Family Values and the Rise of the Christian Right. An interview with Seth Dowland.



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Samira K. Mehta

Seth Dowland. Family Values and the Rise of the Christian Right. (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2015)


SKM: Seth, first of all, as someone who also works on religion and the American family, I am so excited to have your book in my hands. I have been teaching your article of a similar name (published in Church History in 2009) for years and expect to make similar use of the book.

SD: Thanks, Samira -- both for your excitement about the book and for doing this interview.

SKM: I was really struck by an argument that you make in chapter 2, “Textbook Politics,” that at issue for Christian schools was not only the content of the education, but also the manner of inquiry, essentially an educational system that prioritized top down instruction versus exploration of concepts. Until you said that, I would have pointed to content based differences such as: Were the Founding Fathers Christian or not? Do we include histories of women or not? Do we teach evolution, creationism, or both?, but you make it clear that there are very distinct pedagogical approaches. Would you say more about that difference?

Image courtesy of Liberty Christian Academy
SD: As I dug into the sources surrounding textbook controversies, I was surprised by the emphasis conservative evangelicals placed on pedagogical methods. They did protest some of the content in textbooks, as you would expect, but they also protested educators’ emphasis on inductive reasoning. In the words of conservative textbook protester Norma Gabler, “too many textbooks leave students to make up their own minds about things.” For conservative evangelicals, historical facts were indisputable. Recent innovations like social history and “new math” invited students to come up with their own truths. Given evangelical belief in human sinfulness, such an invitation was a recipe for disaster. They insisted that teachers and textbooks should offer an authoritative account of history, science, and math.

In the book I argue that such an approach to education emerged from a couple evangelical beliefs. First, evangelicals believed God had set up authority structures to govern society. Undermining authority went against God’s plan. Second, American evangelicals’ approach to scripture encouraged a robust faith in the determinative power of written texts. As Norma Gabler put it, “textbooks mold nations because they largely determine how a nation votes, what it becomes, and where it goes.” They worried that the pedagogical innovations offered by new textbooks went hand in hand with cultural relativism, and they determined to put the nation back on track by returning to old, didactic methods of instruction.


SKM: And in some ways, that structure versus content question was echoed in internal evangelical debates about homeschooling as well, yes?

SD: That’s right. One of the more unusual alliances I discuss in the book came in the early 1980s, when conservative evangelicals joined forces with John Holt, a liberal who published the most prominent homeschooling magazine in the 1970s, Growing Without Schooling. Holt believed that public schools stifled students’ creativity and advocated an approach called “unschooling,” which would allow students to follow their curiosity and discover things for themselves.

This approach obviously conflicted with the top-down authoritarian approach preferred by conservative evangelicals, but they partnered with Holt initially since his was the largest national homeschooling organization in the early 1980s. By the late 1980s, however, evangelical homeschoolers had formed their own organizations and developed independent publishing houses, such as a Beka Books and Bob Jones University Publishers. Evangelical homeschooling magazines carried advertisements for surplus school desks so that moms could re-create the traditional classroom in their living rooms. Such an approach was antithetical to Holt’s unschooling philosophy, which lost ground relative to the massive influx of evangelical homeschoolers in the 1980s.

Image courtesy of Bill Tiernan
SKM: Because I love the ironies of history, could you say more about evangelical homeschoolers using (or trying to use) Roe v. Wade to bolster their legal case to educate their children at home?

SD: Evangelical attorney Michael Farris founded the Homeschool Legal Defense Association (HSLDA) in 1983. He promised to defend any HSLDA member charged with resisting compulsory education laws. Such prosecutions were rare, but they were still happening in the mid-1980s. Homeschoolers who refused to submit to state certification procedures occasionally found themselves in court, where they tried to make various constitutional defenses of a right to teach children at home, without any state oversight. The most common tactic for evangelical homeschoolers was to cite the First Amendment right of free exercise. Only one case to that point had successfully defended home education on a First Amendment basis: 1972’s Wisconsin v. Yoder. In the Yoder decision, the Court carefully circumscribed the right of home-based vocational education to the Old Order Amish, a group with “a history of three centuries as an identifiable religious sect.” Evangelicals were generally unsuccessful at defending their right to homeschool using the Yoder precedent.

