Volume 38 - Issue 2

Countercultural Conservatives: American Evangelicalism from the Postwar Revival to the New Christian Right

by Axel R. Schäfer

Over the past thirty years, evangelical Protestants have provided the Republican Party with an increasingly reliable voting bloc. Even Mitt Romney’s strong Mormon commitments did not deter evangelical voters on Election Day in 2012. Instead, as a recent Pew Forum poll demonstrates, evangelicals voted for Romney at the same levels they had George W. Bush in 2004. Such data appears to support the widely held belief that American evangelicalism easily coalesces with political, social, and economic conservatism. In Countercultural Conservatives, Axel R. Schäfer, the Director of the David Bruce Centre for American Studies at Keele University, UK, challenges that perspective, arguing that the rightward “political swing of evangelicals was not a foregone conclusion” (p. 111). Instead, he contends that the alliance between conservative political ideology and evangelical Protestantism in America emerged through a contested process over several decades as those who became the New Christian Right eventually triumphed over their internal opponents and came to dominate evangelical public presence.

Rejecting the “backslash” theory, Schäfer employs social movement theory to argue that the success of the New Christian Right hinged on the movement’s ability to reconcile conflicting aspects of modernity, not a reactionary appeal to traditional morals and theological commitments. It successfully joined specific elements of the counterculture with bourgeois American values in a strange dialectical merger that affirmed both libertarian self-expression and consumer market forces. As a result, 1960s and 1970s activists who joined the ranks of the New Christian Right were de-radicalized as it integrated “the anti-establishment impulses of the insurgencies into the mainstream of American society while effectively sidelining their radical socio-economic content.” This, in Schäfer’s estimation “became evangelicalism’s central ideological contribution to the broader conservative resurgence” (p. 6).

Countercultural Conservatives follows a chronological pattern as Schäfer fleshes out his thesis through four short chapters. Chapter 1 situates the work within the existing scholarship and establishes the interpretive parameters for the following chapters, summarizing five competing explanations for the resurgence of American evangelicalism as a cultural force in the latter half of the twentieth century. In so doing, he provides an invaluable service for those—like graduate students studying for exams—needing to get up to speed on the scholarship. In Schäfer’s reading, each of these competing interpretations support his contention that postwar evangelicalism was both more politically diverse and less about traditional moral issues than the standard narrative of the Religious Right portrays. In the next chapter, Schäfer recounts the familiar story of the postwar evangelical renaissance. Represented publicly by Billy Graham’s evangelistic crusades, intellectually by Fuller Seminary and Christianity Today, and institutionally by the National Association of Evangelicals (NAE), neo-evangelicalism distinguished itself from both liberalism and a recrudescent fundamentalism by the end of the 1950s.

Schäfer’s argument pivots on the third chapter. He recounts the irony that neo-evangelicalism’s success threatened its unity. Early leaders such as Harold Ockenga, Carl Henry, and E. J. Carnell promoted “education, intellectual stature, theological leadership, and cultural engagement” (p. 77). A younger generation embraced this vision in the 1960s and 1970s, focusing grassroots efforts on urban settings, challenging “unfettered” capitalism, advocating for the poor, and engaging in social service (pp. 77–79). Their efforts resonated with many in the counterculture, many of whom were converted as they were evangelized by these “young evangelicals.” At the same time, their accomplishments revealed the fractures latent in the postwar evangelical coalition when these left-leaning evangelicals such as John Alexander, Lucille Sider Dayton, and Jim Wallis aligned themselves with political progressives and radicals in the 1960s. When progressive theology followed progressive political alignments, it provoked an “internal backlash” from establishment evangelicals such as Robert Dugan of the NAE and Harold Lindsell of Christianity Today.

The story of the triumph of these “neo-fundamentalists” over the progressive wing of evangelicalism takes center stage in chapter 4, “The Rise of the Religious Right.” From this scuffle, the New Christian Right emerged, establishing ties with non-evangelical religious conservatives and the larger conservative movement, becoming a potent political force in the latter half of the twentieth century. In Schäfer’s final analysis, the New Christian Right appealed to a large number of Americans because it clothed its conservative message in countercultural garb. Its grassroots localism resonated with the counterculture’s preferences for community and outsider status; its activism connected with the counterculture’s insistence on “social action”; and its softer, “therapeutic conversionism” (pp. 9, 54) incorporated, in part, the individualized, experiential epistemology that dominated the 1960s. By embracing these aspects of modernity (or postmodernity, depending on one’s perspective), it created a religious movement that seemed countercultural while bolstering the consensus values of American Cold War Liberalism: conventional morality, the Protestant work ethic, free market economics, and consumerism.

Schäfer is not the first writer to argue that accommodation to modernity provided a great deal of the appeal of 1980s evangelicalism, nor is he the first to point out that evangelicalism had an historical propensity to express itself via progressive political movements, not just conservative ones. Countercultural Conservatives is not even the best history of leftwing evangelicalism in the 1960s and beyond. That honor belongs to David Swartz’s Moral Minority: The Evangelical Left in an Age of Conservatism (University of Pennsylvania Press, 2012). The great contribution Schäfer’s work makes is in his smartly argued thesis that ties these developments together in a Hegelian dialectical process. As internal conflict between conservative evangelical impulses (thesis) and the evangelical left (antithesis) emerged, it resulted in a synthesis that incorporated elements of both evangelicalism and counterculture. The new thesis resonated with—and became a part of—the zeitgeist of the 1980s.

However, the strength of Countercultural Conservatives is also its weakness. Driven by his thesis, Schäfer sometimes misses the trees for the forest, making some significant interpretive and historical errors. First, he lumps things together that ought to be split. For instance, he comfortably cites the actions of the Southern Baptist Convention in order to support his argument, neglecting regional differences—something that should never occur in postwar religious histories. Although aggressively pursued, the Southern Baptist Convention never joined the NAE, something Schäfer himself notes (p. 56). Instead, it intentionally distanced itself from the NAE-type evangelicalism about which Schäfer writes—at least until the 1980s. Here it seems that Schäfer falls victim to what he cautioned against: viewing the decades prior to 1980 through the lens of the New Christian Right.

Second, some errors of fact pepper Countercultural Conservatives. One of the more significant is the description of neo-evangelicalism as “Augustinian orthodoxy with a positive social program” (p. 45). Since neo-evangelical organizations such as the NAE intentionally included Wesleyan, Holiness, and Pentecostal groups, this gives readers the wrong impression regarding the movement’s theological commitments and boundaries. Typographical errors also show up, turning Richard Cizik into Robert and Baptism into a denomination analogous to Methodism. Taken together, these errors raise a red flag for those for whom attention to detail is the foremost historical virtue.

Finally, throughout Countercultural Conservatives, Schäfer argues that the New Christian Right garnered its organizational ideas and social impulses from its leftwing cousins. And while I think Schäfer has hit on something important, I am not convinced he provides a body of primary-source evidence sufficient to prove that dependence. Without it, we must either return to the backlash-thesis or search for the roots of conservative evangelical political action in an earlier era. In spite of that—or perhaps because of it—this is an important book that deserves attention from anyone interested in the history of twentieth-century American religion, politics, or social movements.

Miles S. Mullin II

Miles S. Mullin II
Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary
Houston, Texas, USA

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