Interview by Kevin M. Kruse
In his path-setting book, We Gather Together: The Religious Right and the Problem of Interfaith Politics, Neil J. Young upends the widely-believed myths about the political origins and motivations of the Religious Right. This right-wing religious movement was made up of Mormons, conservative Catholics, and Evangelicals. Whereas other scholars have emphasized the role of politics or single issues in holding the Religious Right together, Young demonstrates the central role of theology in the formation of the Religious Right in the 1970s. His book is essential reading for historians of sexuality who want to understand how differing religious beliefs underpinned interfaith cooperation and denominational disagreements over sexual and gender politics that shaped the trajectory of debates over abortion, school prayer, the Equal Rights Amendment, gay rights, and tax exemptions for religious schools.
Kevin M. Kruse: Some literature on the rise of the Religious Right is a little familiar and formulaic, built on teleological assumptions about the inevitable coalescing of religious conservatives in cross-denominational organizations. But your work shatters those assumptions and shows that coalition politics was not a sure bet. The nascent Religious Right of the 1970s consisted of a number of disparate elements — evangelicals, Catholics and Mormons — who had often been more hostile to one another than they were to the liberal secular culture they eventually challenged. What were the barriers to the creation of an interfaith Religious Right?
Neil J. Young: Two significant and interrelated barriers worked against the creation of an interfaith Religious Right. The first was the separatist histories of these three faiths. For Mormons and Catholics, that separatist inclination grew out of a long history of facing persecution and discrimination, much of it violent, in the nineteenth century. Catholics had a vibrant institutional network to shield them against Protestant oppression – not just the church itself, but also parochial schools, hospitals, benevolent societies, and fraternal organizations.
Mormons had literally been chased across the country, finding haven in the Utah territory. Although the LDS Church began opening up in the mid-twentieth century, it also had developed a powerful religious system that covered every aspect of Mormons’ lives during Mormonism’s period of isolation and a strong cultural identity as a people set apart.
Evangelicals hadn’t suffered the same abuses, but many of them did feel they had been driven out of the mainline Protestant denominations and marginalized by the nation’s cultural elite after the Scopes Trial of the 1920s. Drawing inward, evangelicals built up an institutional network separate from mainline Protestantism, establishing their own Bible colleges, seminaries, publishing houses, parachurch organizations, and denominations. All of this worked to make Mormons, Catholics, and evangelicals highly proficient in attending to all of their needs and also deeply suspicious of outside influences.
Secondly, evangelicals, Mormons, and Catholics had exclusivist theologies; each believe they alone offer salvation and have sole possession of truth. While the extreme edge of that belief has softened for all three – a development my book explores – it nonetheless remains. These convictions have been a powerful force for each faith, driving their proselytizing efforts and undercutting the call for cross-denominational partnerships. Even as cross-denominational alliances began to emerge, Catholic, Mormon, and evangelical leaders stressed their exclusive hold of the truth against the erroneous theologies of each other.
Interestingly, while exclusivist theologies hampered the development of this interfaith alliance at first, they ultimately helped bring it about. Historians have largely pointed to the political issues of the 1960s and 1970s, like the banning of school prayer, the legalization of abortion, and the Equal Rights Amendment, as leading to the rise of the Religious Right. However, I show that conservative Christian responses to the ecumenical movement of the 1950s preceded and informed these later conservative interdenominational alliances. Evangelicals, Catholics, and Mormons opposed mainline Protestant ecumenism for somewhat different reasons but also because they all saw it as a liberal religious movement more concerned with social justice efforts than the historic Christian mission of spreading the faith. In recognizing each other as opponents of mainline Protestant ecumenism, conservative Catholics, evangelicals, and Mormons on religious grounds, they also started to recognize each other as allies on social issues particularly around gender and sexuality.
KMK: What role did sexual and gender politics play in cross denominational organizing?
NJY: The feminist movement and the Equal Rights Amendment played an important role here. Mormons, Catholics, and evangelicals objected to the movement for sex equality, fearful that it would destroy traditional family structures and thus the nation. Separately, all three faiths emphasized that gender differences were divinely ordained, part of God’s plan for ordering family relations and structuring society. In terms of the Equal Rights Amendment, this conservative theology of male-female difference drew thousands of conservative religious women into working against the amendment’s ratification. The anti-ERA movement witnessed some of the first interfaith grassroots organizations, an incredibly important political development that both turned back the ERA and also laid the groundwork for the emerging Religious Right.
