We Gather Together: The Religious Right and the Problem of Interfaith Politics An Interview with Neil J. Young

Samira K. Mehta

Neil J. Young. We Gather Together: The Religious Right and the Problem of Interfaith Politics. (New York: Oxford University Press, 2015)

SKM: Neil, thank you for agreeing to be interviewed here on Religion in American History. I may, however, have to start with a complaint: for the entire time I have had your book on my desk, I have also had the hymn running through my head!

NJY: Thank you! There are probably worse things that could be stuck in your head, but I will take the blame here. I will say that having a book titled “We Gather Together” come out in November means you receive a lot of Google Alerts about Thanksgiving-related items rather than your own book. That said, I really love hymns and hymn history, so I loved getting to use one for my title.

SKM: For those who are not familiar with your book, you tell the story of the rise of the religious right, but rather than focusing on evangelicals, or even on evangelicals and Catholics, you add Mormons into the story. How did you decide to use an expanded cast of characters in determining who to include in the religious right?

NJY: I felt it was really important to include Mormons in my story since they had been mostly overlooked by the literature. Nearly all histories of the religious right mentioned Mormons as key players in their introductions, but these works then ignored Mormons and the LDS Church for the rest of their story, so I felt it was essential to bring them in. Additionally, religious right operatives like Jerry Falwell and Phyllis Schlafly constantly mentioned Mormons as important political allies, so I wanted to see what that looked like for the movement. Knowing how controversial Mormonism has been, especially for evangelicals, added a dimension to the story I wanted to investigate. How did evangelicals and, to a lesser extent, Catholics build and navigate political alliances with a faith they historically rejected as un-Christian? Lastly, including Mormons allowed me to tell a national story about the Religious Right, rather than one focused largely on the South.

SKM: So, Mormons were major players even before Proposition 8 and Mitt Romney?

NJY: The LDS Church had long been active in Utah and other western state politics for most of the twentieth century, but in the 1970s the church emerged on the national stage as one of the most powerful player against the ratification of the Equal Rights Amendment. Mormons also worked against abortion rights, gay rights, sex education, and pornography, but these were largely independent efforts taking place within the Mormon network. The LDS Church discouraged its members from partnering with other Christian conservatives because of lingering fears about how others, particularly evangelicals, viewed the Mormon faith. LDS involvement in national politics combined with a general resistance to alliance building and political partnering was a development I wanted to centralize in my narrative as a way of complicating how we understand the emergence and influence of the religious right.

SKM: In addition, rather than starting that story in the 1970s, you begin in the 1950s. What lead to that choice?

NJY: My book is a religious history that addresses political consequences rather than a political history of religious actors. I was trying to understand what all three groups - Mormons, Catholics, and evangelicals - were focusing on beyond the realm of politics, and I wanted to figure out when they really began watching each other and started their interfaith conversations. So much of the history of the Religious Right begins in the 1970s with Roe v. Wade and the Equal Rights Amendment, but I kept looking further back into the sources and seeing that starting in the 1950s these three groups began noticing each other as opponents to the ecumenical movement and the claims of Protestant liberalism. This shared identity as outsiders to the religious consensus of mid-century was striking to me as it was to evangelicals, Catholics, and Mormons at the time. In recognizing this common position, these three faiths started moving closer together even as they maintained and, in fact, sharpened their own critiques of each other. That religious history preceded and shaped the political developments of the following decades. As I write in my introduction, “The emergence of the Religious Right was not a brilliant political strategy of compromise and coalition-building hatched on the eve of a history-altering election. Rather, it was the latest iteration of a religious debate that had gone on for decades, sparked by the ecumenical contentions of mainline Protestantism rather than by secular liberal political victories.”

SKM: Reading your book, it strikes me as deeply appropriate that you titled it with a hymn, actually. If most books about the religious right forefront the political alliances and implications of religious conservatives, you really place theology at the center of your story. These are not political conservatives who happen to be religious. These are religious people who are trying to enact theologically inflected politics. Is that a fair characterization of your project?

NJY: Yes. As I said above, I intended this book to be a religious history, so taking theology seriously and thinking about how it revealed historical change was really important for my understanding the development of the religious right. In my dissertation, which is what this book is based on, I had only looked at sermons and religious publications about abortion, and the ERA, and gay rights, etc., and I had only focused on political organizing around elections. But as I revised the dissertation into this book, I expanded my scope to examine as much as possible the full religious life of these three faiths. I literally looked at every single page of every issue of Christianity Today, for example, and did the same for similar publications of the LDS Church and Catholic Church. I read as many sermons, religious pamphlets, and materials I could get my hands on. All of this was to understand the full religious context of these groups and to see what commonalities, what points of agreement, and what divergences arose beyond the usual examples of abortion politics or gay rights.

