A review of For a "Christian America": A History of the Religious Right, by Ruth Murray Brown
Early in my public life, I learned that if a journalist asks for an interview, you're either a source, or a target. And if you're a Christian conservative, generally you're a target. Indeed, Ruth Murray Brown admits in this new history of the so-called Religious Right that the activists she interviewed often began by asking her: "Are you one of us or one of them?"
The answer Brown gave was that she was neither. Prior to her death this year, she was a professor of political science and sociology at Rose State College in Oklahoma. Although she had grown up in a United Methodist parsonage and hence knew the language, Brown is on record (though she doesn't mention it) as an active member of the League of Women Voters, a group that campaigned heavily in support of the Equal Rights Amendment (ERA), the political battle that forms the nucleus of her book.
For her research, Brown conducted about a hundred interviews from 1976 to 1983; then, revisiting the project from 1995 to 1998, she conducted "about" another 72. She chose her subjects from random samples of lists provided by the 1979 Oklahoma White House Conference on Families and the Oklahoma Christian Coalition office. Why Oklahoma? Because she lived there and because Oklahoma was the first state to vote against ratification of the ERA, which repulse, she argues, marked the beginning of the profamily movement.
The focus on Oklahoma strengthens the book as a case study but undermines it as a history. Though Brown shows that her state played a pivotal role in the ERA fight, her claim that it was the site of the pro-family movement's greatest strength is doubtful. And though she claims to have interviewed "national leaders" (unnamed) of the pro-family movement during her research, a close reading of the text doesn't reveal any evidence of such interviews—whether with Jerry Falwell, Pat Robertson, Phyllis Schlafly, or James Dobson, for example, all of whom are relatively accessible public figures.
Brown does assemble a fairly useable primer on the political mobilization of the Protestant and Mormon churches but says little about the Catholic Church. As a recent history of the people who believe that their faith should have an influence in the public square, this is a helpful book. Nevertheless, like most surveys and descriptions of the "Christian Right," it misses the spirit that animates today's religious activists in politics.
Brown pegs the birth of the modern Religious Right to the emergence of opposition to the Equal Rights Amendment among church-going women. Her description of the tough, brilliant, and tenacious political battle led by Phyllis Schlafly and waged by scores of dedicated, all-American women is this book's distinctive contribution.
Schlafly's battalions are widely credited with stopping the amendment at 35 states, three short of the 38 needed for ratification. Brown's focus on some of Schlafly's local lieutenants uncovers stories that are not often told in these politically correct days—for example, Lottie Beth Hobbs's so-called "pink sheet," the simple one-page flyer, printed on pink paper and entitled, "Ladies! Have You Heard?" which became highly influential in spreading the arguments against the ERA.
For a "Christian America" recounts the impressive effects of grassroots activism. The STOPERA women were outspent but not out-hustled by the pro-ERA's (paid) volunteers. In quintessentially American fashion, the ERA opponents created new organizations to carry out their crusade—Hobbs founded Women Who Want to Be Women; Ann Patterson launched Women for Responsible Legislation; and Beverly Findley organized women from the Churches of Christ.
Probably because of her own churched background, Brown immediately recognizes the source of this devotion: anti-ERA women nearly all attended church on Sundays and usually were a part of women's Bible study during the week. Prayer and "a personal relationship with the Lord" were the key to these women's lives.
Despite her insight into the Religious Right's spiritual foundations, Brown attributes a materialist motivation to the pro-family movement that is deeply troubling. She informs the reader that Dr. James Dobson, founder of Focus on the Family, "has a fine income" from his books and radio programs, "some of which he donates to Focus on the Family." This seems to imply that Dobson pursues his work for money tossing his organization only a few crumbs. Quite the converse is true. In her research Brown should have discovered that Dobson is the single largest donor to Focus, and lives simply and modestly.
Yet, these sins of commission are not the book's real failing. What ultimately vitiates it is its staggering indifference to the larger historical context.
America's story is interwoven with religion and cannot be told accurately without noting Christianity's influence. Consider, by contrast, Jean Bethke Elshtain's deft touch in her recent biography of Jane Addams. Elshtain details how Addams tackled the social problems she saw before her at the turn of the century. Although much of her work focused on private efforts, such as the establishment of Hull House, she applied her faith to politics too. Addams was part of the Progressive movement, the early Christian Left, if you will, who in turn had been preceded by the Christian activists who formed the abolition movement in the 1850s, and would be followed by those who drove the civil rights movement in the 1950s.
How does the Religious Right fit into this historic tradition? A good history of the movement would tackle this question, Brown doesn't even acknowledge it.
Nor does she spend much time addressing the movement's future. With an evangelical, professing Christian in the White House, what are the prospects for the Religious Right as it moves into the next century facing continuing challenges and new opportunities? On this question, too, we shall have to wait for a broader, deeper, and fairer account.