This Is Our Message

Women's Leadership in the New Christian Right

Reddit icon
e-mail icon
Twitter icon
Facebook icon
Google icon
LinkedIn icon
Emily S. Johnson
  • Oxford, England: 
    Oxford University Press
    , January
     2019.
     232 pages.
     $29.95.
     Hardcover.
    ISBN
    9780190618933.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.

Review

Histories of the Christian Right tend to follow one of two avenues of analytical inquiry: either they investigate the not inconsiderable contributions of the proverbial “grassroots,” or they seek to identify the not insignificant connections between leaders of business and the corporation with those of think tanks and political action committees. Notable contributions such as Darren Grem’s The Blessings of Business: How Corporations Shaped Conservative Christianity (Oxford University Press, 2016), Kevin Kruse’s One Nation Under God: How Corporate America Invented Christian America (Basic Books, 2015), Bethany Moreton’s To Serve God and Walmart: The Making of Christian Free Enterprise (Harvard University Press, 2009), and Timothy Gloege’s Guaranteed Pure: The Moody Bible Institute, Business, and the Making of Modern Evangelicalism (University of North Carolina Press, 2015) help give voice to an ongoing conversation about how conservative movements of the past century have organized themselves on behalf of the seemingly culturally alienated and socio-economically resentful in the name of a free and Christian nation.

Such histories also tend to foreground one of two social factors in the making of the Christian Right: race, by way of Bob Jones University and the Internal Revenue Service, and gender, namely due to Roe v. Wade. While these hypotheses are certainly necessary, they are far from sufficient in our collective study of conservative religio-political cultures in the recent past. Emily Johnson’s This is Our Message: Women’s Leadership in the New Christian Right not only speaks to and self-consciously addresses these concerns, but it also pushes them forward by grounding its analysis in the ambiguously political work of conservative women in the New Christian Right. While an explanation of this movement’s “newness” would have been helpful, This Is Our Message sets the interpretive agenda for forthcoming studies of evangelical political mobilization since the Second World War by foregrounding a subject largely unaddressed within the broader literature: the notion of subject formation, and the processes by which it unfolds on the ground, on the televised stage, and on the campaign platform in support of broadly conservative causes.

Johnson explores the intricate yet pervasive world of female evangelical subcultures by conducting a case study of six women who occupied positions of power and authority within the New Christian Right. Each subject is the product of subtle decision making by Johnson, who uses each figure to illustrate a broader pattern within evangelical thought through the specificities of individual biography. In this way, the individual chapters on Marabel Morgan, Anita Bryant, Beverly LaHaye, Tammy Faye Baker, Sarah Palin, and Michele Bachman not only speak to these women’s specific stories of success and failure, but also to the varied positions of influence that evangelical women have occupied in various instances of New Right organizing since the 1960s. In fact, one of Johnson’s most provocative claims is that such female leadership and messaging deeply shaped the larger political constellation of “social issues” that reflected the New Right’s interests in redefining the public script of American political life in the key of the American Way. The collective emphasis on “family values” that each woman reflected, in her own way, explicitly influenced how conservatism was to articulate itself in the age of the “born-again” evangelical, and the Hollywood-son-turned-President. Johnson elegantly alludes to such variance through her chapter titles; her subjects define, lead, defy, respond, andvie for positions of power and influence largely ignored by historians and scholars of American religion and evangelical conservatism. “These women’s individual contributions have been understudied,” Johnson contends, “but more than that, the movement’s reliance on women’s national leadership has been overlooked” (2). As such, each subject serves as a microcosm of “the New Christian Right” by illustrating how women in leadership positions occupied and negotiated the complex space of public life, and thus the political.

One of the most compelling contributions of This Is Our Message is that it effectively illustrates how human beings respond to their socio-political surroundings by deploying the varying vocabularies of their respective evangelical traditions—conservative or otherwise. For many of the women in Johnson’s study, taking on a role beyond the submissive partner was anything but assumed or straightforward despite the experience of “a sudden political awakening.” Johnson argues that latent or embedded forms of knowledge concerning the traditional family and the rights of the unborn informed the decisions of Bryant, Lahaye, and others by helping to transform and catalyze their otherwise “spiritual” or “maternal” concerns as conservative evangelical women in the public eye into explicitly political ones. “Together,” Johnson concludes, “Morgan, Bryant, LaHaye, and Bakker represent the significant range of prominent women’s contributions to the ascendent New Christian Right during the 1970s and 1980s” (151). In no uncertain terms, Johnson has provided an otherwise moribund literature with an injection of historical and theoretical brilliance that will, no doubt, shape how student and scholar alike conduct future studies on gender, American politics, culture wars, and evangelical subcultures. However, Johnson grounds an otherwise impressive feat of historical analysis and interpretation on a fragile set of theoretical assumptions that, at times, obscures the clarity of her arguments.

In her pursuit of female subject formation within the New Christian Right, Johnson makes a powerful argument for an analytical agenda that investigates the relationship between everyday assumptions and American political life. “It is also necessary,” Johnson argues, “that we recognize, historicize, and develop analytical frameworks for understanding the inherited assumptions that often go unnoticed in our daily political discourse” (128). While I could not agree more with Johnson’s claim, I would caution its unadulterated application in the name of theoretical clarity. Based on Johnson’s analysis, we can reasonably infer that the emergence of conservative evangelicals known as “the Christian Right” was due to, or caused by, latent and embedded assumptions about men and women within evangelical subcultures writ large. In other words, evangelical communities possessed unique understandings of sexuality and gender that shaped how they behaved politically, thereby making a uniquely political and conservative subject. For Johnson, the fact that such assumptions existed within the nebulous construction that was the New Christian Right is enough to explain how individuals connected their otherwise apolitical pasts with their brimming political futures. In this regard, do we speak of multiple evangelical subcultures that suffuse public life, thereby structuring decision making by way of assumption, or do we describe a singular subculture that is at once uniquely female, and not, in its affective quality? How do assumptions materialize as decisions to become “political” within the lives of evangelical women? And lastly, are embedded forms of knowledge enough to catalyze, and thus cause, instances of political birth?

Despite these theoretical concerns, Johnson’s work is notable for its deft execution, thorough research, and admirably clear prose. While the work of Michael Warner and Melani McAlister would have been useful in describing an otherwise amorphous evangelical public sphere and its respective subcultures, This Is Our Message elegantly corrects a historiography much in need of historical revision and analytical recalibration, thereby charting a new and exciting course of research in the study of American religions—most likely for years to come.

About the Reviewer(s): 

L. Benjamin Rolsky is a Research Fellow in Religion Studies at Lehigh University, Adjunct Professor at Monmouth University, and Adjunct Lecturer at Rutgers University.

Date of Review: 
March 31, 2019
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Emily Suzanne Johnson is Assistant Professor of History at Ball State University in Muncie, IN, where she teaches courses in American history and histories of gender and sexuality.

Add New Comment

Reading Religion welcomes comments from AAR members, and you may leave a comment below by logging in with your AAR Member ID and password. Please read our policy on commenting.

Log in to post comments