Will “Religious Freedom” Be the Issue That Finally Unites the Religious Right?

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It is by now widely accepted that the second half of the 20th century witnessed a realignment of religious politics in the United States. In particular, many scholars have written about an interfaith alliance of religious conservatives working to bridge their disagreements and build a winning political coalition. Despite maintaining strong theological quarrels, these co-belligerents came together in defense of moral values held in common. But a recent book challenges this history.


We Gather Together: The Religious Right and the Problem of Interfaith Politics
Neil J. Young
Oxford University Press
(November, 2015)

In his We Gather Together: The Religious Right and the Problem of Interfaith Politics, historian and Past Present Podcast co-host Neil J. Young documents more than five decades of interfaith division, observing attempts at conservative alliance that ultimately failed to span the gaps between. In his telling, though traditionalist evangelicals, Catholics, and Mormons did hold important political views in common, these were ultimately unable to surmount the high doctrinal barriers that held them apart.

RD’s Eric C. Miller spoke with Young about his project.

Eric Miller: First things first. Is it fair to say that accounts of a cohesive “Religious Right” have been exaggerated?

Neil J. Young: Absolutely. The prevailing narrative has been that conservative evangelicals, Mormons, and Catholics – the three pillars of the Religious Right – came together in response to Roe v. Wade, the Equal Rights Amendment, and the Supreme Court cases outlawing prayer and Bible reading in public schools. This coalition quickly put aside their longstanding divisions and disagreements in order to unite politically. My book challenges this standard account in two ways.

First, I show that Mormons, Catholics, and evangelicals had been drawing closer together since the 1950s in response to religious developments, not political and social changes in the nation, as has been typically argued. This demonstrates that these three faiths were actors of history, rather than reactors to political and social change.

Beginning in the 1950s, these groups recognized each other as outsiders of the liberal Protestant establishment and fellow critics of the powerful ecumenical movement. As liberal Protestantism loomed dominant at midcentury and as the ecumenical movement threatened to wipe out religious distinctions for the purposes of “Christian unity,” Mormons, Catholics, and evangelicals all challenged the theological claims of mainline Protestantism and rejected calls to ecumenism.

Yet they did so from their own very particular theological positions and out of the conviction of their exclusive possession of “true” Christianity. So Catholics, Mormons, and evangelicals began to recognize themselves as having more in common with each other than with mainline Protestants, but that recognition also required each of them to further distinguish and promote the important and intractable differences among them.

Second, I argue that the political alliance that emerged in the 1970s was not as cohesive as most scholars have contended. In my book, the Religious Right is not a sudden political alliance that emerges in response to Roe v. Wade just in time to elect Reagan, but rather the latest iteration of a religious debate that had been going on since the 1950s. Because that debate was as much about what these groups differed on as it was about what they had in common, the political alliance that emerged among them also reflected those internal divisions and disagreements.

The Religious Right I show is loosely aligned, fraught with internal religious divisions, and often in tension with itself. This had political consequences. While the Religious Right succeeded in electing Republican candidates to office, they failed to accomplish their political agenda at the federal level in part because of these divisions.

I think that’s the central irony of the book – that a movement like the Religious Right could become at least tenuously ecumenical based on their shared opposition to ecumenism. Given how antagonistic these groups were in the 1950s, would you say that Vatican II made this possible?

NJY: The Second Vatican Council (1962-65) was incredibly important to this overall development. For one, Vatican II drastically changed the Catholic Church’s position on ecumenism and its relationships with other faiths.

Until Vatican II, the Catholic Church had forbidden ecumenical interactions through a series of papal decrees. But now Pope John XXIII indicated he wanted the church to engage ecumenism, and the American bishops were particularly supportive of this new direction. The “Decree on Ecumenism” declared that other Christians were “separated brethren,” a remarkable shift from prior church teaching that regarded them as “heretics.” This and other council documents also encouraged Catholics to work with other Christians on common concerns—particularly those related to the family. Vatican II also authorized bishops to become politically active, and it indicated that abortion should be a chief concern.

All of this set the stage for closer connections with evangelicals and Mormons, but Vatican II also established important limits on Catholic ecumenism. Ecumenism had to be Catholic-led, directed by church authorities and with the purposes of promoting Catholicism to other Christians rather than establishing “Christian unity.”

