We Gather Together:
The Religious Right and the Problem of Interfaith Politics
by Neil J. Young
Oxford University Press, 432 pp., $34.95
In this fascinating book, Neil J. Young, historian and independent scholar (PhD U.S. History, Columbia University) wants to complicate things. He wants to question the assumption that the Religious Right movement is, in the doubting words of historian Kenneth J. Heineman, “a monolithic movement.” “This book,” Young writes,
aims to rectify [that view]. The Religious Right was no monolith; it was a diverse and intricate network that contained, endured, and suffered internal tensions, denominational divisions, and often competing agendas. While evangelicals, Catholics, and Mormons formed the Religious Right’s base, the Religious Right also stood distinct from and sometimes in conflict with the political endeavors and convictions of the Catholic Church, the LDS Church, and influential evangelical leaders and institutions. By placing the Religious Right in the context of the much longer history of relations between these groups, the theological and cultural divisions underlying their political cooperation become clear.
He accomplishes his task very well and is able to condense a huge amount of research into smooth prose and a compelling story.
Which he begins with Billy Graham waking up in the middle of the night in “late 1953” with the idea for a new magazine for evangelical Christians, Christianity Today. Graham and others in the National Association of Evangelicals wanted to unite evangelical Christians across denominational lines; unite them for spreading the gospel, but also—and this tug-of-war is the theme of the book—unite them against the liberal Protestant establishment on the one hand, and fundamentalists, on the other. In the NAE’s opinion, the liberals were busy dismantling the traditional faith of Christianity in the name of namby-pamby ecumenism, while the redneck fundamentalists preached the traditional faith in an offensive separatist way.
But why did evangelicals eventually join forces with the LDS and the Catholic Church? The main two issues were school prayer and abortion. In 1962 in Engel v. Vitale, the Supreme Court forbade prayer in public schools, and later went on to forbid “Bible-reading exercises in public schools,” and declared “the recitation of the Lord’s Prayer in public schools an unconstitutional act.” Then in 1973 the court ruled in Roe v. Wade and Doe v. Bolton that all state abortion laws were to be abolished and “declared a woman and her doctor alone could decide to have an abortion during the first trimester.”
The Catholic Church had always opposed abortion, the Protestants and LDS churches had not. Catholic priests and laypeople led the initial movement then, Protestants and Mormons later joining the fray. This led to power squabbles, the bishops not wanting to let go of control, the Protestants and Mormons wanting more. But then the Protestant theologian-philosopher Francis Schaeffer, one could say, ignited the culture wars via evangelicals through his book/film series, How Then Should We Live? and Whatever Happened to the Human Race? and the movement swelled in numbers and influence. Then Jerry Falwell joined the cause and soon founded the Moral Majority.
Reagan became president, but not much happened about school prayer or abortion, because, Young writes, he and his staff did not particularly care about these issues as much as they had said they did pre-election. The leaders of the religious right didn’t help matters by dividing over which pro-life amendment to pass. Small wonder that many in the movement felt betrayed.
The Moral Majority was replaced by Pat Roberston’s Christian Coalition in the 1990s, which helped the Republicans win the majority in the Congress to fight against the protean Bill Clinton. Young skims over, relatively speaking, this era and the Bush presidency, then refocuses on the Mormon Mitt Romney’s run for president in 2012 and the tangled web he wove in order to present himself as a “regular” Christian. After his loss, Young says, some in the Religious Right proclaimed, we’ve lost the culture wars, now is the time to talk about religious civil liberties.
We Gather Together is a successful balanced look at the phenomenon of the Religious Right, which, as Young concludes, can unite at times on issues in the public square, but will always squabble about who has the highest access to God’s throne.