Phyllis Schlafly’s powerful STOP ERA organization has figured most prominently in this story. Yet what I found was a more complicated history than previously documented. While Schlafly understood the power of drawing together an interfaith coalition, she also recognized the challenges built into that project. Especially sensitive to fundamentalist women who resisted joining what they saw as a Catholic organization, Schalfly worked with fundamentalist activists in places like Texas, Oklahoma, and Florida to create their own anti-ERA organizations outside of the STOP ERA network.
These efforts happened alongside the LDS Church’s separate work against the Equal Rights Amendment. When Mormon leaders decided to oppose the ERA, they created dozens of anti-ERA organizations at the state level. LDS Church officials instructed Mormon women to join these groups (and, relatedly, to stay away from STOP ERA and other non-Mormon organizations) and work tirelessly against the amendment. In the end, the political movement against the ERA’s ratification drew from thousands of Mormon, Catholic, and evangelical women, but they largely worked in isolation from each other in denominationally-based organizations.
KMK: The term “moral majority” came from Paul Weyrich’s observation that “Out there is what one might call a moral majority — people who would agree on principles based on the Decalogue [the Ten Commandments], for example — but they have been separated by geographical and denominational differences.” While evangelicals, Catholics and Mormons might have agreed on those general principles from the Bible, they each read different versions of the Bible. Given the debates over the authority of Scripture, did that varied religious background pose a problem for organizers?
NJY: The Religious Right often maintained rather than sublimated the denominational divisions among its members. I see this as both a strength and a challenge for the Religious Right. In many ways, the Religious Right acknowledged its own diversity and often set up organizations and political networks that fell along religious lines, such as in the example of the anti-ERA movement above. But this was a smart strategy that worked with religious differences rather than ignoring them.
Particularly in its early years, the pro-life movement had less success in navigating these divisions. Religious divisions led to a vast anti-abortion network. In some ways, this produced positive results. The movement grew as it moved out of its Catholic base and expanded into other conservative Christian faiths, making for a wide-ranging coalition that wielded substantial political power in part because of its formidable scope. This divided network also worked well in electing pro-life politicians to Congress by mobilizing voters through denominationally-based strategies. In other words, Catholic groups would work with the Catholic Church and evangelical organizations would target their churches to educate their members about upcoming elections and increase voter turnout which made for a winning strategy.
It was one thing to elect anti-abortion candidates, but it was an altogether different challenge to achieve something legislatively once those politicians had been elected. As I show in my book, after successfully electing scores of pro-life candidates to Congress and the White House, the pro-life movement struggled to work together during Ronald Reagan’s presidency (1980-1988) to accomplish anything politically. Instead, the network largely divided along religious lines with Catholic organizations tending to support more hardline legislation while evangelical groups generally backed anti-abortion legislation that included exceptions, such as for cases involving rape, incest, or the health of the mother. These differences reflected different religious views regarding abortion, but also grew out of a movement that never had really unified around a singular political vision.
In terms of the actual Moral Majority, the grassroots political organization founded by Jerry Falwell, it is amazing how homogeneous the group actually was, particularly considering how much Falwell promoted his organization as an interfaith alliance of concerned citizens who believed in God and country. Falwell always publicly touted Moral Majority as having brought together conservative evangelicals, Catholics, and Mormons, but also Orthodox Jews. And the media believed him, passing on Falwell’s depiction of his group as established fact. The media acceptance of Falwell’s spin enhanced the idea in the 1980s that conservative Christians from across the denominations had united as political partners, and that was then perpetuated by historians.
But Moral Majority was remarkable for exactly the opposite: how completely the organization lacked non-evangelical members. In fact, Moral Majority’s membership lacked even evangelical diversity, drawing almost entirely from the fundamentalist wing of evangelicalism represented by Independent Baptists and other fundamentalist churches. These churches held the most separatist and, frankly, most anti-Catholic, anti-Mormon beliefs. One of my favorite details to discover came from a Moral Majority in one state holding a chapter meeting that opened with a sermon titled, “Roman Catholic Church: Harlot of Rome.” So it’s not surprising that Catholics and other non-fundamentalists stayed away from Moral Majority.
KMK: While your work shows how the Religious Right brought together different religious traditions, it also brought together different regions. Again, much of the older literature focuses heavily on evangelical and fundamentalist Christians in the South, but your work brilliantly puts those religious conservatives in dialogue with Catholics and Mormons in the Midwest and Mountain West. Was region as much of a barrier to coalition politics as religion?