Mormons and evangelicals watched Vatican II closely, appreciating some of the reforms but ultimately using the council to affirm their own exclusive possessions of truth.

Mormons viewed Vatican II skeptically. They praised the Catholic Church’s new support for religious freedom. But LDS leaders argued that whatever reforms Vatican II made could never change the fact that it was the Catholic Church’s apostasy from true Christianity that had ultimately led to the need for Joseph Smith’s restoration of the true church.

Evangelicals were far more critical of Vatican II’s reforms. In keeping with their longstanding attacks on Catholicism, evangelicals largely saw Vatican II as part of the Catholic Church’s plans to monopolize Christianity and make all Christians submit to Rome. However, evangelical leaders did appreciate Vatican II’s encouragement that lay Catholics read their Bibles more and participate in Bible studies. Evangelicals lauded this development, imagining that those Catholics who did so might become evangelical, transformed by reading the Bible just as Martin Luther had once been.

This development also helped evangelicals see Catholics as distinct from the Catholic Church, a change that was critical to building interfaith political partnerships. While maintaining that the Catholic Church itself was corrupt, evangelical leaders contended some Catholics might be Christians that evangelicals could partner with to tackle the nation’s social ills. This new understanding proved critical to the rise of the Religious Right.

You explain that, for a long time, abortion was considered a “Catholic issue.” Evangelicals, in particular, were hesitant to embrace pro-life activism for exactly this reason. But by the end of the 1970s, evangelicals and Mormons had joined Catholics in being staunchly opposed to abortion. So how did they fail to unite over the issue?

NJY: A truly interfaith anti-abortion alliance did not emerge until the late 1970s, but the pro-life movement still exhibited divisions and disagreements along religious lines through the 1980s and 1990s.

The Catholic Church had organized a pro-life movement since the 1960s, responding to the liberalization of abortion laws at the state level. But in general, it wasn’t until Roe v. Wade that Mormons or evangelicals thought much about abortion.

Mormon teaching denounced abortion, but still made exceptions for particular cases like rape or the health of the mother. These exceptions made it hard to unite with Catholic activists who wanted across-the-board banning of abortion. Also, importantly, Roe did not politicize the LDS Church in the same way that it did several evangelical denominations. Mormon leaders disagreed with the Supreme Court’s ruling, but they limited their response to reminding church members that abortion was a personal sin to avoid rather than mounting a political movement to overturn the ruling.

The LDS Church also actively rejected partnering with the National Right to Life Committee, the nation’s most important pro-life organization founded by the Catholic Church. Religious tensions were not insignificant here. When the Utah Right to Life Committee tried to enlist the LDS Church’s support for a state anti-abortion ballot initiative in 1978, LDS leaders refused to join forces because they believed some of the Catholic leaders had anti-Mormon views. Without the LDS Church’s involvement, the initiative failed even to make it on the ballot.

Evangelicals adopted a consistent pro-life position through a complicated story my book details. This process varied by denomination, reflecting particular theological traditions and denominational practices—but I was surprised to discover how many disagreements there were among evangelicals about what to do regarding abortion. And, as you mentioned, the perception of abortion as a “Catholic issue” worked against many evangelicals, especially Southern Baptists, adopting a pro-life position at first.

The Catholic Church didn’t do much to alter this view. In founding the National Right to Life Committee, the nation’s most important anti-abortion organization, the Catholic Church struggled to open the group up to non-Catholics. A few Protestant members in the organization tried to recruit more Protestants into the group, but Catholic leaders were generally disinterested in diversifying the organization.

The Protestant members left to create their own organization. As evangelicals slowly became pro-life, what you see through the 1970s is the rise of denominationally-specific groups, such as Baptists for Life and Lutherans for Life or the evangelical organization, Christian Action Council.

This created a very fractured pro-life movement. While this helped in electing pro-life politicians – denomination-specific organizations could mobilize their own members for elections most effectively – it hindered the political process. I show how the movement could not organize politically because there was so much disagreement, generally falling along religious lines, about legislative language and political strategies.

If ever there was an opportunity for successful interfaith partnership, it was during the 80s and 90s with the rise of the “Moral Majority” and “Christian Coalition.” But it didn’t quite happen. What went wrong?

NJY: One of the biggest surprises I found researching my book was discovering how contentious the relations were among religious conservatives in the 1980s and 1990s. We think of this as the great moment of religious conservatism in modern American history. And in many ways it was. But I argue that the Reagan years actually made religious conservatives fretful that the Religious Right was overshadowing important theological differences.

