in the 2010 midterm elections, the slow-moving economy quickly became the top issue for politicians and voters alike. As a result, social issues—like abortion or gay marriage—went to the back burner in campaigns across the country. But University of West Georgia historian Daniel Williams argues that Republican candidates remained true to their socially conservative positions in the periphery, knowing full well that if they didn't, they would risk losing support from their Christian base. In God's Own Party: The Making of the Christian Right, Williams describes how evangelicals became an important voting bloc for the Republican Party. He recently spoke with U.S. News about the role of the Christian right in today's politics. Excerpts:
When did conservative Christians first latch on to the GOP?
The real commitment came at the end of the 1970s and especially with the rise of Ronald Reagan. But there were several stages. Eisenhower's presidency was crucial in bringing a lot of evangelicals into the Republican party, and so was Richard Nixon's presidency in the early 1970s.
Was that a natural progression or a concerted party effort?
Both. The evangelicals were looking for a party that would champion what they viewed as moral values and their interests in the Cold War. And the Republican Party was also looking for potential voters.
How did the fight against communism during the Cold War strengthen the political power of Christian evangelicals?
Evangelicals had been speaking out against communism even before it became a central cause for the American government. But what happened during the early years of the Cold War was that they became convinced that the federal government was acting in the interests of God by fighting against communism internationally and by rooting out communist subversives within the country.
Are we seeing that same sentiment play out against Islam?
In many ways, the war on terror became the new Cold War for evangelicals. Throughout the peak years of [the Iraq War], from 2003 and all the way up until 2008 and possibly even beyond, white evangelicals shared a much greater degree of support for that war than people who were outside of evangelicalism.
In 2010, social and moral issues were pushed aside to focus on the economy. Is the party moving away from the Christian right?
The problem with the Christian-right issues is that all those tend to be minority issues. It was pretty clear between 2004 and 2008 that same-sex marriage was essentially a wedge issue—it could be used to win in certain states but only at the expense of alienating moderates in other areas. That's the case with abortion, to an even greater degree. It'd be difficult for the GOP to wage a national election campaign based primarily on the Christian-right issues. A much more successful strategy for them is to make sure that they clearly communicate to their base that they're interested in the cultural issues. And they certainly did that this time behind the scenes.
Tea Partyers seem split between Christian conservatives and libertarians. Who's winning?
There is a divide. But as far as I can tell, the major Tea Party candidates took positions that were aligned with the Christian right on the social issues. The Christian right feels that it won in the recent elections.
Isn't the millennial generation more liberal on social issues?
On some issues, particularly on gay rights, we will see a gradual shift. There will continue to be fights over same-sex marriage for several years, but gradually we'll see that position accepted in American society. On the issue of abortion, polls show that evangelicals under 30 are, if anything, even slightly more opposed to abortion—slightly more pro-life than their parents' generation was.
Is Glenn Beck the new Jerry Falwell?
Glenn Beck is going to have problems reaching out to evangelicals because he's such a strong Mormon. So Glenn Beck has a wide evangelical following, but I don't think that he can ever become a true leader of the Christian right.
What about Sarah Palin?
Evangelicals certainly viewed Sarah Palin as one of their own and, I think, still do. And she has the potential to appeal to a number of evangelicals if she continues to be involved in politics.
Will the Christian right ever be able to reclaim America?
If it weren't for the Christian right, certain issues such as abortion and gay rights would not have had the long-term political currency that they did. But the challenge that they've always faced is that the majority of Americans don't support them. So the idea of creating a true Christian nation—or re-creating a Christian nation, as the Christian right would see it—was ultimately a goal that could never succeed given the diversity of the country and the general acceptance among most Americans of a lot of the cultural changes that have taken place in the last half-century.