Homeschoolers had marginally better success at defending homeschooling by appealing to the 14th Amendment, which provides for equal protection and due process. In particular, evangelical homeschoolers cited the Supreme Court’s 1925 decision in Pierce v. Society of Sisters, which prevented states from requiring attendance at public school and held that “the child is not the mere creature of of the state.” Pierce was used as a precedent in the 1973 Roe v. Wade decision, which permitted women to terminate a pregnancy and provided for parents’ rights to make private decisions about the bearing and rearing of children -- decisions like choosing to educate children at home, for example. Although one homeschooling advocate noted that Roe provided a strong legal precedent for defending homeschoolers’ rights against state interference, evangelicals in the 1980s were trying to overturn Roe. So they mostly stayed away from making that argument.

SKM: Were evangelicals concerned that if they ever managed to have Roe v. Wade overturned, homeschooling rights would crumble?

SD: This question gets to the heart of the book’s argument: conservative evangelicals made the family the central unit in their political rhetoric because they worried that the language of equal rights would enable humans’ worst tendencies to run unchecked. They rejected the Court’s reasoning in Roe that abortion was solely a woman’s choice. Instead, they argued that abortion involved a family -- a father, mother, and unborn child. By rendering abortion as a family decision, the Christian right crafted a political rhetoric that guarded against government overreach without embracing the notion that everyone could do as they please. Evangelicals believed men and women had particular roles to play, and they saw those roles epitomized in the family.

I’m hesitant to say that evangelicals were concerned about the the possible side effects of an overturning of Roe, but they were certainly aware of the need to challenge the Court’s assumptions about privacy rights. Conservatives wanted to protect families’ right of privacy, but they were unwilling to embrace the right of privacy outlined by Roe, which, in their minds, undermined the family.

SKM: As you answer this question, please keep in mind that I am someone whose mother put an ERA Yes! button over her crib: One of the things that find most interesting, in studies of conservative women’s groups is the idea that feminism erodes women’s rights, that, essentially, feminism is not only bad for men and children, but for women. The family values agenda, with its separate spheres, is seen as healthy, and even empowering for women. Could you say more about that particular juxtaposition?

SD: Because most evangelicals believed that God had laid out distinct roles for men and women, they challenged second-wave feminists who argued that women ought to seek pay parity, or government-supported daycare, or equal representation in boardrooms. These transformations would, in their minds, devalue motherhood. Anti-feminist women were careful to defend women’s essential equality with men, but they argued that feminists mistook equality for sameness. Anti-feminist women argued for separate (spheres) but equal. The backlash against the Equal Rights Amendment came about as anti-feminist women embraced Phyllis Schlafly’s characterization of the ERA as anti-woman. Schlafly argued that current laws--if correctly enforced--already provided women equal protection. She said that ERA would go beyond the wishes of most women and would force women to abandon their high calling as wives and mothers (by, for instance, requiring them to register for the draft). They saw the suburban home not as a type of “concentration camp” (in the famous words of Betty Friedan) but as an expression of God’s will for their lives. Feminists who wanted to encourage women to make choices other than embracing motherhood became “enemies of the family.”

SKM: Scholars of conservative women often note the irony of women leaving the home to defend their right to stay in it. If the women you write about believe in a Biblical mandate to stay in the home, how do they navigate being called to political life?

SD: This one was easy for conservative evangelical women: they were justified in their political activity as long as they predicated such activity on their roles as wives and mothers. Textbook watchdog Norma Gabler went to Texas state adoption hearings for decades (and made publishers “quake with fear” that she would discover errors or offensive language in their texts), but always with the rhetorical standing of a mother aggrieved about her son’s textbooks. Anti-gay activist Anita Bryant called her campaign to prevent gays and lesbians from becoming public school teachers “Save Our Children.” (And Bryant quickly disappeared from the spotlight after she divorced, suggesting the importance of marriage among pro-family leaders.) Bev LaHaye signed her fundraising letters as,
Image courtesy of Stonewall Museum & National Archives
“Author, Lecturer, Mother, and Pastor’s Wife.” These women believed that political activity was legitimate as long as they did it in defense of their families. Such beliefs resulted in a peculiar position during the 2008 campaign, when a faction of conservative evangelicals defended Sarah Palin’s right to run for the vice presidency so long as she didn’t seek leadership in the church or her family. Outsiders were mystified, but that position depended on the particular norms laid out by the pro-family movement: women could range far outside the home as long as they embraced their role within it.

SKM: The abortion chapter addresses one of the most interesting aspects of the abortion debate, which is that the pro-life position, formerly seen as the terrain of Catholics, becomes a site of Evangelical-Catholic cooperation. What strikes you about that partnership? How did each group have to shift to accommodate the other?