NJY: For me, it was really important that I write about the history of the Religious Right as a national story, rather than a primarily Southern one. Obviously, Southern evangelicals played a significant role in the rise of the Religious Right, but such a focus ignores the importance of politically-active Catholics and Mormons in the Midwest and Mountain West, respectively. Yet these religious groups were not regionally discrete. Rather, they all had important national reaches that had political implications. Mormons in states as diverse as Florida, Virginia, Massachusetts, Hawaii, and Illinois, to name a few, played critical parts in preventing the ERA’s ratification, supporting pro-life initiatives, and, especially, passing state and local anti-gay legislation and defense of marriage acts. Catholics had a broad national influence beyond the Catholic-heavy northeast and Midwest, with important political presences in the South and Southwest. And I was fascinated to learn how evangelicals in places like Boston, Chicago, and Los Angeles played an important part in developing an evangelical commitment to political engagement and stitching together a religious and political movement that bypassed many longstanding denominational and regional divisions within American evangelicalism.
In the end, region just didn’t pose the same challenges as religion. If anything, it probably represented a positive component for the movement. These faiths often found they could be really effective working in places where they didn’t have a very strong local reputation. For instance, Mormon anti-ERA organizations in the South operated largely unknown, though this also owed to the fact that the LDS Church made sure the groups had no public ties to Mormonism. (Organizations had names like “Save Our Families Today” or “Missouri Citizens Council” rather than any mention of Mormonism.)
On the other hand, as the Religious Right returned to a more locally-based politics during the Clinton years and since then it has often deferred to the dominant religious group to get things done. So, evangelicals continue to lead political efforts in the South, for example, with Catholics and Mormons supplying support, and vice versa in other regions.
KMK: Abortion, of course, soon became a central cause of the Religious Right, but in the early 1970s, it was still seen very much as solely a “Catholic issue.” What’s the role of the pro-life movement in all this?
NJY: As an almost entirely Catholic-led cause initially, the pro-life movement struggled to connect with other conservative Christians in the years following Roe v. Wade. Evangelicals, especially, resisted supporting the pro-life cause or joining anti-abortion organizations because they perceived abortion as a “Catholic issue.” Evangelical theologians and leaders had to work hard to bring lay evangelicals into the pro-life fold through the 1970s by developing a theological basis for opposing abortion. But the fact that the Bible didn’t seem to offer a clear position on abortion presented a big challenge for evangelical leaders in doing so. The Catholic Church had a long history of church teachings and papal pronouncements against abortion, but evangelicals couldn’t use Catholic texts to make the case against abortion because of their religious opposition to extra-biblical doctrines and also because many of these materials included Catholic imagery that evangelicals found objectionable, like the Virgin Mary, crucifixes, and rosaries.
Part of convincing evangelicals that abortion wasn’t just a Catholic issue also required creating denominationally-based anti-abortion groups. Since conservative Protestants tended to not trust causes and organizations that didn’t come out of their own denominational network, groups like Baptists for Life and Lutherans for Life formed. These church-centered organizations articulated a pro-life worldview in the theological and cultural terminology that made sense to each denomination, and they promoted a pro-life message through the churches, seminaries, agencies, and publishing houses that made up each denomination. This process of making evangelical denominations into thoroughly pro-life bodies happened from within and often in direct response to Catholic dominance of the cause.
At the same time, the National Right to Life Committee, the nation’s most important anti-abortion organization that had been created by the Catholic Church, struggled to open itself up to non-Catholic members. A few Protestant leaders in the organization tried to push the NRLC to loosen its Catholic ties, including its opposition to birth control which created a barrier to greater Protestant involvement in the group. These non-Catholic leaders also wanted the NRLC to do outreach to Protestant and Mormon communities, but it never materialized into anything significant. Instead, these Protestant leaders grew so frustrated with the NRLC’s overly Catholic leadership and orientation that they left to form their own Protestant-led organization, American Citizens Concerned for Life. Other non-Catholic pro-life organizations, such as the Christian Action Council, emerged through the 1970s, especially as more evangelicals converted to the pro-life cause.
By the late 1970s, the pro-life movement had influenced Congressional elections and helped set the stage for Reagan’s win in 1980. While historians, including myself, have argued that the pro-life movement hasn’t achieved much of their political agenda at the national level, they have unquestionably moved the Republican Party to the right and made abortion a litmus-test issue for GOP candidates. This accomplishment is not insignificant and it has absolutely shaped the national political conversation and substantive policy changes at the state level in the forms of TRAP legislation.
