Neil J. Young. We Gather Together: The Religious Right and the Problem of Interfaith Politics. New York: Oxford University Press, 2015.
This book might be described as an intellectual genealogy (in the Foucauldian sense) of the conservative religious coalition that has exerted so much gravitational pull in the last forty years of American history. Young argues, in a nutshell, that the electoral coalition often described as the Religious Right was no monolith: rather, it was the result of a thousand small give and takes among the three primary camps he explores: Roman Catholics, evangelical Protestants, and Mormons. Indeed, Young’s careful delineation of distinctions and disjunctures almost persuades me that there is no “Religious Right” at all, merely a series of shifting alliances pivoting, shifting, forming and reforming on issue after issue after issue.
One reason why I like this book is that it takes theology seriously. Generally historians of American religion are good about this, with the marked exception of when they are writing about conservative religious folk in the late twentieth century. While scholars of individual movements – Matthew Avery Sutton on evangelicals, or John McGreevy on Roman Catholics – pay close attention to theology, Jerry Falwell and Ralph Reed and Mike Huckabee, actors who seem primarily political in ways that may be uncomfortably close to our present day politics are rarely taken seriously as thinkers. Historians have tended to be content with ascribing their motivations to simple fuddy-duddyness: support for traditional gender roles and the like, with little attention paid to the ideas undergirding those impulses. Studies of religious people who got involved in late twentieth conservative politics tend thus to emphasize organization and mobilization, tracing institutional formation and grassroots activism.
Young, however, recognizes that common fuddy-duddyness is hardly enough to build a movement on when groups have long traditions of priesthood and exclusive theological claims and differing scripture pulling them apart. Young opens with an observation simultaneously compelling and so obvious it is startling it has not been made before this clearly: that the three traditions which composed the Religious Right are the same which were least given to the ecumenical movement of the mid-twentieth century. In his hands, the Religious Right is therefore less a political alliance than the result of these three traditions wrestling with their theologies in ways sufficient to make alliance.
The story of the Religious Right’s rise, then, is only secondarily a story of organization and mobilization: rather, it is the story of how three traditions came to prioritize certain religious ideas – about sexual morality and the role of the nation in God’s plan – over those which had previously kept them apart. Theological developments, like Vatican II, the counter-cult movement, and Mormon correlation thus played far more important roles in the political mobilization of these groups than has been previously recognized.
Young’s prose is clean and often eloquent; the book, though, does often read like a dissertation, sometimes delving more deeply into the weeds than his argument requires. For instance, on pages 68-9, he offers up a several hundred word long history of school prayer in America from the early republic through the 1960s. He repeats himself often as well; each chapter opens and closes with a classic thesis statement and recap, which occasionally feels redundant. It’s also odd that in such a dense study some things felt missing. There is a chapter on Vatican II and some glancing mentions of John Paul II and rapid Mormon growth overseas, but I wondered often to what extent the international bodies of these churches influenced their behavior at home. More, it seems that given the players in his story the 2012 election felt irresistible to Young, but after spending 200 plus pages moving slowly from 1950 to 1980, rushing from Reagan to Mitt Romney in the last sixty pages left me gasping a bit for breath. The book’s narrative feels a bit lumpy; it lacks much of a strong arc and denouement. That, though, may well be due to the unwavering magnifying glass he’s trained on these often unruly factions.