Apparently the writing of books about religion and politics is an unrelenting enterprise, especially monographs that focus on the political activities of conservative evangelicals and fundamentalists in modern America. Daniel Williams, assistant professor of history at the University of West Georgia, adds to the spate of scholarly tomes on this provocative subject with an engaging, thoroughly researched investigation of the emergence and development of the Christian Right as a formidable force in American electoral politics. The author, who initially launched his work as a dissertation at Brown University, offers a plausible historical account of how Christian conservatives—after decades of political engagement—eventually gained considerable strength and influence in the Republican Party. At the same time, as Williams soberly observes, they discovered “that they could win elections, but not change the culture” (p. 8).
Professor Williams suggests in his introduction that the uniqueness of this project is to be found in his attempt to trace the roots of conservative Protestant political activism back to the 1920s, when many of them defended Prohibition and battled against the teaching of evolution in public schools. Unfortunately, he misses an opportunity to extend his historical analysis even further back by ignoring the contributions of Robert Handy’s A Christian America (2nd ed.; Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1984) and James Morone’s Hellfire Nation: The Politics of Sin in American History (Yale: Yale University Press, 2003), both of which convincingly demonstrate that the evangelical Protestant impulse to establish a Christian moral order actually originated in the colonial era and often revealed a complicated ideological mix. Furthermore, the campaign against alcoholic beverages in the United States was not just a fundamentalist endeavor; many progressive and even liberal Protestants enthusiastically supported Prohibition, while the theologically and culturally conservative J. Gresham Machen opposed it. So it is not entirely clear how Christian efforts in the public square during the post-World War I era fit into the broader patterns that Williams unfolds to explain the rise of the Religious Right.
Nevertheless, the ensuing chapters include many colorful vignettes that enliven Williams’s chronicle. For example, evangelist Billy Graham surfaces several times in the book, particularly in regard to his sometimes naïve relationships with American presidents. Moreover, the author examines other politically outspoken preachers like Carl McIntire, John R. Rice, Billy James Hargis, Bob Jones Jr., Bob Jones III, Jerry Falwell, Pat Robertson, and Tim LaHaye. He likewise is alert to the political impact of evangelical thinkers like Francis Schaeffer. Williams also treats institutional issues as he weighs the positions and effectiveness of groups such as the National Association of Evangelicals, the Moral Majority, Concerned Women for America, the Family Research Council, and the Christian Coalition. His overall scope is both ambitious and breathtaking.
At times, however, Williams exhibits some sloppiness in his handling of factual matters. For instance, his discussion of Harold Ockenga’s endorsement of Richard Nixon in 1972 refers to the Boston minister’s presidency of “Gordon-Conwell College and theological seminary” (p. 102), suggesting a fuzzy awareness of evangelical higher education. In addition, he mistakenly labels Harold Hughes, the late Democratic senator from Iowa, as a Republican (pp. 121–22). Perhaps Williams’s most egregious gaffe concerns Jack Kemp’s religious identity. In two distinct contexts he depicts the Republican vice presidential candidate in 1996 as a Roman Catholic (pp. 208, 240), even though Kemp was raised in a Christian Science home and later became a Presbyterian. In a similar vein, Williams describes Republican speechwriter Connie Marshner’s husband as “a Catholic seminarian” (p. 135). These errors hardly inspire confidence in the author’s attention to detail.
In the final analysis, God’s Own Party succeeds in providing an informative perspective on the culture wars that have permeated the American political scene for the last several decades. At the same time, it is not so evident that Williams has achieved his goal of presenting “a chronological history of the Christian Right” (p. 9). Overall, his generalizations about conservative Christian political behavior are not sufficiently nuanced. He offers substantial data, which is often gleaned from archival sources, but ultimately he fails to connect all the dots. Hence, the terms “evangelical,” “fundamentalist,” and “Christian Right” are commonly employed as virtual synonyms, which implies far more historical continuity in Christian activism than is actually the case. For example, both Billy Graham and Jerry Falwell figure prominently in Williams’s story, yet their styles, roles, and particular policy positions sometimes varied significantly. While Falwell was clearly part of the Christian Right, Graham cannot be so easily linked to it. In short, Williams’s conceptual approach misses some of the complexity that is has been manifest in the tangled threads of evangelical and fundamentalist political engagement in modern America.