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NHC Home TeacherServe Divining America 20th Century Essay:

The Christian Right
Grant Wacker
Duke University Divinity School
©National Humanities Center
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Defining the Christian Right is the first task of this essay. At the end of the 1980s, it was commonly assumed that the Christian Right consisted entirely of evangelical Protestants. Polls from that period suggested that evangelical Protestants comprised the majority of adherents, but many members of the Christian Right were not evangelical Protestants, and many evangelical Protestants were not members of the Christian Right. More precisely, the Christian Right drew support from politically conservative Catholics, Jews, Mormons, and occasionally secularists. At the same time, many evangelical Protestants showed little interest in the Christian Right's political goals. Those believers, who might be called evangelical outsiders, included confessional Protestants (especially of Dutch and German extraction), Protestants from the generally apolitical peace churches like the Amish and Old Order Mennonites, fervently fundamentalist Protestants who were so conservative that they held no hope for America or any civil society, and black and Latino Protestants who tended to be politically liberal though theologically and culturally evangelical. Evangelical outsiders also included millions of born-again Protestants who were generally sympathetic to the political aims of the Christian Right but, as a practical matter, Christian Rightremained more interested in the devotional aims or charitable work of the church than in winning elections. It may be helpful, then, to think of the Christian Right as the large shaded area in the middle of two overlapping circles. The shaded area consists of (1) evangelicals who cared enough about the political goals of the Christian Right to leave their pews and get out the vote and (2) non-evangelicals who cared enough about the political goals of the Christian Right to work with evangelicals.

How large was the Christian Right in recent elections? Hard figures are hard to come by, but polls and other indicators such as book sales indicate that the inner core—the shaded area—claimed no more than 200,000 adult Americans. On the other hand, fellow travelers, people who explicitly identify themselves as partisans of the religious right (a slightly broader category than Christian Right), ranged from ten to fifteen million. Sympathizers who might be mobilized over a specific issue such as abortion or gun control may have enlisted thirty-five million. Though the Christian Right's numerical strength leveled off in the early 1990s, its influence at the grass roots, in state and local elections, in setting school board policies, etc., has remained conspicuous. The rest of this discussion pertains primarily to the inner core of committed partisans, secondarily to the millions of sympathizers who became involved as the situation warranted.

The Christian Right emerged from both long-range and short-range developments in American life. The long-range origins lay in the growth of biblical higher criticism in the seminaries, the teaching of human evolution in public schools, and, after World War II, the real or perceived threat of Communism. (See the essay "The Rise of Fundamentalism" in Divining America: Twentieth Century.) The more immediate beginnings of the Christian Right lay in the vast cultural changes of the 1960s—civil rights conflicts, Vietnam protests, the alternative youth culture, the women's liberation movement, the sexual revolution, and the rise of new religions (which were mostly ancient religions emerging from obscurity). These transformations seemed to find a frightening echo in Supreme Court decisions that banned official (but not private) prayer and Bible readings in the schools (Engel v. Vitale, 1962), legalized first trimester abortion (Roe v. Wade, 1973), and regulated government involvement in private Christian academies (Lemon v. Kurtzman, 1971).

A conservative Christian response quickly emerged to counter these developments. Led by charismatic, energetic figures like Jerry Falwell, Pat Robertson, and Phyllis Schlafly, activists sought to defend traditional Christian values such as the authority of the Bible in all areas of life, the necessity of faith in Jesus Christ, and the relevance of biblical values in sexual relations and marital arrangements. What differentiated Falwell, Robertson, and Schlafly from other Christian spokesmen was their linking of traditional Christian values with images of a simpler small-town America of the past. Indeed, the Christian Right proved so successful in translating its concerns to a wider audience that national pollster George Gallup pronounced 1976 "the year of the evangelical." The mass media agreed. Both Time and Newsweek ran cover articles on the insurgence of evangelical Protestant Christianity. (It should be stressed that many who called themselves evangelicals, including the new president in 1976, Jimmy Carter, did not share many of the aims of the emerging Christian Right, but outsiders often failed to note such distinctions.)

In the face of this conservative Christian insurgence, the mainline Protestant establishment and the secular media looked like the proverbial deer in the headlights—utterly stunned. Where did these folk come from? What did they want? How could the Christian Right flourish in the sunlit progressivism of the Age of Aquarius?

