The Long History of the Religious Right

Ever since so many of them embraced the Reagan Revolution during the 1980 election cycle, the political involvement of evangelicals has garnered the attention of scholars and journalists.  For many, the story of resurgent evangelical political involvement became one of backlash.  Reacting against progressive politics and loosening social mores of the 1960s, evangelicals embraced a conservative political agenda in order to “save America.”  In the late 1970s, this meant joining the Reagan Revolution in order to usher Jimmy Carter and his progressive allies out of office.

In fact, many factors commend this interpretation.  Initially enamored with candidate Jimmy Carter due to his evangelical bona fides (he unashamedly claimed to be “born again”), many evangelicals grew frustrated with his progressive social positions and policies.  This frustration, in turn, became the foundation upon which Jerry Falwell built the Moral Majority beginning in 1979.  The same year, Beverly LaHaye launched the anti-feminist, anti-ERA, pro-life group Concerned Women for America.  And the following year (1980), evangelical discomfiture with certain developments at President Carter’s White House Conference on Families became the seedbed for the emergence of the Family Research Council, incorporated in 1983.

In 1989, Pat Robertson and Ralph Reed launched The Christian Coalition – a semi-successor to the Moral Majority–upon the heels of Robertson’s unsuccessful 1988 bid for the Republican Presidential nomination.  The Coalition produced voter guides that steered many evangelicals to cast ballots for pro-family candidates in national elections.  Most (but not all) of those candidates were Republicans.  By the mid-1990s, the vast majority of evangelicals had become fairly reliable Republican “values voters,” playing important roles in the Gingrich Revolution of 1994 and the electoral victories of George W. Bush.

Coming on the heels of the cultural upheaval of the 1960s, this sequence of events certainly can be fitted into a backlash narrative.  Many interpreters have chosen to explicitly (or implicitly) embrace that paradigm in order to explain the rise of the Religious Right.  Recently, however, a new trend has emerged.

Mirroring the recent trend in Civil Rights history which examines the “long Civil Rights movement,” newer works on the history of evangelical political engagement are embracing a longer view of the emergence of the Christian Right.  The seeds of this interpretative shift could be seen in the first edition of William Martin’s With God on Our Side, released in 1996 as a companion piece to six-episode PBS documentary of the same name.

More recently, other works have embraced this interpretation more explicitly.  Daniel K. Williams’ God’s Own Party:The Making of the Christian Right briefly reaches back to the 1920s, demonstrating how evangelicals possessed a history of political involvement that manifested itself as G.O.P. partisanship in the late twentieth-century.  Building on Lisa McGirr’s Suburban Warriors: The Origins of the New American Right, Darren Dochuk’s exhaustively-researched From Bible Belt to Sun Belt: Plain-Folk Religion, Grassroot Politics, and the Rise of Evangelical Conservatism engages in deeper analysis.  He traces the manner in which developments among Southern plain-folk Christians democrats displaced to Southern California in the 1920s and 1930s ultimately fueled the anti-labor, pro-free enterprise Reagan Revolution that enveloped evangelicals nationally.

Both Axel Schäfer’s Countercultural Conservatives: American Evangelicalism from the Postwar Revival to the New Christian Right and Moral Minority by David Swartz (the best book on evangelicals who did not become reliable Republican voters by the mid-1990s) also embrace a longer view of the rise of the Religious Right.  Next month, The University of Wisconsin Press will release American Evangelicals and the 1960s, a collection of essays edited by Schäfer that likewise aim to correct the backlash thesis.  Matthew Sutton’s new reader, Jerry Falwell and the Rise of the Religious Right: A Brief History With Documents, also adopts the longer view, although in centering the volume around Jerry Falwell it simultaneously give credence to the the older interpretation.  Some recently published books, such as God’s Right Hand: How Jerry Falwell Made God a Republican and Baptized the American Rights by Michael Sean Winter, continue to promulgate the older view more explicitly.

In my estimation, the history of the emergence of the Religious Right is a complicated one.  Without a doubt, the Moral Majority and other groups helped usher many evangelicals in the world of partisan politics at a particular moment in American political history.  Thus, focusing on that period of time as a seminal era remains valid.  It addresses the historical question: why now?  At the same time, the longer view helps provide context, which always aids in historical understanding.  By seeking to understand the history of evangelical political activity in America prior to the 1970s, we garner valuable information that would have eluded us otherwise.  Specifically, we garner information regarding the variety of evangelical political action, and the manner in which evangelicals shaped and were shaped by other movements (and moments) in American history.

