God's New Grand Narrative: The Intellectual Mobilization of the Religious Right, 1970–2000

Friday, January 7, 2011: 9:50 AM
Tremont Room (Marriott Boston Copley Place)
Molly Worthen , Yale University
 The political rise of the “Religious Right” is a familiar story, from the nascent mobilization of the 1964 Barry Goldwater campaign through the ascent of the Moral Majority. Surprisingly little has been said of the intellectual galvanization that helped inspire and sustain this political activism. Shifts in evangelical intellectual authority recast Protestant “fundamentalism” by transforming the debate over biblical inerrancy, renewing the long-running conflict over evangelical identity, and opening the way for new leaders who advocated new grand narratives that intertwined culture and history with politics.

Gurus like Christianity Today editor Harold Lindsell and Presbyterian missionary Francis Schaeffer stepped into the breach as old-line “fundamentalism” eroded. These “neo-fundamentalists” were more culturally engaged than traditional fundamentalists like Carl McIntire and Bob Jones, but just as eager to separate the sheep from the goats. They embarked on  crusades to transform evangelicals’ sense of their own heritage and spur them to action. Other conservatives, like those who engineered the fundamentalist takeover of the Southern Baptist Convention in 1979, operated inside denominational institutions to transform their internal culture. Still others, somewhat removed from the pitched political battles of the day but nevertheless convinced that evangelicalism was in the throes of intellectual crisis, devoted themselves to fundraising and reforming Christian higher education to hew close to the Bible while adapting the best that secular academe had to offer. 

The Religious Right of the late 20th century retained some continuity with the media and message of the “old Christian Right,” but it gained force through new intellectual media and structures, and a new emphasis on the history of culture and ideas. By the end of the 20th century, its leaders had transformed evangelicals’ understanding of their place in American culture and in the sweep of history—with consequences that would last long beyond the next election cycle.