SD: The most striking thing was how quickly these two groups came together in the late 1970s. After all, just over a decade earlier, conservative evangelicals voiced some of the loudest concerns about John F. Kennedy’s Catholicism in the 1960 election. But by the late 1970s, there was significant “co-belligerence,” in the famous words of Francis Schaeffer. I think there at least a couple reasons why.

First, evangelicals were never pro-abortion, even if they were not the most vocal critics of the Roe v. Wade decision in its immediate aftermath. As Matt Sutton’s American Apocalypse demonstrates, some fundamentalists were decrying abortion in the 1930s. L. Nelson Bell, who was one of the leading evangelical voices against Kennedy in 1960, was railing against abortion in the late 1960s and early 1970s. So even if Roe didn’t immediately mobilize evangelicals, it wasn’t exactly popular among them, either.
Second, conservative Catholics had already begun to find common cause with conservative Protestants on social issues, even as they drifted away from liberals in their own church. Illinois Catholic Phyllis Schlafly led the anti-ERA movement and found her greatest support among white evangelical southerners (nearly all of the states that didn’t ratify the amendment were in the Sunbelt). The STOP ERA movement was a precursor to a larger pro-life movement, and in many ways the enemy was the same: “anti-family” feminists.

SKM: You have the section on gay rights listed under the “father” heading, which I found striking in a year that has seen significant political wins for the gay rights movement, at the same time that women’s rights have seen notable rollbacks. Can you talk about the masculine quality of the opposition to gay rights movements? Does it matter to the movement that we talk much more about gay rights than about gay and lesbian rights?

SD: The gay rights chapter was the hardest to fit in my 3 sections (children, mothers, fathers), but I think it’s fair to place it in the fathers section. For one thing, conservative evangelicals worried most about gay men preying on their children. The sources I researched featured countless warnings about the pathologies and depravity of gay men, who would “recruit” young boys to the “homosexual lifestyle.” Lesbianism seemed almost an afterthought to conservative evangelicals, and lesbians and feminists were frequently lumped together in pro-family political rhetoric. Also, conservative evangelicals worried about weakness in American men, and they saw gay rights as a symptom of that weakness. When evangelicals soured on Jimmy Carter, they used unsubtle metaphors to impugn his manhood: Carter “comes out of the closet” on military preparedness; or, “White House Conference on Families Shapes Up as Gay Affair.” Much of the opposition to gay rights derived from a normative heterosexual masculinity, so it made sense to locate that chapter in the fathers section.

SKM: Last semester, I taught a class entitled Gender and Sexuality in American Religion. I got some pushback from men in the class about how “woman heavy” the list of authors was. On the one hand, I was frustrated, because another class was similarly dominated by texts by men and no one even noticed. On the other, part of what excites me about your book is that it is a gender history that addresses constructions of familial gender roles and that you are a man. Do you have thoughts about being a male scholar writing on histories of gender?

SD: During the 1970s and 1980s, a vanguard of feminist scholars demonstrated the patriarchal assumptions that have dominated religious history. For those of us trained in the generation after these feminist scholars made gender a “useful category of historical analysis,” ignorance of the role gender plays in religious history isn’t an option. Even so, I was surprised that evangelical sources reflected an obsession with gender as clearly as they did. I didn’t have to dig too deeply or read between the lines to discover how important gender norms were to evangelicals; they made the point loudly and repeatedly. My book, in one sense, simply illustrates the gender norms that evangelicals constructed. I am hardly the first scholar to notice how important gender and sexuality were to white evangelicals in the late twentieth century.

Sadly, neither the demographics of your reading list nor your students’ comments surprise me. Women have produced the lion’s share of great scholarly work on religion and gender, and masculine norms remain less visible and less studied in scholarly literature. Many male students are still apt to equate “gender” with “women”; a 15-person course I taught last year on Religion and Gender enrolled all women! (This isn’t meant to be self-congratulatory: I never took a class on gender as an undergraduate, either.) But it does speak to the work still in front of us, both to normalize the study of gender among men and to excavate those sites where the role of gender is more hidden. I take this to be a feminist task, and I hope to pursue it further in my next big project: a history of Christian manhood from the era of “muscular Christianity” to the present.


Seth Dowland is an Assistant Professor of Religion and Women's and Gender Studies at Pacific Luthern University.

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