SKM: Historically, there are many tensions between evangelicals, Catholics, and Mormons. They are deeply theologically uncomfortable with each other. How did they reconcile those differences in order to create political partnerships?

NJY: This is the ongoing challenge my book explores. I argue that rather than reconciling or even overlooking these tensions, Mormons, Catholics, and evangelicals refined and reformed their critiques of each other even as and because they were forming these political alliances. For just one example, evangelical leaders worried that lay evangelicals would wrongly see Mormons as fellow Christians if they drew too close together politically. So, even as evangelical leaders admired Mormons for their cultural conservatism and their political opposition to abortion and the ERA, they increased their anti-Mormon educational efforts in evangelical churches. It’s no coincidence, I argue, that the wildly popular anti-Mormon movie, The God Makers, emerged in evangelical circles during the early years of the Reagan presidency as evangelicals and Mormons drew together politically. One thing that has changed, however, is the “cult” terminology evangelicals used to describe Mormonism. As they aligned politically, most evangelicals softened the “cult” language regarding Mormonism while maintaining their basic objections to the LDS faith. This became especially noticeable in the 2012 election when groups like Christianity Today and the Southern Baptist Convention, the very institutions that had most developed and disseminated the “cult” definition of Mormonism through the years, disavowed this terminology in order to make Mitt Romney more palatable as a presidential candidate to the very evangelical voters these institutions had spent decades educating about Mormonism’s “cultic” ways.

SKM: Since you brought up Mitt Romney, and since we all spent 2012 in the midst of a “Mormon moment,” I feel like I need to ask: Do you think that his loss showed us that the country is not yet ready for a Mormon president? Or do you think Mitt Romney’s religion was not, in the end, relevant to his failed campaign?

NJY: I don’t think Romney lost in 2012 because of his Mormonism. Election data show this was an insignificant factor in the general election. However, Romney’s Mormonism was certainly a liability in his bid for the Republican nomination in 2008 and again in 2012. My book closely documents both of those races and the response of evangelical Republicans to Romney. Although Romney captured the nomination in 2012, he still struggled to overcome evangelical resistance throughout the primaries. But two important differences from 2008 were critical to his success in 2012. The first was that Romney changed how he talked about his Mormon faith. In 2008, Romney mistakenly tried to present his faith as essentially the same as evangelical Christianity, which drew strong backlash from evangelical leaders. As Richard Land, president of the Southern Baptist Convention’s Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission at the time, said, “When he goes around and says Jesus Christ is my Lord and Savior, he ticks off at least half the evangelicals.” By 2012, Romney had dropped the evangelical talk and largely avoided discussing his Mormonism, focusing instead on issues, particularly “religious liberty,” that appealed to evangelicals. The second significant difference was the depth of evangelical commitment to stopping Obama’s reelection in 2012. Throughout the primary season, surveys showed that although evangelical Republicans were hesitant to back Romney they indicated they would fully support him should he emerge as the nominee. And they did so. Romney won 79% of the white evangelical vote in 2012, a figure that matched George W. Bush’s results in 2004 and that improved on John McCain’s 2008 numbers by six points. All of this was accompanied by a reevaluation of Mormonism from key evangelical institutions like Christianity Today and the Southern Baptist Convention, as I mentioned above, that went into overdrive once Romney secured the nomination and faced Obama in the general election.

SKM: Did the religious triumvirate of evangelicals, Mormons, and Catholics have to negotiate politically, as well as theologically?

NJY:  Yes, but usually not as successfully as we might imagine. For instance, I show how during the Reagan years, the coalition broke apart over the issue of abortion and school prayers. Various constituencies, largely driven by theological differences and historic tensions, could not settle on legislative language or political strategy. And they often simply failed to work together once in power. I found one Reagan White House memo after another on school prayer meetings that included only evangelicals. Whether Catholics and Mormons were purposely omitted or simply forgotten is not clear, but they were not present at any of the important strategy meetings. That Mormons and Catholics then opposed or ignored the school prayer measures that came out during the Reagan years becomes less surprising given their absence in the political process.  

SKM: You argue the religious right had a more complicated relationship with Reagan than a lot of other historians have.

