Variations on a Theme - Politics: Q&A with Daniel K. Williams

  • November 7, 2012

God’s Own Party: The Making of the Christian Right traces the evolution of the movement in American politics and examines the influential role the Christian Right has played in the nation’s culture wars. Enlightening for readers of any political persuasion, this book may leave some left-leaning thinkers to ask: “Might the right be on to something?”

What is, “Variations on a Theme?”

The Independent is launching a new feature this month called “Variations on a Theme.” We will occasionally choose a theme and suggest works related to it. We hope you enjoy the results.

Because we’re based in Washington and this is a presidential election year, we begin with a political theme. The books we selected address some of the issues of this electoral campaign.

Q&A – Daniel K. Williams, author of God’s Own Party: The Making of the Christian Right

You suggest in your book that the agenda of today’s Republican Party represents an alliance between Republican politicians and conservative Protestants to mobilize against feminism, abortion, pornography and gay rights. Have conservative Christians succeeded in refocusing the party, and is there a significant difference between the current conservative political agenda and the early fundamentalists’ vision of “reclaiming America’s Christian identity through politics”?

Conservative Christians have succeeded in forcing the Republican Party to pay attention to their primary issues of concern. For the last 30 years, no Republican who supports abortion rights has been able to win the party’s nomination for president, and every Republican Party platform has endorsed an antiabortion constitutional amendment.  The Republican Party’s current stances on abortion, same-sex marriage and the role of religion in public life are evidence of the Christian Right’s influence in the party.

On the other hand, the Christian Right has had very limited success in translating their partisan influence into substantive legislative achievements. The Supreme Court’s ruling in Roe v. Wade has not been reversed, despite three decades of conservative efforts to change the court. Legal recognition of gay rights has continued to expand.

There has occasionally been some tension between the goals of conservative politicians and the goals of Christian Right activists, even though both groups try to downplay their disagreements. Christian Right leaders such as James Dobson, for instance, have often felt that the Republican Party has not done enough to fight abortion. And secular conservatives have had limited sympathy for what they view as the theocratic, authoritarian vision of the Christian Right. Conservatives who do not identify with the Christian Right do not necessarily want to “reclaim America’s Christian identity through politics” in the way that some conservative evangelicals do. Nevertheless, secular and religious conservatives have shared interests of concern that have led to an enduring alliance between the two groups.

What do you see as the most significant difference between the evangelical and fundamentalist approach to political activity?

In the 1920s, fundamentalists attempted to use politics to restore moral order in the nation, just as American evangelicals did in the late 20th century. Their specific issues of concern may have been slightly different. Early-20th-century fundamentalists, for instance, were concerned about the perceived dangers of alcohol and Catholicism, while these were not issues of importance for most late-20th-century evangelicals, who were much more concerned about abortion and homosexuality.

But the biggest difference between early-20th-century fundamentalist politics and late-20th-century evangelical political activity was in their partisan connections.  Fundamentalists of the early 20th century did not succeed in connecting their campaigns to the platform of a particular political party, whereas late-20th-century evangelicals created a close alliance with the GOP.

Your discussion of Nixon describes an evangelical strategy as a part of his overall plan to gain political support in the South, when he appealed to southern racism against African-Americans.  Do you think the origins of the evangelical political agenda are motivated by racism, and do elements of that still drive the Republican conservative agenda?

Some of the leaders in the Christian Right certainly had a history of racism. Jerry Falwell, for instance, was once a defender of segregation, though he later repudiated that stance. It is also true that the Christian Right never had widespread appeal among African-American Christians, and that some of the movement’s stances — particularly its interest in defending the tax exemptions of racially discriminatory private schools in the late 1970s — contributed to the maintenance of racial discrimination in the United States.

Nevertheless, I think it is too simplistic to say that the “origins of the evangelical political agenda are motivated by racism.” The evangelical political agenda originated out of a widespread fear of the nation’s secularization, which was much broader than — and not entirely parallel to — whites’ fear of African-American social advancement.  For the last 30 years, Christian Right leaders have repeatedly made efforts to recruit African Americans to their political coalition, but with limited success.

I walked away from reading your book thinking that Francis Schaeffer and Ralph Reed were essential to changing public perception of the Conservative Christian movement and refocusing the Republican Party. Do you agree, and what would you say were the factors they introduced to public discourse that helped to change public debate?

Francis Schaeffer prompted evangelicals to begin fighting abortion through the political system, and he also convinced them that the disconcerting moral changes that they were seeing in society, such as the proliferation of pornography or the public acceptance of sexual promiscuity, were the product of the much larger problem of “secular humanism.”  Schaeffer encouraged conservative Christians to unite in a political coalition to take back their country from the “secular humanists.” Schaeffer’s thinking had an enormous influence on Christian Right leaders such as Jerry Falwell and Tim LaHaye, as well as other evangelicals.

