in Southern California that grew out of labor strife in the 1940s, anticommunism in the 1950s, and the Goldwater presidential and Reagan gubernatorial campaigns in the 1960s provided a blueprint for the strategies, tactics, and ethos of the late 1970s Christian Right.
Third, Moreton explicitly, and Dochuk and Williams implicitly, identify free-market ideals as a central feature—possibly the central feature—of the Christian Right. In fact, it might be possible to argue that free-market ideals were even more important than abortion, school prayer, the ERA, or liberal text books, as they became the sinews that connected together political activists, Evangelical educational institutions, moderate Republican operatives, and a large, wealthy, donor base.
Fourth, all three books note the central role played by the Charismatic or Neo-Pentecostal movement in facilitating rapprochement between Charismatic Catholics and Evangelicals and in providing a politicized cadre of baby-boomer, Jesus People foot soldiers for the movement. This focus on Charismatics, and especially the Jesus People movement of Southern California, again points to that region as the Christian Right’s point of origin.
Finally, these books explain the importance of a decades long negotiation of race and voting that resulted in a discourse about racial issues that was attractive to everyone from Sunbelt moderates to conservative white supremacists. These works confirm the role played by Nixon’s 1968 and 1972 campaigns in bringing conservative southerners who might have supported George Wallace together with white moderates by using a screening discourse of “law and order” or “color blindness.” This discourse was based on lessons derived from Goldwater’s 1964 campaign and from Ronald Reagan’s 1966 gubernatorial campaign.
In God’s Own Party, Daniel K. Williams offers the most comprehensive and readable general history of the Christian Right since Martin’s With God on our Side (1996). Williams’s new book will likely supplant Martin’s as the standard introduction into the movement’s history for general readers and scholars. God’s Own Party is “top-down” history in which we follow preachers, politicians, and power brokers as they strategize and plot. Moreton and Dochuk nicely complement Williams’s work with their “bottom-up” histories that explain mobilization at the grassroots level. Williams is also interested in the life and influence of ideas throughout this period and the complicated motives that pushed conservative Christians to the GOP. This emphasis on leaders and ideas can sometimes leave readers frustrated, as when Williams writes that “Evangelicals’ heightened concern about abortion was largely due to the influence of Francis Schaeffer and his son, Franky” (207), but does not further explain this influence.
But such problems are minor and do not detract from the strength and clarity of Williams’s narrative, which not only extends our understanding of the movement’s history from the 1920s to 2008, but also organizes the material around two primary arguments. The first, already implied, is to stress the intellectual and institutional continuity of the Christian Right from the 1920s through the 2000s. The Christian Right of the 1970s and 1980s should not, Williams argues, be understood as a response to a specific set of social, political, and cultural phenomena (abortion, ERA, etc.) but as an historically contingent expression of ongoing Christian, especially Protestant, engagement in the political sphere. The Christian Right was not a jack-in-the-box.
Williams’s second, and more important, argument is a simple but game-changing observation: although conservative Christians were active politically (and in many cases, very active) from the 1920s through the late 1960s, for a variety of reasons they could not decisively influence one of the two major parties. So while conservative Protestants never retreated from political activity after Scopes, the emergence of the Christian Right in the 1970s demonstrated their concerted and successful effort, along with those of other conservative Christians, to control the fortunes of a single party. In the process, conservative Christians (especially Protestants) became Republican partisans, and the GOP became the party of conservative Christianity—an arrangement that shows no sign of diminishing.
To forge such partisan unity, conservative Christians had to do two things. First, they had to overcome the internal institutional and theological fissures among moderate Evangelicals (of the Billy Graham stripe), Fundamentalists, Pentecostals, and Roman Catholics (and Mormons, too, but they get little attention in these works). Second, they had to finish fighting the Civil War, as up through the 1960s the most solidly Protestant region in the nation was the solidly Democratic South. As long as white supremacy in the South bound white voters to the Democratic Party or to segregationist third parties, unity around a national party based on religion would be impossible.