NJY: One of the big surprises for me as I researched in the Reagan archives was how angry religious conservatives were with the president at the time. A lot of our understanding of the Reagan years has been clouded by a politically-shaped memory that characterizes all things Reagan as the high point of conservatism. But religious conservatives felt that Reagan took their votes for granted and ignored them once in office. They wrote the president scathing letters and threatened to stay home in the 1984 race. Of course, this didn’t bear out because they didn’t want to see Walter Mondale elected. And many felt that Reagan would turn to their agenda during a second administration. But their frustrations only increased after 1984. Obviously, there were influential religious right leaders who had great access to Reagan, and the Reagan administration certainly worked on issues like school prayer and abortion. But there were many who felt this was more about appearances than real commitment, and my argument largely agrees with that assessment. Additionally, in examining issues like national defense and the economy my book shows a more complicated relationship between Reagan and religious conservatives. It was interesting, for example, to see that both the LDS Church and the Catholic Church launched some of the strongest challenges Reagan faced regarding his nuclear arms agenda and national security strategy.

SKM: You mention times when the political collaboration was not as successful as one might have thought. Of course, over the time you were writing the dissertation, and then the book, attitudes towards gay rights--marriage in particular--have changed dramatically. How has this coalition weathered those changes? Does their response have anything to do with the role back of women’s rights?

NJY: These issues have helped conservative evangelicals, Catholics, and Mormons feel more closely aligned culturally and politically. One of the arguments of my book is that these groups feel closest to each other in moments of political and social setback, when they especially feel like outsiders to the cultural consensus. With gay marriage and other issues, including the Hobby Lobby case, Christian conservatives have a particularly strong sense of themselves as an embattled minority. That identity has been very useful politically. It helped unite them during the “wilderness years” of the 1970s and the 1990s, fueling the rise of Ronald Reagan and George W. Bush. In this current moment, the language of “religious liberty” has helped bind religious conservatives together. This is no accident. During the Clinton years, religious right leaders like Ralph Reed of the Christian Coalition began shifting their public discourse from issue-based politics to the language of religious freedom. Out of power and frustrated over the challenges in coming to agreement on shared political objectives, Christian conservative leaders believed religious liberty could best unite the coalition and provide the strongest argument for its political involvements. That has been especially the case in the Obama years. And I’d also argue that in a nation that has largely accepted marriage equality and the social and political inclusion of gay and lesbian Americans, the language of religious liberty is a shrewd strategy for advancing conservative politics, particularly on issues of sexuality and gender, under the cover of “protecting” Constitutional rights.

SKM: Looking ahead to the next several months, how do you see religion and interfaith politics playing out through the rest of the primary season, and then in the general election?

NJY: I’ve understandably been asked this question many times in interviews over the last couple of months, and every time my answer has changed. In some ways this speaks to my hesitation as a historian about making predictions of the future, but I also think it’s a function of just how unusual the 2016 election has been. The biggest mystery of 2016 for me has been Donald Trump’s success with evangelical voters (and, conversely, Ted Cruz’s inability to generate sufficient evangelical support). But I think the strong and spirited opposition to Trump from influential evangelicals like Russell Moore, Max Lucado, Peter Wehner, and the folks at Christianity Today, is an equally important component of the story. There’s a full on battle within American evangelicalism going on right now over Trump, but this is a fight that is more about theology and identity than it is about politics. As my book shows, debates over theology and worship have long divided evangelicals, and underlying all of this has been the consistent questions of “what is evangelicalism?” and “who is an evangelical?”. 2016 is seeing this play out in a political context, but it’s not a new phenomenon as much as it is the latest iteration of an ongoing conversation. But I think the big question at this point is whether those evangelicals who are opposed to Trump - and it’s important to remember that although he’s “winning” the evangelical vote he’s doing so in a very divided field where 60-70 percent of evangelical Republicans are voting against him - whether they will continue to be against him in the general election. The evangelical leaders I’ve mentioned have made unequivocal statements that they will not support Trump no matter what, and they have helped launch the #NeverTrump movement. But will lay evangelicals who oppose Trump now continue to do so when he is facing Hillary Clinton in the general election? The circumstances are ripe for a third-party Christian conservative candidate, but can anti-Trump evangelicals bring conservative Catholics and Mormons into the fold? These are the questions to consider in the months ahead, but I think it’s really anyone’s guess how they will be answered at this point.

Neil J. Young is an independent scholar of U.S. history, focusing on post-1945 religion, politics, and culture. His first book, We Gather Together: The Religious Right and the Problem of Interfaith Politics (Oxford, 2015), explores the rise of the Religious Right and the challenges of building religious and political alliances among conservative evangelicals, Catholics, and Mormons.  He is currently conducting research on one of Hollywood's most famous icons. Neil holds an A.B. from Duke University and a Ph.D. in history from Columbia University. He previously taught at Princeton University.  His writings have appeared in the Journal of Policy HistoryAmerican Quarterly, and in Evangelicals and the 1960s. He frequently contributes historical analysis to publications including the New York TimesSlate, and the Huffington Post. Currently, he is a co-host of the history podcast Past Present.


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