God’s Own Party?

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Review of Daniel K. Williams, God’s Own Party: The Making of the Christian Right (Oxford University Press, 2012), ix + 372 pgs..

According to the majority of conservative Christians, the GOP is God’s Own Party. Voting for Republicans on election day—any Republican no matter what he believes—is an article of faith in the creed of many Christians. Voting for Democrats is a great sin. Voting for a third party is wasting your vote. Voting for Libertarians is unthinkable. Voting for no one is un-American. “Vote Republican (even if you have to hold your nose to do it)” is the great conservative Christian refrain every election season.

“Republicans, in general,” says Texas governor and former GOP presidential candidate Rick Perry, “believe in low taxes, low regulation, less spending, free-market health care, constitutionalist judges, protecting innocent life, enforcing our laws and borders, peace through strength, empowering the states, and generally advocating principles closer to limited government than not.”

Just the opposite is true, of course. The Republican Party is the party of lies, hypocrisy, crony capitalism, regulation, the drug war, war, torture, empire, foreign aid, the welfare/warfare state, and police statism, as I have documented in many articles over the years. The GOP, as my friend Tom DiLorenzo describes it, is nothing but a Gang of Plunderers.

I have long sought a book that would present the history of how the GOP became, in the mind of most conservative Christians, God’s Own Party. Although God’s Own Party: The Making of the Christian Right was published in hardcover in 2010, I did not come across the book until it was released in paperback in 2012. This is the book I have been waiting for.

The author, Daniel K. Williams, is Associate Professor of History at the secular University of West Georgia. He states in his acknowledgments that the book “took the better part of a decade” to research and write. Having carefully read every word of the book, and being somewhat familiar with most of the religious individuals and institutions mentioned in the book, I can say that this was a decade well spent.

The book presents a chronological history of the Christian Right from their opening salvo at the Democratic National Convention in 1924, to the emergence of a Fundamentalist Right, to the presidency of the first Catholic, to Nixon’s evangelical strategy, to the ERA, to Roe v. Wade, to the culture wars, to the Moral Majority, to the Reagan years, to the Republican Revolution, and to the enthronement of Bush their Messiah.

Williams does this in 11 highly-documented chapters. There are 65 pages of notes from a mix of secular and religious sources, a very detailed index, and numerous photographs of Christian Right leaders.

After failing to take over the Democratic Party in the 1920s, during the 1940s through the 1960s “conservative Protestants began to identify with the GOP as the party of anticommunism and a Protestant-based moral order.” In the late 1960s, they made alliances with Republican politicians and changed the agenda of the GOP. Republican politicians realized that they could win votes by adopting culture war rhetoric and a more conservative position on abortion. Evangelicals began taking over the Republican Party in the 1980s.

Williams describes the rise and influence of individuals like Billy Graham, John R. Rice, Jerry Falwell, Bob Jones Jr., Carl McIntire, Billy James Hargis, Pat Boone, Tim LaHaye, Phyllis Schlafly, Bill Bright, Pat Robertson, Ralph Reed, Francis Schaeffer, Anita Bryant, James Robison, Charles Colson, and James Dobson as well as organizations like the National Association of Evangelicals, the Southern Baptist Convention, the Moral Majority, the Christian Coalition, the Family Research Council, private Christian schools, and Focus on the Family. The rise of the terms “evangelical” and “conservative” and the decline of the term “fundamentalist” is also chronicled.

Williams’ discussion of the abortion issue is especially informative. “Prior to the mid-1970s, no one would have associated the GOP with opposition to abortion.” Indeed, it was Republican politicians who “spearheaded some of the earliest efforts to liberalize abortion laws in California, Colorado, and New York.” In fact, it was Colorado’s Republican governor in 1967 who “signed into law the nation’s first abortion liberalization bill,” followed by Ronald Reagan in California. Protestants generally stayed away from the abortion issue, which was seen as a Catholic issue, until after Roe v. Wade in 1973. The Southern Baptist Convention even passed a resolution in 1971 that “urged states to liberalize their abortion laws.” “Therapeutic” abortion, as opposed to “abortion-on-demand” was acceptable to many conservative Christians at the time. Williams is careful to note the rise of the issue of abortion as a campaign issue.

Some of my favorite quotes from the book concern the hagiographical views of Ronald Reagan held by Religious Rightists:

Even though Reagan was a divorced Hollywood actor who attended church only occasionally, he knew how to appeal to evangelicals’ sense of moral propriety.

Evangelicals were willing to forgive Reagan for these occasional lapses because he supported some of their moral causes and had long championed a civil religion that appealed to them.

According to Jerry Falwell, the election of Reagan was “the greatest day for the cause of conservatism and morality in my adult life.” He said about Reagan in 1986 that he had been the “finest President since Lincoln.”

For the more correct; that is, the more critical view of Reagan, I recommend Murray Rothbard’s assessment here and here. And that Falwell could have anything good to say about Lincoln means that he never read Tom DiLorenzo.

For an interesting and objective history of the Christian Right, I highly recommend Williams’ book.

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