The first two-thirds of God’s Own Party narrates how Evangelical ministers, conservative operatives, and Republican Party strategists accomplished these twin tasks. Williams begins by documenting the political activism of Fundamentalists from the 1920s to the late 1950s. Fundamentalists like Bob Jones Jr., John R. Rice, Jerry Falwell, Billy James Hargis along with Evangelicals like Graham and those associated with the National Association of Evangelicals agitated against vice, drink, Catholics, and communism. The campaign against communism was particularly successful in promoting ideas and establishing networks that brought together Fundamentalists and Evangelicals, both of whom, Williams asserts, built strong connections with the Eisenhower White House. The rise of the Civil Rights Movement, however, short circuited this cooperation as moderates, who supported Brown and desegregation, split from Fundamentalists like Falwell who opposed it. Fundamentalists also supported Goldwater in 1964, a candidate toward whom moderate Evangelicals had a mixed response.
Steady rapprochement between Evangelicals and Fundamentalists and among Protestants, Catholics, and Pentecostals occurred between 1964 and 1976 for two reasons. First, as mentioned earlier, Nixon’s “southern strategy” recognized the potential to unify southern whites around the GOP. Evangelicals and Fundamentalists on both sides of the Mason and Dixon line largely supported Nixon in 1968 and did so overwhelmingly in 1972, as he appealed to a “silent majority” seeking “law and order.” Second, “culture war” issues of school prayer, textbooks, sex education, abortion, feminism, and gay rights brought these factions together by bifurcating political options into moral-versus-immoral choices. Through this culture-war gestalt, even a “born again” Jimmy Carter could be seen a threat to God’s chosen people because of his ambivalence on abortion or support for ERA, while Fundamentalists could join arm-in-arm with “whore-of-Babylon” Catholics or “demon-possessed” Pentecostals if that meant preserving the nation. In addition, Williams points out the importance of free-market ideals promoted especially by Protestant ministers, like Bill Bright of Campus Crusade for Christ, who built networks linking free-market think tanks, Evangelical universities, political activists, and deep-pocketed donors. Throughout Williams’s work, the degree to which purportedly non-partisan ministers like Bright worked behind the scenes with Republican and free-market operatives is fascinating. His finding that the Campus Crusade for Christ’s Expo ’72 revival meeting in Dallas was orchestrated in part to build support for Nixon is revealing.
The turning point in Williams’s narrative is the 1976 election. Many evangelicals were deeply dissatisfied with Carter, partly for his Playboy interview during the campaign and partly for consistently being on the wrong side of culture-war issues. But the real story of this election, as confirmed by Dochuk, is the mobilization of religious conservatives behind Ronald Reagan’s failed campaign for the GOP presidential nomination—a campaign that tested strategies and established networks that eventually led to success in 1980. For the years 1978 to 1988, Williams’s story mostly follows Martin’s, focusing on the formation of the Moral Majority, the Christian Right’s support for Reagan in 1980 and 1984, and Pat Robertson’s ill-advised presidential run. Williams’s narrative, however, continues past 1988 and on through 2008. Frustration with George H. W. Bush and opposition to Bill Clinton in the 1990s brought increasing civil disobedience by the likes of Operation Rescue on the one hand and “guerilla” tactics by the Christian Coalition on the other. Although the Christian Right failed to remove Clinton from office, Williams treats the Clinton impeachment as a temporary setback. He argues that George W. Bush was the first candidate who was truly one of the Christian Right’s “own.” The Christian Right, in Williams’s telling, was as strong as ever in the 2008 election.
Where Williams narrates from the top down, Darren Dochuk fills in the details at the grassroots level to explain exactly how the ideas of a Billy Graham, a James Dobson, or a Jerry Falwell found ears, hands, feet, and ultimately votes for the Republican Party across the Sunbelt. While both narratives fit together remarkably well, there is a notable difference in the cast of characters. In Williams’s book, Francis Schaeffer’s ideas about abortion and secular humanism played a significant role in mobilizing the Christian Right, but for Dochuk Schaeffer does not even warrant an entry in the index. Rather, Dochuk’s index is populated by mid-level operatives, ministers, entrepreneurs, and Okie/Arkie migrants to Southern California.
The importance of Dochuk’s stellar work is not only in locating the birth of the Christian Right in Southern California but also in explaining why it spread when it did and how it spread across the Sunbelt. Moreover, he explains the genesis of the Christian Right’s unique ethos and worldview in a particular time and place, with nuanced attention to subtle shifts in attitudes, outlooks, and behaviors in Southern California. Indeed, this work is so artfully textured that any attempt to summarize can hardly do it justice.
The first half of Dochuk’s work explains the evolution of a worldview and ethos that settled into place in Southern California by 1966 but that originated in the American “western South” of Texas, Oklahoma, Arkansas, southern Missouri, and Louisiana. Drawing especially on the work of James Gregory (1989), Dochuk follows the folkways of these migrants to the industrial sectors of Southern California from the 1920s through the 1940s.