About Miles Mullin
  • derbradster

    The Religious/Moral right was energized or aroused from indifference with Roe v Wade but marching orders werent generated until Carter and Jim Guy Tucker (later to succeed Clinton and precede Huckabee as Ark Gov) hosted a big White House conference on The Family.
    Of course when you say “the” you assume there is only one kind of domestic structure which qualifies as a family: a married mother and father with kids. Many of the conferees, however, were in family structures outside that description and agitated for the conference to be re-named “The White House Conference on Families”
    Connaught “Connie” Marshner and other traditionalists resented and resisted the name change to placate same sex couples, single parents etc. The dissident traditionalists banded together, exhanged numbers and addresses [no email back then] and thus we saw the emergence of social conservatism shaped and guided by religion. Jim Wallis and a few non-conservatives have attempted to raise their voices counter to Falwell and other fundagelical theoCons, but his success has been limited. The progressivism of Catholics like the late labor organizer Dorothy Day similar lost out to men like Father Richard John Neuhaus, the founder of FIRST THINGS.

    • Miles Mullin

      Yes, the White House Conference (and SEICUS, etc.) was very important in the rise of the Religious Right. However, my goal was to point to some good discussions of the longer developments leading up to those moments without denying they were catalytic.

  • davidrswartz

    Nice historiographical write-up, Miles!

  • John Turner

    Nice piece, Miles.

    I definitely agree with the long view, at least in terms of evangelical sensibilities.

    I do wonder, however, if it took the backlash for a critical mass of evangelicals to engage in any serious and sustained forms of political activism. I have to review Darren’s book to examine this question further.

    In my mind, there’s a difference between the incipient “Christian Citizen” sort of attempts of the early 1960s and what you get once Nixon and Carter demonstrate the potential of an evangelical voting bloc.

    • Miles Mullin

      Thanks, John. I like the term “sensibilities.”

      Darren’s book is definitely worth a read. If you don’t quite have time, you can look at my review in Fides et Historia. Two issues ago, I think.

      The long view is complicated by some factors which I don’t think the historiography is addressing quite well enough. Maybe I will take that up in a later post.

      I think you are correct. The Carter years especially seem to me to be a catalyst for something a bit different. After all, in the 1976 election, evangelicals voted for Carter and Ford at roughly the same levels. Even so, the long view is helpful in teasing out some things we miss otherwise.

  • Miles Mullin

    Good thoughts, Joe. Without a doubt, historical actors remain important in historical developments.

  • TheodoreSeeber

    In Europe a hundred miles is a long way. In America, a hundred years is a long time.

    • Miles Mullin

      Well said.

  • Jerry Lynch

    Looking for a revival hosted by a political party: interesting. I may be getting the wrong drift here so I’ll ask: are you painting a favorable review of this political involvement? To me, as a lifelong Christian, “any serious and sustained forms of political activism” by Christians does the Gospel a grave injustice. We are meant to be an alternative to the world, not reprepresenting the choice between two highly flawed worldly constructs. The phrase “God’s Own Party” literally made me ill: this is blatant enmity with God, or what in the good old days would rightly be called an “abomination.” What is really scary to me is the blindness envolved in such thinking.
    Jesus was wholly in favor of divorce in any and all cases involving marriage to worldly systems. Do not get entangled! But too late, for most are already interwoven into the fabric of these ungodly endeavors.

    • Miles Mullin

      Jerry: thanks for the comment. In this piece, I am neither painting a favorable nor unfavorable review of the historical reality of American evangelical political involvement. I am simply trying to make readers aware of the shift in historiography on the topic that has recently developed.

      The appellation “God’s Own Party” is not my own, but that of Dr. Williams. I do think it accurately describes how some evangelicals see the GOP.

      Thanks for reading!

      -Miles

      • Jerry Lynch

        Miles, sorry, I was aware that the GOP comment was not yours; I should have been clear about that but it seemed obvious.

        I guess my point is, what “valuable information” about these Christian misadventures other than to cease and desist and repent for these actions, and to see how useless on one hand and damaging on the other those efforts were. If the purpose is to compose a detailed Before Picture, exposing the intricate facets and charms of self-deception, to contrast with a Biblical After Picture, highly commendable.

        And I did see it more as a neutral piece, laying a ground plan for historical precision. I have not read any of the books cited but from the titles it seems these books were not cautionary tales or criticism but favorable and maybe even glowing about this misplaced heart and mind of the Christian.


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