by Phillip Luke Sinitiere
Baldblogger presents part 1 of an interview with Dan Williams, author of the recently published God’s Own Party: The Making of the Christian Right (Oxford University Press, 2010).
Find previous posts on Dan's book here and here. John Fea, over at The Way of Improvement Leads home, offers his take here. There's also a great audio interview at Barry Lynn's site Culture Shocks. Dan is an assistant professor of history at the University of West Georgia.
Baldblogger (BB): God’s Own Party maintains that in order to understand evangelical political ascendancy vis-à-vis the 1980 presidential election, one must begin by examining the culture wars of the 1920s. Briefly connect the dots for us. Why is it important to consider this historical trajectory in order to understand evangelical Christianity and modern Republican politics? Does this perhaps help to explain your choice of subtitle—The Making of the Christian Right—as opposed to The Making of the Religious Right?
Dan Williams (DW): The contemporary Christian Right subscribes to a particular view of the relationship between Christianity and the public sphere that can be traced back to the fundamentalist movement of the early twentieth century. Fundamentalists of the 1920s believed that secular influences threatened the nation’s Christian identity, and that if Christians did not enter the political arena to defend the nation’s Christian values, the nation would face divine judgment and possible destruction. The conservative evangelicals who formed the modern Christian Right in the late twentieth century held this same view of America’s unique religious identity and the necessity of preserving the nation’s Christian values by fighting secular influences through politics. The culture wars of the late twentieth century were thus very similar to the culture wars of the 1920s.
Even some of the particular issues at stake in those culture wars were similar. Fundamentalists of the 1920s were concerned about sexual licentiousness, changes in gender roles, the state of the family, and the secularization of public education. Evangelicals in the 1970s and 1980s were concerned about these same issues. That’s not surprising, because late-twentieth-century American conservative evangelicalism was a direct theological descendent of early-twentieth-century fundamentalism. In fact, many of the conservative evangelical leaders of the late twentieth century had parents who had called themselves “fundamentalists” and had identified with the fundamentalist movement of the 1920s. Some had even worn that label themselves before exchanging it for the less pejorative term “evangelical.”
My book traces the story of evangelical political activism from the early twentieth century to the present, because the Christian Right is deeply rooted in the evangelical politics of the previous three generations. I think that some studies of the Christian Right have underestimated the connections between late-twentieth-century evangelical politics and those of an earlier era, but I think that one contribution that a historian can make to this discussion is to trace that political lineage.
Media reports of evangelical political activism in the 1980s commonly used the term “Religious Right” to refer to the movement, as though it were generically or ecumenically religious rather than distinctively Christian. During the 1990s, the phrase “Christian Right” became more common, perhaps because of the use of the term “Christian” in the most prominent Religious Right organization of the decade, the Christian Coalition. Today both terms are commonly used.
In my view, the term “Christian Right” is a more accurate descriptor, because the movement’s theology and worldview have always been distinctively Christian. Nearly all of the movement’s leaders have been evangelical Christians. Although a few Orthodox Jews and a number of conservative Catholics support some of the Christian Right’s goals, the movement’s leadership has always come from a rather narrow range of evangelical Christian denominations. And the movement’s history can be understood only in the context of the history of twentieth-century conservative Christianity, especially evangelical Protestantism.
Read the rest of part 1 of my interview here.