Digging into the foundation of the Christian-right movement

But author and professor Daniel K. Williams’s new book, God’s Own Party, argues that while the 1970s gave America “Saturday Night Fever” and Pink Floyd, the infamous Christian right started affecting American politics significantly earlier. 

The book explores the foundation of the Christian-right movement, how its sphere of influence has shifted since its emergence and where it stands today, as well as analyzes the key players who had a significant role in shaping the movement. 

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Relationships that Christian leaders had with presidents like Dwight Eisenhower, Richard Nixon and Ronald Reagan were used to accomplish moral and social victories as well as gain influence in the White House.

But the Christian right’s most memorable face was Moral Majority co-founder and Baptist Pastor Jerry Falwell, who was responsible not only for building up the Christian right but also for precipitating its eventual downfall when Falwell’s radical opinions started alienating supporters, leading to the group’s financial troubles.

Despite its beginnings, the Christian right has been exerting its influence on the GOP for decades, which Williams explains is partly due to its effort to identify the party with anticommunism and moral order through the 1960s and to its formation of close ties to important Republican leaders like Eisenhower and Nixon. 

From then on, because of what Williams describes as a “united front,” the Christian right became the “most powerful interest group in the GOP.”

But as American culture changed, so did the Christian right, whose influence has remained high when it comes to voter turnout, but which hasn’t been able to exert the same influence on culture.

For instance, Williams says that although evangelicals accounted for one-third of the Republican vote in presidential elections when George W. Bush took office, the president couldn’t resist the mass appeal that appointing a few centrist, pro-abortion-rights Republicans, as well as an openly gay leader of the National AIDS Policy, would have.

Perhaps most interesting is the book’s analysis of the long-term war against Islamic terrorism that evangelicals declared after the Sept. 11 attacks, saying that the Bush administration “occasionally tried to distance itself from some evangelicals’ more extreme denunciations of Islam.” 

The Christian right’s sphere of influence isn’t just about religious fervor, though. Williams attributes some of its strength in recent decades to the new level of wealth and status it accrued. 

At one point, Williams says, conservative evangelicals controlled three national television networks and 66 nationally syndicated religious broadcasters, as well as local TV preachers.

Slightly surprising is that even in the Midwest, new “mega” evangelical churches have sprung up.

One of the most successful, Willow Creek, is located in South Barrington, Ill. Started by a 23-year-old pastor, within 14 years the church transformed itself into a 12,000-member congregation, with lead pastor Bill Hybels deploying dynamic sermons, contemporary praise and worship, movies, slide shows and rock music — his mega-church even has a gymnasium.

Despite its new status, Williams’s research reports the Christian right still faces challenges, especially as Democratic candidates try to narrow the “God gap” by making campaign stops to evangelical churches.

Williams’s book isn’t meant to convince you that the Christian right is just as strong as it once was, but it certainly should convince you that it’s alive and kicking, even in the northern Chicago suburbs where Hybels’s church pulses with members and money.

With a strong voting base and an “unwillingness to leave the public sphere,” Williams ponders the future of the Christian right, saying the group isn’t ready to retreat to its churches any more than it thinks Americans will abandon their values of tolerance and egalitarianism.

The culture wars of the Christian right against mainstream America are far from over — Williams thinks they’ve just changed strategies.