The best books to understand the historical development of the Christian Right as a political power

Kathleen Wellman Author Of Hijacking History: How the Christian Right Teaches History and Why It Matters
By Kathleen Wellman

Who am I?

I am a history professor at Southern Methodist University. When some students in my university classes believed that the Enlightenment was so evil I should not be allowed to teach it, I wondered what they were taught in high school. I became more directly involved when I spoke before the State Board of Education of Texas against the ahistorical standards they stipulated for history, including that Thomas Aquinas and John Calvin were central to the Enlightenment and Moses to the founding documents of the United States. These standards distorted history to emphasize the role of religion in the American founding. I wondered: How could a state school board stipulate such ahistorical standards? Where had they come from? Who supported them and why? I wrote Hijacking History to address these questions.

I wrote...

Hijacking History: How the Christian Right Teaches History and Why It Matters

By Kathleen Wellman,

Book cover of Hijacking History: How the Christian Right Teaches History and Why It Matters

What is my book about?

Hijacking History analyzes the high school world history textbooks produced by the three most influential publishers of Christian educational materials. For them, history is the story of God's actions interpreted through the Bible and a weapon to condemn civilizations that do not accept the true God or adopt "biblical" positions. These textbooks use history to identify ideas God abhors and has punished, including evolution, humanism, biblical modernism, socialism, and climate science. These judgments lead students to believe that God sanctions rightwing social and political views and that America must advance them as well as their sectarian, intolerant Christianity as “biblical truth.”

As Hijacking History argues, the ideas these textbooks promote have significant implications for contemporary debates about religion, politics, and education, and pose a direct challenge to a pluralistic democracy.

The books I picked & why

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The Evangelicals: The Struggle to Shape America

By Frances FitzGerald,

Book cover of The Evangelicals: The Struggle to Shape America

Why this book?

This Pulitzer prize-winning history, thoroughly researched and engagingly written, is a must-read for anyone who wants to understand the history of American evangelicalism. While it now defines the religious right, evangelicalism has espoused different religious and political positions from its eighteenth-century founding to the present, as Fitzgerald thoroughly documents. Initially, a populist rejection of established churches, in the nineteenth-century evangelicals split over the issue of slavery; Southern evangelicals insisted that the Bible endorsed it. In the twentieth century, evangelicals separated from fundamentalists and became more politically engaged as American business interests used religion to wrest evangelicals from the Democratic Party and political conservatives identified abortion as the issue most likely to galvanize them.

Since the 1980s evangelicals have become a dependable voting bloc for the Republican Party, but Fitzgerald concludes, younger evangelicals are more open and concerned with climate change and gender equality. There is no book I can recommend as highly to understand the history of evangelicals’ involvement in American political life.

Inventing a Christian America: The Myth of the Religious Founding

By Steven K. Green,

Book cover of Inventing a Christian America: The Myth of the Religious Founding

Why this book?

A central assertion of the Christian right is that the United States was founded as a Christian nation and should be again. But this argument, as Green documents in his meticulous study of historical and legal sources, is deeply embedded in Americans’ sense of their national history as exceptional. He examines a series of claims made about critical junctures in the early history of the nation that purportedly support this view--the religious founding of the English colonies, the American Revolution as a religious cause, American government formed to be Christian. His careful examination of the evidence for and against the crucial claims of the Christian nation thesis provides a nuanced history of the religious terrain of early America by studying those who made such assertions and why. Green concludes that these claims developed during the nineteenth century rather than during the nation’s founding. More importantly, they are largely mythic but remain pervasive and powerful.

From Bible Belt to Sunbelt: Plain-Folk Religion, Grassroots Politics, and the Rise of Evangelical Conservatism

By Darren Dochuk,

Book cover of From Bible Belt to Sunbelt: Plain-Folk Religion, Grassroots Politics, and the Rise of Evangelical Conservatism

Why this book?

Darren Dochuk’s From Bible Belt to Sunbelt is a fascinating account of a crucial development in the evolution of the Christian right—how evangelicals first became Republicans. He argues when many Southern evangelicals moved during the Dust Bowl and the Great Depression from the Southern states to urban centers of Southern California, especially Los Angeles and Orange County, they fundamentally altered American politics. Southern evangelical preachers and businessmen argued against the New Deal and the United Nations as incipient communism but also opposed the civil rights movement. These messages flourished within its intended audience who evolved from New Deal Democrats to staunchly right-wing Republicans. This political shift among Southern evangelicals led directly to both the rightward turn of the Republican Party and its Southern Strategy with Richard Nixon and Ronald Reagan. The powerful alliance of Republicans and evangelicals made it a national movement and fostered evangelical business empires, including those of Jerry Falwell and Pat Robertson. It forged evangelicals into a Republican voting bloc.

Jesus and John Wayne: How White Evangelicals Corrupted a Faith and Fractured a Nation

By Kristin Kobes Du Mez,

Book cover of Jesus and John Wayne: How White Evangelicals Corrupted a Faith and Fractured a Nation

Why this book?

In Jesus and John Wayne, Du Mez examines the rise of the Christian right through the lens of popular culture. She argues that over the past seventy-five years evangelicals have remade Christianity into a form of toxic masculinity and Christian nationalism. They have extolled strong, heroic models of masculinity from the fictionalized characters in John Wayne and Mel Gibson movies to political figures, including Ronald Reagan, Oliver North, and even Donald Trump. Their projected strength was vital to protect and promote Christian values. This muscular Christianity supports patriarchy, authoritarianism, and aggressive foreign policies, and opposes the expansion of rights for minorities and women. Du Mez explores a vast array of artifacts of evangelical popular culture—popular books, movies, songs, and merchandise—all intended to promote those values as the essence of Christianity. Jesus and John Wayne helps to explain how evangelicalism became the cultural and political force it is today and how readily this masculine evangelicalism can be deployed to support Christian nationalism or an authoritarian leader. This book makes clear why evangelicals support Donald Trump.

The Power Worshippers: Inside the Dangerous Rise of Religious Nationalism

By Katherine Stewart,

Book cover of The Power Worshippers: Inside the Dangerous Rise of Religious Nationalism

Why this book?

Katherine Stewart investigates the think tanks, advocacy groups, and pastoral organizations funded by extremely wealthy donors and family foundations, which are deliberately using religion to concentrate political power in their hands and to remake the United States into an autocratic theocracy where their authority will be unchallenged. She argues that this development is not merely a political realignment or another manifestation of a broader culture war. Instead, Stewart strongly warns, these wealthy, politically conservative families and groups seek dominion over crucial American institutions--education, the media, government, and the courts-- by using “religious liberty” arguments. And they have had considerable success as her chilling examples of this anti-democratic concentration of power in state houses, schools, churches, hospitals, and the courts attest. They make religious liberty claims on First Amendment or free speech grounds to repudiate the separation of church and state. The current Supreme Court may well be sympathetic to their arguments, allowing them greater influence over American institutions. The Power Worshippers is a compelling wake-up call; American democracy faces a dire threat from Christian nationalism.

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