Dochuk focuses on four aspects of this ethos and worldview that were especially pertinent. First, these migrants were political populists, meaning they valued freedom of conscience, government by popular decree, and the sanctity of the local community. Second, they were devoted to a brand of Evangelical religion, which Dochuk terms “Texas theology,” that was busy, vocal, combative, and entrepreneurial. Third, they preached and practiced a gospel of wealth that sanctified self-reliant, egalitarian free enterprise. Finally, they were white supremacists, beholden to the racial mores of the western South, a region that had far fewer African Americans than the Southeast but that never questioned segregation in church and society as anything other than God-ordained.
In perhaps the most groundbreaking aspect of the book, Dochuk narrates the religious, economic, and political transformation of these migrants and all of Southern California in a process that lasted from the 1940s to the 1960s. Religiously and economically, western southerners prospered, essentially “southernizing” the region as they established churches, businesses, and educational institutions large and small. Here, Dochuk focuses frequently on the connections between free enterprise to higher education (a finding that Williams and Moreton also stress) as a central feature of the developing conservative political mindset that emerged by the middle of the 1960s and that provided avenues for funding in later political campaigns. Business leaders and ministers cooperated to establish institutes in colleges like Pepperdine University, John Brown University in Arkansas, and Harding University in Missouri that legitimized and spread free-market principles across the Sunbelt.
The lion’s share of Dochuk’s attention, however, is focused on a process of political transformation that involved southernizing California’s Republican Party and developing an affinity among Southern Californians for the GOP. Dochuk is careful to note how the unique political situation in California, especially its structures of direct democracy and its economy rooted in the defense industry, contributed to this process. When they first arrived, these western South migrants were political independents who more or less supported the New Deal and the Democratic Party, though they gravitated toward the more radical policies associated with Huey Long. Their shift from Democratic-leaning populists to Republicans began when they clashed with liberal progressives in unions, in the press, and in California politics, all of whom were allied with the state’s Democratic Party. The flashpoints were the western southerners’ support for the “Ham and Eggs” campaign of 1940s—a Huey-Long type pension plan for the elderly—and their opposition to unionization. These often bloody tussles effectively severed western southern migrants from the Democratic Party. At about the same time, western southerners took up the cause against communism, a three-fold threat to direct democracy, Christianity, and free enterprise. Mobilized by entrepreneurs, preachers, and Republican politicians, these western southerners were drawn to Republican hawks who opposed Democrats deemed “soft on Communism” and who promoted the dominant defense industry in the region.
For Dochuk, as well as for Williams, this anti-communist phase of the story comes to a climax with the strong support southern Californians gave Goldwater in 1964, not only for his anti-communism, but also for his opposition to federally-mandated integration. Goldwater’s failure in the 1964 general election, however, provided a critical lesson about the limits of conservative organization around racism and fear—lessons taken to heart in Ronald Reagan’s gubernatorial race of 1966. Winning under the banner of a “creative, color-blind conservatism,” Reagan’s strategists appealed to the populist, Christian, and free-market ethos of a now southernized Southern California, while avoiding the negativity and more overt segregationism of the Goldwater campaign. This winning formula provided the blueprint not only for Nixon in 1968 and 1972, but eventually for Reagan’s presidential campaign in 1980.
In narrating the events between 1968 and 1980, Dochuk generally follows Williams’s and Martin’s narratives, while adding some important new details. These include the importance of a series of “pro-family” propositions in California as a testing ground for “social issue” legislation, the importance of Tim LaHaye and James Dobson—both western southerners in Southern California—in the development of the Christian Right, and the importance of Neo-Pentecostals or Charismatics as well as “Jesus Movement” baby boomers as grassroots activists. Dochuk also identifies the spirited, though often overlooked, presence of an Evangelical Left, typified by Jim Wallis of Sojourners (a subject of neglect soon to be remedied by David Swartz’s forthcoming work).
