Sacred Politics: Rethinking the Rise of the Religious Right

AHA Session 66
American Society of Church History 5
Friday, January 7, 2011: 9:30 AM-11:30 AM
Tremont Room (Marriott Boston Copley Place)
R. Marie Griffith, Washington University, St. Louis
Leo P. Ribuffo, George Washington University

Session Abstract

The story of evangelicals’ role in late-20th-century American politics is far from settled, but most scholars agree on a common litany of characters and themes. After World War II—so the familiar narrative goes—moderate evangelicals like Billy Graham rejected the isolation and separatism of their fundamentalist forebears and led conservative Protestants back toward the cultural “mainstream.” Spurred to action by Cold War anti-communism and the upheavals of the 1960s, evangelicals honed their electoral tactics and primed para-church networks until their potential political influence caught the attention of secular observers. TIME Magazine proclaimed 1976 “The Year of the Evangelical,” and three years later Jerry Falwell’s Moral Majority ushered in an era in which “Bible-believing” church leaders allied with other conservatives and harangued their followers to the polls to stanch the wave of cultural liberalism. More recently, as many of the evangelical old guard have died or retired, observers proclaimed “the crack-up of the Religious Right” and fragmentation of evangelical unity and momentum.           

This panel questions every dimension of the received narrative, from its origins in post-fundamentalist cultural reengagement and emphasis on electoral strategy, to the assumption that all evangelical political activists have served the conservative cause—or that evangelicals have ever demonstrated enough unity to deserve the monolithic title “Religious Right” in the first place. Markku Ruotsila revises the standard genealogy of evangelicals’ political activism to argue that they learned much of their ideology and tactics not from moderate predecessors, but from “extremists” such as Carl McIntire, whom scholars have heretofore relegated to the margins of American religious history.  Molly Worthen follows the thread of McIntire’s influence through one of his most influential early followers, Francis Schaeffer. Through an examination of Schaeffer and other public intellectuals and behind-the-scenes activists who worked to transform evangelical identity in the 1970s and 1980s, Worthen suggests that the erosion of traditional sources of intellectual authority made way for a new generation of leaders who offered evangelicals new grand narratives that focused as much attention on the history of ideas as on politics. Finally, D.G. Hart wonders whether scholars have been too quick to dismiss the significant number of left-leaning evangelical intellectuals and politicians who were at odds with the Religious Right’s agenda from the very beginning. In our eagerness to shoehorn evangelicals into pre-existing political categories, Hart argues, we have overlooked their unique rhetorical and ideological styles. Together, these papers urge both historians of American politics and historians of evangelicalism to radically reconsider of the role of religion in the polarized milieu of late-20th-century American politics, and to rethink the vexed question of who is, and who is not, an “evangelical.”

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