Divided on the Right – A Conversation with Neil J. Young

YoungNeil J. Young is a historian and co-host of the Past Present Podcast. His book, We Gather Together: The Religious Right and the Problem of Interfaith Politics was published last month by Oxford University Press. In it, Young argues that, despite repeated attempts throughout the second half of the 20th Century, conservative evangelicals, Catholics, and Mormons were never able to form a truly united “Religious Right.”

ECM: Is it fair to say that accounts of a cohesive “Religious Right” have been exaggerated?

NJY: Absolutely. The prevailing narrative has been that conservative evangelicals, Mormons, and Catholics – the three pillars of the Religious Right – came together in response to Roe v. Wade, the Equal Rights Amendment, and the Supreme Court cases outlawing prayer and Bible reading in public schools. This coalition quickly put aside their longstanding divisions and disagreements in order to unite politically. My book challenges this standard account in two ways.

First, I show that Mormons, Catholics, and evangelicals had been drawing closer together since the 1950s in response to religious developments, not political and social changes in the nation, as has been typically argued. This demonstrates that these three faiths were actors of history, rather than reactors to political and social change.

Beginning in the 1950s, these groups recognized each other as outsiders of the liberal Protestant establishment and fellow critics of the powerful ecumenical movement. As liberal Protestantism loomed dominant at midcentury and as the ecumenical movement threatened to wipe out religious distinctions for the purposes of “Christian unity,” Mormons, Catholics, and evangelicals all challenged the theological claims of mainline Protestantism and rejected calls to ecumenism.

Yet they did so from their own very particular theological positions and out of the conviction of their exclusive possession of “true” Christianity. So Catholics, Mormons, and evangelicals began to recognize themselves as having more in common with each other than with mainline Protestants, but that recognition also required each of them to further distinguish and promote the important and intractable differences among them.

Second, I argue that the political alliance that emerged in the 1970s was not as cohesive as most scholars have contended. In my book, the Religious Right is not a sudden political alliance that emerges in response to Roe v. Wade just in time to elect Reagan, but rather the latest iteration of a religious debate that had been going on since the 1950s. Because that debate was as much about what these groups differed on as it was about what they had in common, the political alliance that emerged among them also reflected those internal divisions and disagreements.

The Religious Right I show is loosely aligned, fraught with internal religious divisions, and often in tension with itself. This had political consequences. While the Religious Right succeeded in electing Republican candidates to office, they failed to accomplish their political agenda at the federal level in part because of these divisions.

ECM: I think that’s the central irony of the book – that a movement like the Religious Right could become at least tenuously ecumenical based on their shared opposition to ecumenism. Given how antagonistic these groups were in the 1950s, would you say that Vatican II made this possible?

NJY: The Second Vatican Council (1962-65) was incredibly important to this overall development. For one, Vatican II drastically changed the Catholic Church’s position on ecumenism and its relationships with other faiths.

Until Vatican II, the Catholic Church had forbidden ecumenical interactions through a series of papal decrees. But now Pope John XXIII indicated he wanted the church to engage ecumenism, and the American bishops were particularly supportive of this new direction. The “Decree on Ecumenism” declared that other Christians were “separated brethren,” a remarkable shift from prior church teaching that regarded them as “heretics.” This and other council documents also encouraged Catholics to work with other Christians on common concerns—particularly those related to the family. Vatican II also authorized bishops to become politically active, and it indicated that abortion should be a chief concern.

All of this set the stage for closer connections with evangelicals and Mormons, but Vatican II also established important limits on Catholic ecumenism. Ecumenism had to be Catholic-led, directed by church authorities and with the purposes of promoting Catholicism to other Christians rather than establishing “Christian unity.”

Mormons and evangelicals watched Vatican II closely, appreciating some of the reforms but ultimately using the council to affirm their own exclusive possessions of truth.

Mormons viewed Vatican II skeptically. They praised the Catholic Church’s new support for religious freedom. But LDS leaders argued that whatever reforms Vatican II made could never change the fact that it was the Catholic Church’s apostasy from true Christianity that had ultimately led to the need for Joseph Smith’s restoration of the true church.

Evangelicals were far more critical of Vatican II’s reforms. In keeping with their longstanding attacks on Catholicism, evangelicals largely saw Vatican II as part of the Catholic Church’s plans to monopolize Christianity and make all Christians submit to Rome. However, evangelical leaders did appreciate Vatican II’s encouragement that lay Catholics read their Bibles more and participate in Bible studies. Evangelicals lauded this development, imagining that those Catholics who did so might become evangelical, transformed by reading the Bible just as Martin Luther had once been.

This development also helped evangelicals see Catholics as distinct from the Catholic Church, a change that was critical to building interfaith political partnerships. While maintaining that the Catholic Church itself was corrupt, evangelical leaders contended some Catholics might be Christians that evangelicals could partner with to tackle the nation’s social ills. This new understanding proved critical to the rise of the Religious Right.

Read the whole thing at Religion Dispatches.

About Eric

Eric Miller teaches in the Department of Communication Studies at Bloomsburg University of Pennsylvania.
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