While Dochuk’s story centers events in Southern California, Bethany Moreton narrates a contemporaneous drama occurring in the region that these western southerners had left behind. Although Moreton’s work is not directly about political mobilization, it offers a thick description of the values and habits of the folks in the western South who ushered Reagan into the White House and whose voting patterns transformed the GOP. In doing so, she corroborates much in Dochuk’s rendering of this ethos, thus confirming the presence and persistence—through political, educational, and religious institutions, networks, and folkways—of a common set of Sunbelt political assumptions. If the connection between Wal-Mart and the Christian Right—what she identifies as “the link between value shoppers and values voters”—initially seems strained, Moreton convinces us otherwise. For example, she notes that 85 percent of regular Wal-Mart shoppers voted for George W. Bush in 2004 (1). Ralph Reed’s famous quip that, “if you want to reach the Christian population on Sunday, you do it from the church pulpit… if you want to reach them on Saturday, you do it in Wal-Mart,” is affirmed in Moreton’s work.
To Serve God and Wal-Mart is organized around three primary objectives: (1) explaining how Wal-Mart established its global dominance by first establishing dominance in the western South; (2) explaining how that dominance in the western South shaped the work habits and political views of women in that region, and (3) explaining how Wal-Mart’s dominance connected to or influenced the way voters in the region overwhelmingly valued free-market ideals that demonized federal regulation, Keynesian economics, and labor unions and that pushed voters toward the GOP.
Taking first the story of Wal-Mart’s regional dominance, Moreton points out that, to accomplish its business goals of guaranteeing low prices though high volume sales and low wages for their mostly female employees, Wal-Mart had to overcome deep southern Evangelical animosity toward chain stores, women working outside the home, and conspicuous consumption. To overcome the animosity toward chain stores, Sam Walton crafted an ideal Moreton terms “Corporate Populism” that would appeal to the egalitarian, localist populism that Dochuk identifies. Populists were especially suspicious of outside intervention in the local economy, whether the intervention came from Washington, DC, from labor unions, from outside investors, or “carpet-bagger” capitalists like the owners of large chain stores. Walton succeeded in appealing to such sentiments by keeping investment in Wal-Mart local (local banks and stock options for its management), by choosing sites that would not appear to compete with small “mom and pop” businesses, and by crafting his own image as a modest Horatio Alger who drove a pickup truck and showed up at his stores to bag groceries.
The crux of the book, however, is Moreton’s discussion of how Wal-Mart overcame conservative Christian objection to women working outside the home and to conspicuous consumption. In order to coax women out of the home and into Wal-Mart as cashiers and as consumers, Walton created a home-away-from-home, a domesticated retail space that reproduced a paternalistic authority structure with male managers practicing “servant leadership” in a “wholesome” environment. In short, Wal-Mart became a surrogate family. Furthermore, to counter Evangelical objections to conspicuous consumption, Walton preached the idea that “saving money” by buying in bulk at low prices was an ethical injunction bordering on the biblical. One-stop shopping in bulk led to more time at home with the family and more money to support that family. Saving money by shopping at Wal-Mart became a Christian virtue ultimately benefitting the family, the church, and the nation. As Moreton puts it, “Wal-Mart learned to revalue shopping as a selfless service to the family, and service in turn as a sacred calling” (101).
It isn’t hard, then, to see how this nexus of family values, consumption, and free market economics connected to the worldview of values voters in the 1970s and beyond—especially to that of the “kitchen-table activists” so important to the GOP. Moreton also makes many of the same connections Dochuk does between entrepreneurs like Walton and the numerous Evangelical, free-enterprise institutions critical to GOP success in the Sunbelt, such as the institutes at John Brown University and Harper University and student organizations such as “Students for Free Enterprise.” These connections tied Wal-Mart, which invested heavily in such activities, to a growing network of potential GOP donors and free enterprise activists and lobbyists. It also kept free-market ideas at the fore of the movement and reinforced a growing concern that the federal deficit and federal “waste” were inimical to virtues preached at church on Sundays and Wal-Mart on Saturdays.
There are times in To Serve God and Wal-Mart when causal connections seem tenuous at best, but if we read Moreton’s book less as depicting the way Wal-Mart transformed the region (which the book tends to do at times) and more as a thick description of cultural negotiations taking place in the Sunbelt, there is much insight to be gained. Wal-Mart, indeed, is a great stage on which to see these negotiations taking place.
Taken together, then, all three works push us to reconsider the chronological and cultural context of the Christian Right, and all three point to free-market ideals as just as important, if not perhaps more important, than issues like abortion, school prayer, and feminism in shaping the aims and ethos of the Christian Right. If this is correct, these works are potential starting points for understanding the relationship between the Tea Party and the Christian Right.
Joe Creech is Program Director of the Lilly Fellows Program in Humanities and the Arts at Valparaiso University.
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