Whose Backlash? Liberal Religious Responses to Conservative Populism, 1965–85

AHA Session 206
Saturday, January 7, 2017: 10:30 AM-12:00 PM
Director's Row H (Sheraton Denver Downtown, Plaza Building Lobby Level)
Brantley W. Gasaway, Bucknell University
Brantley W. Gasaway, Bucknell University

Session Abstract

This panel engages the growing volume of scholarship on both leftist religious activism and grassroots postwar conservatism by exploring a series of contentious encounters between these philosophies. These papers are bounded by the passage of key civil rights legislation in the 1960s and the calcification of conservatism during President Reagan’s first term. As such, the historical activity of this panel spans twenty years wherein liberal activism and what Robert O. Self calls “breadwinner politics” sparred within a thickly mediated public square.

Karen Johnson’s paper is a study of Catholic identity in the midst of the struggle for fair housing in Chicago, as some Catholics practiced their faith by standing with Martin Luther King and others abused protestors from the sidelines. Mark A. Lempke’s work argues for the limits of a Religious Left by looking at George McGovern’s visit to staunchly evangelical Wheaton College while running for president in 1972. L. Benjamin Rolsky explores the “Spiritual Left” that developed as a response to the Reagan administration, with special attention given to the arguments pressed by television producer Norman Lear, Unitarian Universalists, and the National Council of Churches. 

Altogether, a common theme running through these papers is the complicated nature of religious identity and praxis. In Johnson’s work, lines of authority in Catholicism were highly contested in the immediate years after Vatican II, as many Chicago Catholics clung to the middle-class status they had so recently earned. McGovern’s evangelical supporters found themselves navigating between progressive instincts and a deep-seated antipathy to the culture of liberal ecumenism, which they felt treated evangelicals with scorn and contempt. Among Rolsky’s subjects, the “Spiritual Left” struggled to cohere among its disparate parts, not the least of which was Lear’s milieu of Judaism.

Historically, the use of the term “backlash” in the 1960s, 70s, and 80s assumes sundry traditionalist, conservative, or blue-collar activities from the grassroots challenging a culture of liberal elitism. Did the activism of Lear, McGovern, and the Chicago Catholics constitute a different kind of backlash?  Was “traditionalism” to them a call back to the high-minded (perhaps imagined) civic discourse of earlier times?  To wit, many of their appeals were framed through a shared sense of a Judeo-Christian tradition in America which formulated in the immediate postwar years. Coming off of an election year where questions of faith, identity, and politics are sure to play a role, our panel hopes for a spirited exploration of these ideas with its chair, commenter, and audience.  While all are welcome, this panel may be of special value to historians of religion, politics, and the culture wars of the postwar United States.

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