KMK: Increasingly, in recent years, the cause of “religious freedom” has moved to the forefront of concerns for conservative Christians who have organized around this idea in their opposition to gay marriage and health insurance coverage of abortion and contraception. When did the cause of religious freedom first become an issue, and how has it evolved in recent decades?
NJY: For much of the twentieth century, religious liberty had a very different meaning and use than it has taken in recent years. Particularly around midcentury, when Protestants talked about “religious freedom” they did so to advocate a strong separation of church and state as a way of opposing Catholic involvement in American public life. Protestants made religious liberty arguments when the Catholic Church sought federal funds for its hospitals and schools or tried to curb access to birth control. Up until the late 1950s, at least, Protestants – evangelicals and liberals alike – believed that Catholicism posed one of the greatest threats to American democracy, individualism, and the constitutional system. In making religious liberty arguments, Protestants advocated for a neutral public square free of “Catholic interference” all the while trusting in the de facto Protestantism that shaped American public life.
Religious, cultural, and political transformations during the 1960s changed this dynamic. The most important religious development was the Second Vatican Council (1962-65) which changed the Catholic Church’s position on religious liberty. Evangelicals were somewhat suspicious of the Catholic Church’s newfound support for religious freedom, but they also appreciated how Vatican II emphasized greater Catholic commitment to the Bible, a key development that helped initiate closer evangelical-Catholic relations.
Following the 1960s, “religious freedom” largely fell out of the public discourse, in large part because Protestants no longer wielded it as a weapon against Catholic public engagement. Also, in a period of a rising Religious Right, conservative Christians largely refrained from using religious liberty language since it had usually been associated with church-state separation arguments, however they did use religious freedom language to defend their support of private Christian schools and oppose gay rights laws in the 1970s.
Religious freedom language, however, resurfaced more substantively in the 1990s as Religious Right leaders started shifting their language from issue-based politics to a discourse of “religious liberty” in part because of frustration over how religious conservatives had been unable to come to agreement about shared political objectives in the 1980s. The language of religious freedom also made more sense to religious conservatives as they found themselves in an increasingly secular public culture. Now, Catholicism was no longer a threat to American public life, but rather political liberalism and “secular humanism.” Catholics, Mormons, and evangelicals saw themselves and each other as outsiders to an American system hostile to public faith and traditional values. Even more than the issue-based politics that had brought them together before but had also posed challenges, the language of religious liberty provided a nebulous but powerful unifying logic and discourse for interfaith politics.
The language of religious liberty also works best when the Religious Right is out of power, such as in the Obama years. As a rallying cry and expression of political marginalization, religious liberty arguments allow religious conservatives to present themselves as an aggrieved cultural minority. The language of religious liberty also provides a smoother gloss over some of the darker politics it seeks to advance. In other words, in a nation that is largely supportive of gay rights and same-sex marriage, it’s a lot more palatable (or at least not as baldly offensive) to talk about defending one’s religious liberty than it is to make arguments about denying civil rights to others.
Kevin M. Kruse is a Professor of History at Princeton University. He specializes in the political, social, and urban/suburban history of twentieth-century America, with a particular interest in conflicts over race, rights and religion and the making of modern conservatism. His most recent book, One Nation Under God: How Corporate America Invented Christian America (Basic Books, 2015), investigates the making and meaning of American religious nationalism in the mid-twentieth century. Kevin is also the author of White Flight: Atlanta and the Making of Modern Conservatism (Princeton University Press, 2005). In addition, he has co-edited three essay collections: The New Suburban History (University of Chicago Press, 2006), with Thomas Sugrue; Spaces of the Modern City (Princeton University Press, 2008), with Gyan Prakash; and Fog of War: The Second World War and the Civil Rights Movement (Oxford University Press, 2012) with Stephen Tuck. Kevin tweets from @KevinMKruse.
Neil J. Young is an editor at NOTCHES and specializes in post-1945 religion and politics. He co-hosts the history podcast Past Present. His book, We Gather Together: The Religious Right and the Problem of Interfaith Politics, was published by Oxford University Press in 2015. Young’s research has appeared in the Journal of Policy History, American Quarterly, and in Axel R. Schäfer’s Evangelicals and the 1960s. He writes frequently for publications, including the New York Times, Slate, Religion Dispatches, and the Huffington Post. He tweets from @NeilJYoung17.
NOTCHES: (re)marks on the history of sexuality is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 4.0 International License.
Based on a work at www.notchesblog.com.
For permission to publish any NOTCHES post in whole or in part please contact the editors at NotchesBlog@gmail.com