Exploring the Origins of the Christian Right

24 Mar

Politics and the Religious Right


Although many believe that the “Religious Right” came to prominence in the United States in the 1970s, as a reaction against the Roe v. Wade Supreme Court ruling on abortion, the background of the Religious Right goes back much further. As far back as the 1920s, concerned at the spread of liberal ideas, like secularization and evolution in public schools (and the public sector also), conservative fundamentalists turned to politics as the means by which to combat such evils. Other worries the fundamentalists had were such developments as the apparently growing Catholic influence in America, the pervasive evils of alcohol, and the spread of more liberal attitudes toward sexuality and gender roles. Driven by such fears regarding the moral and religious direction of the nation, Williams points out, “fundamentalists attempted to reclaim the nation’s public institutions, including schools and government, and make them a force for Protestantism and public morality.”[1]

Unfortunately for the fundamentalists at the time, neither the Democratic nor the Republican party were very receptive to their ideals. Even though this was the case, nonetheless, in the 1920s, fundamentalists seemed to score a major blow in the culture wars when Prohibition laws were passed nationwide. Repealing alcohol had been part and parcel of the fundamentalist agenda for the moral improvement of the nation since the 19th century. By the 1930s, though, Prohibition was repealed, and they suffered a major setback in terms of winning the culture and morality wars. Nonetheless, despite this apparent reversal of fortunes, into the 1930s “fundamentalists never lost sight of the political vision they had formed in the 1920s—the vision of reclaiming America’s Christian identity through politics.”[2] But where did the notion of a “Christian nation” come from in the first place?

Puritans, Covenant Theology, and a “Christian Nation”

George Whitefield Preaching (18th Century)

One can go back as far as the 17th and 18th centuries and trace the belief in a “Christian nation” to the Puritans, who came primarily from England to colonize America. Seeking religious (and financial) freedom, they held to the belief in what is termed covenant theology. The Puritans interpreted their move from Europe to the New World as similar to that of Israel’s exodus from Egypt and into the Promised Land of Israel. Both movements, the Puritans believed, had the covenant with God as their basis. Therefore, Stout maintains, this explains the origin of the view that America was meant to be a theocratic kingdom, or in more modern terms, a “Christian nation.”

He states:

In this view [covenant theology] God entered into covenants with nations, as well as with individuals, and promised that he would uphold them by his providential might if they would acknowledge no other sovereign and observe the terms of obedience contained in his Word. Covenanted peoples like those of ancient Israel and New England were the hub around which sacred (i.e., real) history revolved. Such peoples might be ignored or reviled by the world and figure insignificantly in the great empires of profane history, but viewed through the sacred lens of providential history they were seen as God’s special instruments entrusted with the task of preparing the way for messianic deliverance. As Israel witnessed God’s active involvement with nations in ancient times and brought forth the Christ, so New England’s experience confirmed God’s continuing involvement with nations that would persist until Christ’s returned to earth, when history itself would cease and be swallowed up in eternity.[3]

Much of the colonialists’ resistance to Great Britain, ultimately resulting in the Revolutionary War, suggests Stout, was not so much about how England was trampling their constitutional rights or political liberties. Once Britain demanded the colonists’ unlimited submission, they interpreted it as setting the Crown alongside the Scriptures as a competing ruler. Stout explains that “This, to the New Englanders, was tyrannical behaviour and they had no choice: resist to the death, or forfeit their identity as a covenant people.”[4] From their point of view, America was a “covenant nation,” just like Israel in the Old Testament, and thus Israel served as a “type” or a model for their experiences in the New World. The threats of Great Britain against the colonies were similarly interpreted as the threats ancient Israel faced in its day from more powerful nations. When the colonies successfully defeated the British, Puritans interpreted that as God’s providential deliverance of their new nation in the same ways he had miraculously delivered ancient Israel from its foes on many occasions.

Perhaps the most important point to draw out of this historical overview of the origins of America lies in the covenant theology to which so many of its founding fathers held. Like ancient Israel, the basis of the covenant was essentially conditional. In other words, if Israel obeyed the terms of the covenant, and kept to the demands of the Law, God would bless them. They would be in peace, and prosper as a nation. Conversely, however, if ancient Israel disobeyed the terms of the covenant, and broke the commands found in the Law (the Torah), God would curse them as a nation. Among other things, their crops would fail, they would be hit with wasting diseases and so forth, their economy would suffer, and ultimately—if they persisted in their sins—he would send foreign armies in to destroy them and drag them off into captivity.

