We Gather Together: The Religious Right And The Problem Of Interfaith Politics by Neil J. Young, Oxford University Press, 432 pp.
Anyone who has spent any amount of time observing the Religious Right understands that its members belong to different religious traditions. Protestants, Catholics and Mormons tend to dominate the movement despite their differences. Its success as a political bloc owes largely to their unity.
But the Religious Right is difficult to analyze. Even the term “Religious Right” is limited; it describes a movement that unquestionably exists and wields significant electoral power, but its boundaries aren’t clearly defined. People don’t identify themselves as members of the “Religious Right”; they identify themselves as members of their specific denomination or sect. The movement is arguably best understood as a situational alliance and like any such alliance, its cohesion fluctuates.
Neil J. Young, an independent scholar who earned a Ph.D. in U.S. history from Columbia University, traces that tension in his new book from Oxford University Press. We Gather Together: The Religious Right And The Problem Of Interfaith Politics maps the ties that uneasily bind the movement’s religious factions together and argues that its inability to overcome its internal theological differences has often undermined its own activism.
“The emergence of the Religious Right was not a brilliant political strategy of compromise and coalition-building hatched on the eve of a history-altering election,” Young writes. “Rather, it was the latest iteration of a religious debate that had gone on for decades, sparked by the ecumenical contentions of mainline Protestants rather than by secular liberal victories.”
Young begins with the 1950s, when Protestant Christians began to debate the virtues of ecumenism. Fundamentalists and some conservative evangelicals objected to mainline Protestant attempts to form alliances with Jews and Catholics – a trend that Young, drawing from historian Kevin Shultz (Tri-Faith America: How Catholics And Jews Held Post-War America To Its Protestant Promise), calls “tri-faith pluralism.” To conservatives, the ecumenical movement threatened doctrinal purity, and Catholics, Mormons and evangelicals, Young writes, responded to the trend with “a defense of the authentic Christian faith.”
That reaction – the instinct to defend orthodoxy to a changing culture – would eventually provide the foundation for the movement we know as the Religious Right. But one central problem would limit its political work for decades to come: No one could agree on how to define authentic Christianity.
Anti-Catholic sentiment prevented conservative Protestants from wholeheartedly supporting a closer relationship with the Roman Catholic Church. American bishops also resisted mainline Protestant calls to ecumenism; conservative opposition to the church just fueled their reluctance. Mormon leaders navigated similar troubles. Though deeply conservative, they preferred to preserve their reputation as “a peculiar people” and organize on their own. Widespread beliefs that Mormons belonged to some sort of shady cult only reinforced their insularity.
In the 1960s, the U.S. Supreme Court almost changed that when it ruled that public schools could not lead students in mandatory prayer and Bible reading. To secularists, the court’s verdicts in Engel v. Vitale and Abington Township School District v. Schempp are major victories for separation of church and state. But then (as now), the decisions outraged many conservative people of faith. Young cites one 1963 poll that reported 70 percent of Americans opposed the rulings.
Public outrage didn’t necessarily translate to institutional outrage: Mainline and liberal Christian leaders had no real problem with the rulings. Perhaps more surprisingly, neither did some major evangelical and fundamentalist organizations. They disagreed with the prospect of a state-drafted, mandatory prayer for theological reasons.
Young quotes the International Council of Christian Churches’ Carl McIntire, an avowed fundamentalist: “The prayer was offensive to Bible-believing Christians because it was not made in the name of Jesus Christ…It is not tolerable that the State should presume to dictate an official prayer to God satisfactory to all religions, but assuredly not satisfactory to Jesus Christ.” And McIntire wasn’t an outlier. The Southern Baptist Convention also applauded the verdicts.
Young notes that the issue of school prayer had historically divided Protestants and Catholics – although Catholics were in opposition when Protestant prayers were being forced onto their children. Young cites the example of Philadelphia’s 1844 Bible Riots, which occurred when Protestants violently protested a school board decision to exempt Catholic children from daily Bible readings. The riots preceded the high court’s verdicts by over a century, but time hadn’t erased tensions between the groups. Many American Protestants still largely defined themselves by their traditions
Young points to Christianity Today – then, as it is now, an influential evangelical voice – to illustrate this phenomenon in action. “It is significant that the loudest Roman Catholic condemnation of the recent Supreme Court decision came from areas such as Boston, New York and Los Angeles, where Romanism has invested heavily in public schools. We must remember, however, that no official establishment of humanism yet exists in public schools,” the magazine editorialized at the time.
School prayer did motivate certain dedicated conservative activists, who understood that the end of mandatory worship challenged their cherished notion of Christian America. That in turn spurred the creation of the modern Religious Right. “The perceived threat to the traditional family by secular culture, Supreme Court decisions, federal policies, and the liberal churches that supported so many of these trends brought Mormons, evangelicals and Catholics together,” Young notes.
But they were forced to work around enduring denominational differences between evangelicals and fundamentalists, in addition to theological disagreements between broader religious sects. That pattern that would be repeated later on when these groups attempted to rally around the issue of abortion.
Abortion, like school prayer, is usually cast as a key unification moment for the Religious Right. Young argues that this is true, but he raises certain caveats that are often omitted from the narrative. He spends significant time charting the growth of the anti-abortion movement, and that’s an appropriate decision. Pew Research Center reported last year that 77 percent of self-identified white evangelicals believe abortion is “morally wrong,” and the priorities of the Religious Right reflect that trend. Groups like the Family Research Council, Alliance Defending Freedom and Focus on the Family vehemently oppose abortion and stump for politicians who promise to restrict it. It’s largely an ecumenical issue. The United States Conference of Catholic Bishops stands shoulder to shoulder with the Southern Baptist Convention and Mormon leadership.
But when the Supreme Court issued its verdict in 1973’s Roe v. Wade, many religious groups actually applauded the result. Protestants, including evangelicals, were not uniformly aligned on the matter. Some denominations opposed it, others supported it. Still more greeted it with ambivalence. Once again, many considered it a “Catholic issue.” Catholics dominated anti-abortion groups like Birthright and the National Right to Life Congress, and rampant anti-Catholicism hindered finding Protestant support for their cause.
They succeeded in fits and starts. According to Young, Christianity Today championed the cause prior to Roe. Few Protestant bodies condemned legal abortion at the time; even the Southern Baptist Convention supported abortion rights in some cases. Despite its theological opposition to the Vatican, the magazine encouraged readers to familiarize themselves with Catholic materials on the subject and to create alliances with anti-abortion Catholics.
“The evangelical magazine had hardly abandoned its consistent critique of Catholicism, but in recommending that pro-life evangelicals seek partnerships with Catholics to fight the liberalization of abortion laws, Christianity Today suggested theological difference might be set aside momentarily to fight shared ills,” Young writes.
Young brings his account into the present day with the issue of marriage equality, and he provides a useful look at how Mormon activism in defense of same-sex marriage bans endeared that church to evangelicals. The church’s work on behalf of California’s controversial Proposition 8 in particular helped it overcome evangelical wariness.
We Gather Together is a dense book, which may deter some readers. But Young has taken on a complicated topic and this is the treatment it deserves. His work is particularly notable for its inclusion of Mormon history and beliefs, and that’s important; the church’s slow evolution toward greater social and political engagement has bolstered the Religious Right’s political reach and will likely continue to influence the movement’s tactics post-Obergefell.
The book will also be a useful resource for anyone seeking to understand the contemporary Religious Right. Its past informs its present – and its future, too.