by Steven P. Miller
In Dan Williams’ God’s Own Party: The Making of the Christian Right, we now have a go-to narrative analysis of the roots, rise, and resilience of the Christian Right. While Williams builds on earlier scholarship—especially William Martin’s memorable and anecdote-rich With God on Our Side—his book is an exceedingly original contribution based on deep (and I mean deep) research leavened by the wisdom of almost a decade’s worth of reflection. Williams writes with grace and clarity.
Williams describes a “ninety-year quest” (9), which started with the culture wars of the 1920s and intensified with the surprisingly (and overly) confident evangelical activism of the late 1940s and 1950s. (The early National Association of Evangelicals comes across as a proto-Moral Majority—something that those of us with our heads stuck in that Seventies decade should keep in mind.) After authoritatively covering the somewhat more familiar territory of the 1960s, 70s, and 80s, Williams, to his great credit, follows through with a deft ordering of the recent past. The power, glory, and spectacle of the George W. Bush years yielded to the uncertain trumpet of 2008 (which, in turn, was complicated by the blaring trumpet that is Sarah Palin).
Below are a few preliminary—and somewhat random—thoughts on how God’s Own Party informs what might be called the new evangelical history. (Later, I hope to do the same for Darren Dochuk’s no less eagerly awaited From Bible Belt to Sunbelt, which will appear in December.)
First, I affirm the use of “Christian Right” (as opposed to Religious Right) to describe an evangelical Protestant movement that, largely for strategic reasons, has included a broader range of actors. That said, a lot remains to be learned about the relationship between the Christian Right and the Catholic right. On this and other topics, Williams offers intriguing leads for future researchers (Attn. graduate students).
Williams gives “fundamentalist” vs. “evangelical” quite a bit of analytical heft, noting (echoing John’s study of Campus Crusade for Christ) that those identities were well defined only by the late 1950s before showing (my interpretation here) how they became less relevant by the 1980s, as the Reagan coalition took shape. Irenic Billy Graham and surly Bob Jones, Jr., had more than a few overlapping friends and positions, but Williams is very clear about their differences, especially concerning civil rights issues. He argues that “fundamentalists became ‘conservatives’ in opposition to the Kennedy administration” (59)—that is, well before New Right activists sidled up to Jerry Falwell, et al.
It’s hard to know just what to make of “Nixon’s evangelical strategy” (89), as Williams aptly calls it. His Nixon was an ambitious, but superficial manipulator of evangelical politics who went so far as to try to install his man (Veterans Administration official Fred Rhodes) as president of the Southern Baptist Convention. H. R. Haldeman and the once-born version of Charles Colson were equal parts ruthless and bumbling. Yet, as Williams notes, the salad days of the “silent majority” came after the fall, when Christian Right activists embraced its populist tone (“moral majority”). That’s “Nixonland” for you, I guess.
I sense an emerging scholarly consensus that abortion was a driving force behind the growth of the Christian Right from a very early date, even if W. A. Criswell tacitly endorsed Roe v. Wade and even if Jerry Falwell initially said little about the matter. Most such expressions of moderation occurred before the phrase “abortion on demand” became established, first as a concept, then as a statistic. To be sure, one might interpret that “concept” as a “rhetorical device.” But I think Williams is wise to avoid a cynical interpretation of evangelical pro-life politics. (For Francis Schaeffer, to cite one example, Reaganism was a proxy for opposition to abortion—not the other way around.)
Williams’ work is a story of (to quote an earlier version of the title) “Republican faith,” and it becomes clear in this book that, as early as the Eisenhower years, the GOP was the logical vessel through which to pursue conservative evangelical politics. This reality, as I read Williams, points to the overall pragmatism and patience of the Christian Right, not to its naivete or lust for power (as is sometimes suggested). If the Christian Right endures, as Williams believes it will, it will do so in large part because it made itself into a major wing of a major party.