Thus, it doesn’t take much imagination to see the connection between Israel and America as covenant nations, if indeed that is the case. This is how the logic went: if America stayed true to its Judeo-Christian heritage, and maintained its status as a “Christian nation,” then God would bless the country. If, however, America was to persist in sinning, the fundamentalists believed (still in line with that Puritan covenant theology), then God would curse the nation. This explains why, for example, so many fundamentalist Christians engaged in the drive to bring about Prohibition in the 1920s. Alcohol, and all the attendant evils that came with its use (and abuse), they felt, were destroying the moral fiber of the nation. If the situation continued unabated, some argued, God would judge America based on egregious sins. Thus, Prohibition needed to be passed not just for the immediate benefits of repealing all alcohol, but for the ultimate benefit of putting America back into a position whereby God could bless the country—based on the covenant.

Therefore, it is not difficult to begin to see what forces and drivers might be behind much of the movement among certain more conservative Christians to “get America back on track with God.” It was believed that one of the  most effective ways to do this was to get involved in the political arena to bring such goals about.

The Rise of the Evangelicals and Christian Right

Billy Graham and other Evangelical leaders

From the 1940s onwards, associations like the National Association of Evangelicals (N.A.E.) arose and sought to gain political clout. Although they still held to the “fundamentals of the faith,” they distanced themselves from their more militant and separatist fundamental past and now labelled themselves “evangelicals.”

During the Cold War of the 1950s and 1960s, the N.A.E. enhanced its political status by pledging to fight communism as one of its major priorities, but into the 1970s the movement lost much of its initial momentum due to infighting. Conservative fundamentalists like Jerry Falwell, Bob Jones Jr., and others broke with the more centrist-minded Billy Graham, and formed the Moral Majority in the 1970s.

By the late 1970s, Falwell’s Moral Majority had not gained widespread appeal outside of the Southern states, and the Southern Baptist Convention. Even today, however, in the area of the “Bible Belt,” the movement is still disproportionately strong. But when Pat Robertson entered the picture in the 1980s, many evangelicals in the Northern states, who had previously disavowed such leaders as Falwell, now joined the Republican party movement. Williams comments that “by the end of Ronald Reagan’s presidency, the Christian Right had become a united coalition that would remain a powerful political juggernaut for the next two generations.”[5] The differences between northern and southern, ideology and theology, now gave way to a growing concern over what could be done to address such problems as: the growing influence of secularism, abortion and gay rights, sexual freedom and experimentation, and racial tensions.

By the election of George W. Bush, comments Williams, “it became impossible for any Republican presidential candidate to ignore the Christian Right’s demands on abortion, gay rights, and other social issues.”[6]

However, despite capturing a political party, the Christian Right found that as the years went by, it was unable to change the course of the nation insofar as laws went: gay rights, abortion, no prayer in public schools—these remained, and more. They may have won the party, but they did not capture the soul of the nation. Despite their best efforts, America continues to explore what it means to be a “pluralistic nation.”

In a 1982 article, shortly after the election of President Reagan, author Stephen J. Whitfield commented on the situation, and his words still resonate today:

But the dream of a pluralistic polity which maximizes opportunity is tarnished when freedom of choice is denied to pregnant women, when prayer and scriptural versions of cosmogony are introduced into the public schools, when sin is discovered in books, when political debate becomes overloaded with a religious charge. The current drive on the far right to infuse the responsibilities of self-government with the passions of faith challenges what is most promising and perhaps most essential in the American experiment itself— what Jefferson called “an empire of reason.”[7]

Read the next article in this series: “Why did so many Christians vote for Donald Trump?


[1] Williams, David. God’s Own Party: The Making of the Christian Right. Oxford: Oxford University Press (2010): 2.

[2] Williams, God’s Own Party, 3.

[3] Stout, Harry S. The New England Soul: Preaching and Religious Culture in Colonial New England. New York: Oxford University Press, 1988 (7).

[4] Stout, New England Soul, 7.

[5] Williams, God’s Own Party, 6.

[6] Williams, God’s Own Party, 8.

[7] Whitfield, Stephen J. “‘One Nation Under God’: The Rise of the Religious Right.” (Autumn 1982): http://www.vqronline.org/essay/one-nation-under-god-rise-religious-right (Accessed 3/24/17).

There is one comment

Join the conversation

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *