I recently got a request for suggested reading to understand the Christian Right in the US. Since this is something I write a lot about here at Sixoh6, I thought I’d share it. They’re offered here in no particular order.
PS. To this list, I’ll add the work for Robert Wuthnow, who writes about one book per year. He’ll probably write another before I even finish making this list.
PPS. I’ll probably keep thinking of more, so if you have a suggestion, please let me know. And if I missed your book, please remind me to include it!
God at the Grassroots 2016: The Christian Right in American Politics, edited by Mark J. Rozell and Clyde Wilcox. Versions of this book, which examines the role of the Christian Right in state-level politics, were also published in 1996, 1998, 2000, and 2004. We’ll probably need at least a 2020 edition, too.
Beyond this, Rozell and Wilcox’s work is always worth reading.
God’s Own Party: The Making of the Christian Right by Daniel K. Williams is unlike many histories of the Religious Right, which start in the 1970s. He helps us see how moral legislation of the 1920s was a sign of conservative Christians’ commitment to remaking America into a “Christian nation.” His chapter on Nixon’s “evangelical strategy” is particularly good.
The Evangelicals: The Struggle to Shape America by Frances Fitzgerald won last year’s National Book Critics Circle Award. It goes back even farther than Daniel K. Williams’ history, to Puritanism. The Evangelicals is about a group that transcends the Christian Right, but those with an interest in the relationship between white evangelicals and conservative politics will find the book helpful, especially in its recognition of the lasting impact of the Civil War and slavery on evangelicals today.
Righteous Rhetoric: Sex, Speech, and the Politics of Concerned Women for America by Leslie Dorrough Smith identifies the ways that the organization founded by anti-ERA activist Phyllis Schlafly deploys “chaos rhetoric”—language that fosters fear of social disorder—and then offers its policies as resolution to the fear it generates. If you teach a course in social problems, political rhetoric, sexuality, or gender, I think this is a great book to share with students.
The Politics of Evangelical Identity: Local Churches and Partisan Divides in the United States and Canada by Lydia Bean uses a fascinating method to analyze politics and religion: Bean studies evangelical congregations on both sides of the US-Canadian border. Given that their theologies are so similar, how come their politics are so different? Bean finds her answer at the congregational level, particularly among lay leaders, who subtly guide and shape the politics of their co-congregants. Turns out that, in the US, who you go to church with matters.
Redeeming America: Piety and Politics in the New Christian Right by Michael Lienesch provides an excellent history of the Christian Right in the 1980s, but its most important contribution, I think, is Lienesch’s argument that the Christian Right is cyclical, alternating between periods of aggressive political engagement during which adherents try to “redeem” America and periods of withdrawal. The writing of Paul Weyrich and Rod Dreher, two prominent Religious Right voices from different eras, illustrate Lienesch’s point, with Dreher’s Benedict Option serving as just one recent example of the call to retreat and consolidate.
We Gather Together: The Religious Right and the Problem of Interfaith Politics by Neil J. Young delivers a challenge to understandings of the Religious Right as founded in opposition to abortion. Instead, he argues, what unites conservative Protestants, Catholics, Mormons, and Jews—people who, theologically, may actually believe that each other goes to hell after death—is that they all oppose ecumenicism. For those of us who think that theology matters and should be given more attention in discussions of religion and politics, this book is a lovely gift.
Moral Combat: How Sex Divided American and Fractured American Politics by R. Marie Griffith was probably this year’s most anticipated book about religion and politics—and for good reasons. I don’t think there hasn’t been a day this semester when I haven’t found a reason to think about its central question: How did the Christian consensus around sex unravel so quickly? Griffith takes us through a number of debates in their historical moments: birth control in the 20s, “race mixing” in the Civil Rights Era, sex education in the 60s, abortion in the 70s, and LGBTQ+ rights today.
American Apocalypse: A History of Modern Evangelism by Matthew Avery Sutton. By now, you might be wondering how many histories of American evangelicalism I’m going to include on this list. Fair enough. But you should read this 2017 contribution to the discussion because it places evangelical eschatology at the center. Sutton reads evangelical politics through believers’ thoughts about the end of the world—and it makes frightening sense. On a personal note, it was conservative Christians’ worries about Y2K that got me interested in the fields of politics and religion, so I’m partial.
Jerry Falwell and the Rise of the Religious Right: A Brief History with Documents by Matthew Avery Sutton uses Falwell as a lens for understanding the Religious Right’s rise in the 1980s. Sutton does a fine job of showing us how to use primary source material, like sermons, speeches, and court documents, to make sense of history.
The Book of Jerry Falwell: Fundamentalist Language and Politics by Susan Friend Harding is an ethnographic study of late 20th century fundamentalism.
The Road to Dominion and, really, everything by Sara Diamond. She has been accused in the popular press of not being nuanced (that is, polite, tentative) in her analysis. But she was right.
Countercultural Conservatives: American Evangelicalism from the Postwar Revival to the New Christian Right by Axel R. Schäfer examines how evangelicals went from being social progressives to social conservatives post-WWII.
Building God’s Kingdom: Inside the World of Christian Reconstruction by Julie J. Ingersoll focuses on Reconstructionists—those who wish, in harder and softer forms, to reshape America into an explicitly Christian nation. The strictest expressions argue we need to follow Mosaic law, so it’s not surprisingly that that view hasn’t gained a large following. However, though “Reconstructionist” (like “Dominionist”) has come to be seen as a label that few politicians embrace, Ingersoll effectively makes the argument that a desire for Christian theocracy circulates in the Religious Right, regardless of what it is named. The individual chapters here can be read separately for solid takes on Christian schooling, homeschooling, economics, and creationism.
Republican Theology: The Civil Religion of American Evangelicals by Benjamin T. Lynerd asks the question many outsiders to the Religious Right wonder: how you can advocate for limited government while also demanding that people adhere to a particular morality? You don’t want the government to regulate guns or pollution, but you do want it to regulate alcohol sales and the same-sex relationships? Lynerd’s work, a history of theology, takes us to the founding of the nation to understand the ways that conservatives have come to see the US’s status as a free republic as dependent upon personal virtue—as enforced by hegemonic Christianity.
Faith in the Halls of Power: How Evangelicals Joined the American Elite by D. Michael Lindsay is written by the president of Gordon College, a nondenominational Christian school. It uses interviews with powerful evangelicals in business, government, arts, athletics, and elsewhere to show how evangelicals have moved into positions of power. Given that conservative Christians are going to college at higher rates than in the past, we can expect them to continue to occupy more such positions in the future.
Right Moves: The Conservative Think Tank in American Political Culture since 1945 by Jason Stahl is a history of the conservative think tank, starting in the New Deal. The chapter on contemporary conservative think tanks is good, but I especially like the final chapter, “Policy as Identity Politics.” The book isn’t narrowly about Religious Right think tanks, but I think those interested in how religious conservatives wield power will find it useful.
How Two Political Entrepreneurs Help Create the American Conservative Movement, 1973-1981: The Ideas of Richard Viguerie and Paul Weyrich by Aif tomas Tonnessen is a relatively hard-to-find title, so you’ll probably have to interlibrary loan. I’ve not read it yet, but it’s the only title I’ve found that offers a lengthy treatment of Viguerie and Weyrich, architects of the Religious Right. Viguerie is the pioneer of the direct mailer—something that, in the internet age, seems a bit quaint but that made it possible for Religious Right groups to solicit small sums of money from big audiences and to create mailing lists that then allowed leaders to quickly mobilize voters, who, in turn, became acquainted with voting—and with winning. I also highly recommend reading Weyrich’s own writing, which can easily be found with a Google Scholar search.
Believe Me: The Evangelical Road to Donald Trump by John Fea is written by an evangelical professor of history who is obviously disappointed by his co-religionists’ voting patterns. But he isn’t surprised, given the history of white evangelicalism. This is a readable book that would make a good choice for a book club.
From Bible Belt to Sunbelt: Plain-Folk Religion, Grassroots Politics, and the Rise of Evangelical Conservatism by Darren Dochuck focuses on California from the Depression through Reagan. Dochuck considers how Okies brought and fostered conservative religion where they settled in California.
Kingdom Coming: The Rise of Christian Nationalism by Michelle Goldberg didn’t scare us as much as it should have when it was written in 2007. Goldberg’s interviews with everyday Christian conservatives back then were a foretaste of the nationalism what we’re experiencing now.
Prophets and Patriots: Faith in Democracy across the Political Divide by Ruth Braunstein follows the work of a religious progressive organization and a Tea Party group. Readers interested in how grassroots conservative activism work will find the Tea Party chapters especially helpful.
Above, some items from my bookshelf.