To find answers to these questions, we need to examine the world-view of the Christian Right, which rests upon four cornerstones.

  • The assumption that moral absolutes exist as surely as mathematical or geological absolutes constitutes the first. These moral absolutes include many of the oldest and deepest assumptions of Western culture, including the fixity of sexual identities and gender roles, the preferability of capitalism, the importance of hard work, and the sanctity of unborn life. More importantly, not only do moral absolutes exist, they are clearly discernible to any who wish honestly to see them.

  • The assumption that metaphysics, morals, politics, and mundane customs stand on a continuum constitutes the second cornerstone of the Christian Right's world-view. Specifically, ideas about big things like the nature of the universe inevitably affect little things, such as how individuals choose to act in the details of daily life. And the reverse. What one thinks about the nature of God, for example, inevitably influences one's decision to feed—or not to feed—the parking meter after the cops have gone home. Contrary to the facile assumption of mainline Protestants, influenced by the Enlightenment, it is not possible for the Christian Right to draw easy lines between the public and the private spheres of life. (There is evidence that the Christian Right abandoned Jimmy Carter at precisely this point—when he announced that abortion should be legally protected in the public sphere, although he would not countenance it in the private sphere of his own family.)

  • The Christian Right further assumes—this is the third cornerstone—that government's proper role is to cultivate virtue, not to interfere with the natural operations of the marketplace or the workplace. The Christian Right remains baffled by the secular culture's apparent unwillingness, on one hand, to offer schoolchildren firm moral guidance in matters of sexuality, truthfulness, honesty, and patriotism while, on the other hand, proving ever-so-eager to engineer the smallest details of the economy. Why should conscientious, hardworking law-abiding citizens be penalized by mazes of government regulations? Why should the irresponsible, the lazy, and the unpatriotic be rewarded by those same public institutions?

  • Finally, the assumption that all successful societies need to operate within a framework of common assumptions constitutes the fourth cornerstone. Since the Western Jewish-Christian tradition has provided an eminently workable premise for the United States for the better part of four centuries, it makes no sense to undermine these premises by legitimating alien ones. The key issue is not so much what would be permitted as what would be legitimated. Many, perhaps most members of the Christian Right feel that it is one thing to permit dissidents to live in peace, quite another to say that any set of values is just as good, or just as functional, as any other set.

To outline the world-view of the Christian Right in terms of these four cornerstones is not enough, however. We must also take note of the Christian Right's sense that traditional Christians find themselves under siege. Simply stated, Christian civilization has to be defended against outside attack. Many perils loom, but those posed by the secular media, the public schools, and the enemies of the traditional family seem especially sinister. The Christian Right bitterly complains about the way that traditional Christians are overlooked, if not caricatured, in network newscasts, situation comedies, and mass circulation periodicals. They note, for example, that nearly half of the American families routinely bow their heads to offer thanks before eating, yet such simple rituals of traditional piety almost never show up on TV, except in contexts of ridicule. Moreover, the Christian Right objects to the way that their children are manipulated in the public schools. Some of the Christian Right's objections center upon the watering-down of old-fashioned academic standards, but the heart of its concern lies in the "values clarification movement." To the Christian Right, the movement does not simply "clarify values," it leads children and teenagers to believe that their parents' ideals are ephemeral constructions of time and place, and thus replaceable at will. Finally and perhaps most importantly, the traditional family finds itself besieged on all fronts. The media and the schools do their part, but the most pernicious assault stems from government policies that encourage abortion, divorce, and fatherless families. If millions saw the Equal Rights Amendment as a threat, not a boon, to the security of ordinary women, it was because the ERA promised to corrode the only tethers that kept men firmly bound to the responsibilities of home and hearth.

Guiding Student Discussion

Most issues that high school history teachers deal with lend themselves to some measure of debate, but few engender such heated opinions as the cultural significance of the Christian Right. One might begin by noting that the study of the Christian Right offers an almost laboratory-perfect case study of how to deal with a controversial religious movement in a manner that is both critical in a scholarly sense yet fair to its adherents. Part of the problem for historians is the chronological and geographical proximity of the Christian Right. How should historians treat a movement that literally swirls all around them? Beyond that, however, the explosiveness of the Christian Right as a topic of study stems from the fact that it trades upon intensely felt concerns—preeminently issues of family, sexuality, freedom of speech, and social cohesion. The goal is not to defuse students' passions about these matters but to redirect them toward productive understanding.

