God’s Own Party, cont.

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.


Anonymous said…
Thanks, Steven. This is a very helpful review and I'm looking forward to reading this book. I've reflected quite a bit on the "role of abortion" issue in the rise of the Christian Right (especially in a course I taught on the Long 1960s) and I'm eager to see how this is treated since you point to how it is framed in this book (Balmer definitely adopts the more cynical reading). Thanks for the review!

Curtis J Evans
Seth Dowland said…
I got my copy of God's Own Party last weekend, and I'll echo Matt and Steven's assessment: this is a great--and sorely needed--book. I'm glad Steven highlighted Williams' treatment of abortion. The prevailing consensus had long been that evangelicals didn't awaken to the pro-life cause till the late 1970s. But Williams convincingly demonstrates that evangelical and fundamentalist opposition to Roe was widespread (albeit poorly coordinated) much earlier. My sense is that the sweeping and surprising nature of the Court's decision caught most abortion foes off guard (as Williams points out, only 4 states had abortion laws liberal enough to abide by the new standard). Even pro-choice activists were a bit surprised by Roe. Williams shows how evangelicals and (especially) fundamentalists jumped into the fray quickly after the decision. While it was unclear that Republicans would eventually adopt such a strident pro-life platform (even in the 1980 election, a majority of pro-lifers voted for Carter), many evangelicals opposed the decision from the start.

Congrats to Dan Williams for a wonderful new book!
Luke Harlow said…
Very interesting; thanks for this post, Steven.

Following Curtis and Seth's comments: Does Williams treat directly Balmer's argument that the "abortion myth" obscured the more profound issue of the 1970s that coalesced evangelicals: namely, the IRS revoking tax-exempt status for institutions that maintained racial segregation (specifically Bob Jones University)?

Very much looking forward to sitting down with this book.
Seth Dowland said…
Luke: Williams addresses that argument briefly. He writes, "while the IRS fight was a seminal event in mobilizing Christian conservatives, it would not have had the same impact if it had not been preceded by a series of other evangelical campaigns against govt policies" (164).
Tom Van Dyke said…
Acid, amnesty and abortion.

What I didn't know was that critique of McGovern originated with his Democratic opponents.

Time magazine, 1972.


Any account of the Christian right that reads "Republican" must account for the Democrat turn to the left, which Mr. Dowland informatively touches on here. It didn't happen in a vacuum.
foxofbama said…
Steven Fabulous work you've done. I am in conversation with friends at both Furman and Baylor hoping they have the good sense to have you on campus soon as logistically possible.
At Baylor would be grand to have President Ken Starr himself maybe as part of a panel to followup and or Rove. Barry Hankins work there on SBC conservatives Uneasy in Babylon could round out the discussion.

I still have my copy of Marshall Frady's grand work on Graham; bought it in Knoxville, Tn in 79 at great expense to my budget at the time. And the son of Roger Milliken, Nixon's biggest single contributor in 72 was my good friend the summer of 1970. Milliken Jr. is now a Buddhist and head of the TNC.org in addition to running the family timber business in Maine. Thought you might find that aspect of Nixon world maybe as interesting as I found your reference to Nixon, Rhodes and the SBC, a new anecdote for me.
May come back with an additional note later, but saw where you you referenced Charles Marsh in a piece. If it hasn't crossed your radar, google Marsh's lecture from Berlin of March of this year. It is sublime, soars in the last ten minutes.
Would love to see your comment here when after you have time to hear it.
Thanks; and what it a good email to get in touch you can share here?
foxofbama said…
Hope Miller will copy and paste this article to compare SBC pastor at FBC Austin Texas in the 50's Carlyle Marney;how his prophetic voice on Race that came to the attention early on of LBJ, how that voice was grander, more substantive than that of Graham to Nixon and how it came to greater effect.

Curtis Freeman of Duke on Marney in Austin and beyond.


And or keep an eye on the conversation as it develops in faith and practice forum at www.baptistlife.com/forums

Also Miller and you other revenants take alook at abortion as it played out as a theological and political wedge issue within the SBC with Manhattan Declaration leader Timothy George with his infamous and scathing Barmen Declaration Pamphlet sponsored by Rove's friend and operative in the SBC Richard Land and his entitry ERLC.
ERLC recently gave an award to Alan Sears of Alliance Defense Fund one of whose advisors in 43 failed Judicial nominee Charles Pickering of Mississippi, a member of the key Peace Committee of the SBC in the 80's.

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