Historians have focused on the emergence of Moral Majority and the Christian Coalition in this time period. My book shows that beyond these supposed ecumenical political organizations, evangelicals, Catholics, and Mormons were far more focused on outlining their differences from one another. This often was accomplished in very antagonistic and aggressive ways, such as the anti-Mormon film, “The God Makers,” that was wildly popular among evangelicals.

This religious context shaped the political possibilities. As Religious Right leaders attempted to build a cross-denominational political movement, they were constrained by their own anti-ecumenical traditions and history. My book shows that time and again political agreement could not trump religious differences and historic divisions among these Christian conservatives.

Jerry Falwell, for example, insisted he was creating a broad movement of religious conservatives, but Moral Majority never grew past its fundamentalist base. At one point in the early 1980s, all forty-five state chairmen were Baptist pastors. Falwell wanted an ecumenical organization, but he seemed incapable of breaking out of his own religious network. In the end, it was easier to politically activate his own religious community than it was to establish a cross-denominational political organization.

Falwell’s reputation as a theological hardliner also kept Moral Majority from expanding beyond its mostly independent Baptist base. Catholics and Mormons both refused to join Moral Majority because they were all too aware of the anti-Catholic and anti-Mormon views Falwell had expressed through the years. One example I give comes from Moral Majority’s Ohio chapter that opened one meeting with a sermon, “Roman Catholic Church: Harlot of Rome.”

Mindful of Moral Majority’s failures, the Christian Coalition made more welcoming overtures to Catholics and Mormons in the 1990s but with limited success. Mormons stayed away from the Christian Coalition, and the LDS Church banned the organization’s materials from its church buildings. Catholics participated in the Christian Coalition more than they had Moral Majority, but the bishops made it known that they did not support the organization and argued Catholics should devote their political activities to Catholic-led groups.

Toward the beginning of the book, you observe that conservative Protestants, Catholics, and Mormons have woven a “threefold cord,” but loosely, and always on the verge of unraveling. By the end of the book, you have demonstrated very clearly why this is so. Each faith has claimed exclusive and uncompromising ownership of divine truth, dismissing the others as heresies along the way. Political incentives have often proven incapable of surmounting theological divides. Given this history of acrimony, do you see any potential for a tighter braid going forward?

NJY: Possibly. The issue of religious liberty has led to a current tightening of that braid. The question remains how long this will last and to what end it will lead, if any. Though it has drawn Mormons, evangelicals, and Catholics closer together, “religious freedom” remains a rather nebulous term rather than a clear political objective.

In many ways, that was the point. Starting in the 1990s, Religious Right leaders began to shift their public discourse from issue-based politics to the language of “religious freedom.” Frustrated over their inability to come to agreement about shared political objectives, Religious Right leaders believed religious liberty could unite these diverse players to exert their influence in American public life.

That has worked most effectively when the Religious Right has been out of power. During the Obama years, religious conservatives have objected to policies and legislation like the Affordable Care Act on the grounds of religious freedom. This was also the rallying cry in response to the Supreme Court’s legalization of same-sex marriage.

But will conservative evangelicals, Mormons, and Catholics be as closely united should a conservative Republican win the White House in 2016? The presidencies of Ronald Reagan and George W. Bush suggest not so much. This is the historical irony that my book reveals. During Democratic presidencies, the Religious Right has been better able to unify as an opposing force to a liberal – or, at least, non-conservative – agenda.

Republican administrations have proved more vexing for the Religious Right. This has been a result both of presidential leadership that did not want to fully advance the Religious Right’s agenda, but also of the movement’s tendency to splinter and divide at these moments of opportunity.

Lastly, the more that religious conservatives believe themselves to be outside of the national consensus – and this is a real and present fear these days, especially among evangelicals – the more that each of them will offer their faith as the only saving message for the nation. In other words, increasing secularization will yield not greater cross-denominational unity, but rather heightened sectarianism.

There’s no doubt these three groups want to shape national politics and influence American public life, but the primary mission of Mormons, Catholics, and evangelicals alike is to spread their particular religious message not just to “the lost,” but also to each other. That mission, my book shows, has had political consequences, loosening the braid but not, at least yet, unraveling it.