Family Values and the Rise of the Christian Right

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Seth Dowland
Politics and Culture in Modern America
  • Philadelphia, PA: 
    University of Pennsylvania Press
    , November
     2015.
     280 pages.
     $45.00.
     Hardcover.
    ISBN
    9780812247602.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.

Review

With all of the books published on the Christian Right in recent years, one might be forgiven for wondering whether there is really a need for yet another monograph on this topic. But Seth Dowland’s book is worth reading even for scholars who think they have a thorough knowledge of conservative evangelical politics, because it offers a fresh perspective and keen insights that are not available elsewhere.

Family Values and the Rise of the Christian Right is a topical study of the gender-related issues that prompted conservative evangelicals to ally themselves with the political right from the 1970s to the present. Dowland argues that the Christian Right is primarily a political manifestation of conservative evangelicals’ interest in defending a particular family-centered vision of distinct, hierarchical gender roles, and a strong tradition of parental rights. Family Values examines the way in which a wide variety of evangelical political concerns—including opposition to abortion, gay rights, and feminism, along with support for homeschooling, Christian schools, and the military—stem from conservative evangelicals’ views of gender and family. Dowland’s analytical framework produces some surprising (and perceptive) insights. Few scholars, for instance, have thought to connect conservative evangelicals’ opposition to the nuclear freeze in the early 1980s to their views of masculinity. And few have probed the reasons why evangelicals who vociferously oppose abortion and embryonic stem cell research have been much more reticent to speak out against in vitro fertilization, even though it destroys human embryos. Dowland shows how conservative evangelicals’ view of gender offers the key to understanding Christian Right political stances that might otherwise seem inconsistent.

Dowland’s book makes greater use of secondary rather than primary sources, and several of the chapters focus on themes that have already been the subject of several other monographs. The strength of the book is therefore not the new information it reveals, though occasionally Dowland does offer new narrative material based on original research, as is especially evident in his chapter on homeschooling. But the book’s most original contribution is its cogent synthesis of a wide variety of material in a way that offers a new picture of Christian Right politics. Previous scholars have discussed the Christian Right’s view of gender and family at some length, but few have recognized the extent to which those concerns have permeated and shaped all of the Christian Right’s political activities. Dowland presents compelling evidence that the Christian Right’s stances on issues that other scholars have attributed to racial conservatism (e.g., conservative evangelicals’ campaign to prevent the IRS from denying tax exemptions to racially discriminatory Christian schools), Christian nationalism (e.g., conservative evangelicals’ strong support for the military), or biblical literalism (e.g., their campaigns against certain public school textbooks) were in actuality the direct product of conservative evangelicals’ views of family relationships. If we want to understand the Christian Right, we must understand what conservative evangelicals mean when they talk about family values, Dowland argues.

In making this claim, Dowland positions himself on the side of scholars who have argued that gender concerns—not those of race—were the primary catalyst for the Christian Right, but he goes beyond most other scholars in showing that for conservative evangelicals, “family values” meant more than merely the defense of a particular vision of traditional gender roles. The conservative evangelical version of family values also encompassed the preservation of parental rights, a notion that made evangelicals deeply suspicious of state encroachment on the prerogatives of fathers and mothers. Dowland’s excellent treatment of evangelicals’ view of the parent-child relationship traces the connections between conservative evangelicals’ defense of corporal punishment, suspicion of “secular humanist” textbooks, and strong support for homeschooling rights. Although conventional treatments of the rights-conscious era of the 1970s say little about parental rights, Dowland persuasively argues that this rights claim was central to conservative evangelical political motivations. By examining the Christian Right’s mobilization through the lens of their own rights-based claim—rather than through the lens of race or other rights claims that might be more familiar to most scholars—Dowland gives us a better understanding of conservative evangelicals’ own motivations and in the process, sheds new light on the timing of the Christian Right’s emergence in the late 1970s.

Because Dowland seeks to understand conservative evangelicals on their own terms, he avoids polemics and offers a carefully nuanced—though hardly uncritical—examination of their beliefs. His book does not give a narrative history of the Christian Right, nor does it say much about partisan politics or Religious Right organizations. It offers only limited discussion of conservative Catholic contributions to the Christian Right’s politics of “family values.” But this book does not purport to be a comprehensive survey of the Christian Right. What Dowland gives us instead is a remarkably perceptive analysis of white conservative evangelicals’ beliefs about the family, the state, and American society. Other books may chronicle the history of the Christian Right, but few other works succeed so well in taking readers inside the mind of conservative evangelicals to explain how Christian Right activists think.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Daniel Williams is Associate Professor of History at University of West Georgia.

Date of Review: 
May 20, 2016
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Seth Dowland teaches religion at Pacific Lutheran University.

Keywords: 

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