Ralph Reed showed conservative evangelicals how to win elections and take over a party.  In the 1980s the Religious Right had received a lot of media attention, but its influence in Congress had been limited because evangelical leaders had not yet discovered a way to consistently deliver votes to the politicians who supported their cause. Reed changed that by using his political acumen to help socially conservative politicians win elections and, by extension, acquiring a controlling interest in the Republican Party. Reed also convinced the Christian Right to develop a much closer alliance with the larger conservative agenda. Due to Reed’s efforts, the Christian Coalition — and, by extension, the rest of the Christian Right movement — became a consistent supporter of the entire Republican Party platform, which further solidified its influence within the GOP.

One might conclude that today’s Christian political movement should be viewed as a response to the encroachment of secular humanism into the political debate. Do you share that opinion, and do you believe the Christian political movement plays a legitimate role in balancing that of secular humanism?

One could certainly make the case that Christian conservatives have played a positive role in the democratic system by forcing the government to respect a minority point of view. For instance, Christian conservatives have succeeded in passing laws that recognize the rights of individual conscience for medical professionals who refuse to provide abortions or contraceptives. Even some secular liberals might approve of some of these measures in the name of fairness and equity.

One could also make the argument — as many Christian Right activists have — that the Christian Right is primarily a defensive movement designed to protect religious people from the encroachments of a secular state. It never would have been necessary to mobilize Christian conservatives, some Christian Right activists have argued, if the federal government had not intruded into conservative Christians’ lives by taking away their right to pray in schools and forcing them to accept legalized abortion and gay rights.

However, whether one accepts this argument will depend partly on how one views the Christian Right’s activities. For someone who believes in reproductive rights and gay rights, or for someone who takes a strict separationist view of church-state relations, the Christian Right’s political program will probably seem threatening.

I do believe that the Christian Right movement has played a legitimate role in the democratic system by offering a venue for conservative evangelicals to lobby for their views in the public sphere, which is essential for the health of our democratic system.  Conservative evangelicals certainly have a right, under our constitutional system, to champion their agenda, but their opponents also have a right to argue for their point of view and to point out the dangers that they see in the Christian Right’s political program.

Abortion and gay rights have taken center stage as “wedge issues” in the political discussion. There are many who say the 2012 presidential election, setting aside the economy and war, could turn on these issues. Based on your analysis of conservative thinking, to what degree do you believe abortion and gay rights have impacted conservative voting behavior, and does it give us any indication of the influence the Christian Right will have in the future of American politics?

Abortion and gay rights have not only been the Christian Right’s greatest issues of concern for the past three decades, but they have also been a primary impetus for conservative Catholics’ increasing commitment to the Republican Party. While it is difficult to say with certainty what precise impact the issues of abortion and gay rights have had on national elections, there seems to be some evidence that they may have had at least some effect in a few close races. For instance, public concerns about same-sex marriage may have helped mobilize the socially conservative vote for George W. Bush in Ohio in 2004, and thus may have contributed to his reelection victory. Concerns about abortion and gay rights have also repeatedly been important factors in mobilizing conservative voters in presidential primaries, as well as other elections. This has been the case for several decades. As early as 1972, abortion was a political issue that may have cost George McGovern votes among conservative Catholics. Abortion remains a perennially polarizing issue that no presidential candidate can avoid, as the political discussions of this issue during the current election season have shown.

Public opinion polls indicate that opposition to abortion among evangelicals has increased in recent years. Conservative Catholics have become even more vocal in mobilizing against abortion and same-sex marriage. It thus seems likely that the “culture war” issues will remain a central part of American political debate for the foreseeable future, and that the alliance between the Christian Right and the Republican Party will remain intact.

Based on my reading of your book, it is unlikely that Democrats will be able to pull votes away from the Christian Right in much the fashion Nixon did with his “Southern Strategy.”But the Christian Right is not a monolithic group. Do you see any factions within the Christian Right community in which Democrats could make inroads?

Democrats have experienced some degree of success (albeit limited) in reaching out to some evangelicals on issues related to the environment, economics or social justice. For several decades, between 20 and 30 percent of white evangelicals have voted for Democratic presidential candidates. Many of the white evangelicals who vote Democratic take left-leaning positions on issues of poverty, war or the environment, and an increasing number of younger evangelicals seem to be receptive to the Democratic Party’s stances on these issues. If the Democratic Party avoids offending socially conservative evangelicals on hot-button cultural issues such as abortion or same-sex marriage, while marketing its stances on the environment and health care as a compassionate, equitable approach, I think that some evangelicals will be receptive to the party’s message.

As I argued in my book, I don’t think that the alliance between the Christian Right and the GOP will disintegrate anytime soon, but in spite of that alliance, the Democratic Party may be able to appeal to at least a few white evangelicals if it makes an effort to reach out to them on issues of common concern.

I think that Barack Obama made a concerted effort to reach out to younger, more moderate white evangelicals during his 2008 presidential campaign, but this year the Democrats have made less of an effort to appeal to white evangelical voters, perhaps because the party’s stances on abortion and same-sex marriage are not likely to have much appeal in the evangelical community.

Thomas J. Dawson III is an attorney, lobbyist and former senior staffer for a U.S. congressional committee. He holds advanced degrees in philosophy and public health.

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