The best way to achieve this understanding, I suggest, is to trace the fundamental concerns of the Christian Right back to the late nineteenth century and the political configurations of that era. Though the following model requires numerous refinements, it is still useful to think of the Republican Party as an agent of morality, and the Democratic Party as an agent of justice. The Republican Party perennially sought to implement in the legal and cultural institutions of the age a vision of a hardworking, churchgoing citizenry—men and women who lived by universal standards of personal uprightness. The Democratic Party, on the other hand, sought to implement a vision of equitable sharing of the nation's resources and an acceptance of social and cultural diversity as a positive good. It would be risky, of course, to argue for direct lines of continuity for these parties from the Gilded Age to the 1990s. Even so, it does help to see the Christian Right not as an aberration but as a vigorous (or virulent, depending on one's point of view) reaffirmation of a strongly normative vision of America that has been vocalized at all levels of the culture for at least a century.

Secondly, I urge you to remind students that the broader evangelical tradition, from which the Christian Right emerged, proved politically self-conscious and socially reformist from its beginnings in the early nineteenth century. (See the article "Evangelicalism, Revivalism, and the Second Great Awakening" in Divining America: Nineteenth Century.) Though evangelicals were as ideologically diverse then as they are now, there can be little doubt that many joined (if not led) the fight against slavery and the abuse of alcohol. Although the specific issues that the Christian Right has focused upon in the 1990s have changed—abortion, homosexuality, gun control, prayer in the schools—the important point to note is that a determination to reach out and construct or reconstruct society in terms of a larger image of human good has remained constant. One does not need to agree with all or even any of the Christian Right's prescriptions in order to see how profoundly American its missionary-like activism really is.

Historians Debate

Sometimes it seems that the only thing growing faster than the Christian Right is the torrent of books and articles about it. Theologians, historians, anthropologists, sociologists, and political scientists have probed the movement from a variety of disciplinary perspectives. One common approach sees the movement in terms of right-wing radicalism, subversive at best, militant and dangerous at worst. Others depict the Christian Right more benignly as an effort to preserve real or perceived traditional values in the face of modernity in general and modern secularism in particular. Still others have sought to set the Christian Right in the context of global economic and cultural changes, focusing especially upon the secular state as the nemesis of God-fearing people everywhere.

Three volumes merit special notice. Political scientist Michael Lienesch, in Redeeming Politics (1993), offers a subtle and empathetic account of the Christian Right's beliefs and values. In crisp and accessible prose, Lienesch walks the reader through the Christian Right's notions of self, family (including sexuality and gender), politics, economics, political views of the American nation, America's relation to the world, and the end of time. William Martin, in With God On Our Side (1996), affords a particularly rich narrative of the emergence of the Christian Right in post–World War II evangelicalism, its vigorous mobilization in the 1970s, and its ability—and inability—to implement its vision in the Nixon, Reagan, and Bush White Houses. Martin combines a sociologist's awareness of the larger picture with a historian's feel for the nuances and contradictions embedded in the story. Finally, Piety and Politics, edited by Richard John Neuhaus and Michael Cromartie (1987), marshals a collection of scholarly articles and book chapters on the long-range background of the Christian Right, pieces by Christian Right spokesmen and evangelical critics of the Christian Right, and critical perspective essays by outsider theologians, sociologists, and historians.

Links to online resources

Grant Wacker holds a Ph.D. from Harvard University and is currently Professor of the History of Religion in America at the Duke University Divinity School. He is the author of Augustus H. Strong and the Dilemma of Historical Consciousness (1985) and is coeditor, with Edith Blumhofer and Russell P. Spittler, of Pentecostal Currents in American Protestantism (1999). He is working on two books: a monograph to be titled Heaven Below: Pentecostals and American Culture, 1900-1925, and a survey textbook of American religious history with Harry S. Stout and Randall Balmer.

Address comments or questions to Professor Wacker through TeacherServe "Comments and Questions."

Religious Liberalism and the Modern Crisis of Faith | The Rise of Fundamentalism | The Scopes Trial | Marcus Garvey | Roman Catholics and the American Mainstream | American Jewish Experience in the 20th Century | Islam in America | Religion in Post-World-War II America | The Christian Right |
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