April 2, 2023

Onishi: I’m happy to say that Balmer outlined that history in grand detail in POLITICO and elsewhere.

Ward: You also argue that Barry Goldwater’s campaign in 1964 prefigured some of the Christian nationalist themes that became more explicit in the 1970s. Goldwater famously broke with the religious right in the 1980s, but how did his campaign contribute to the incipient white Christian nationalist project?

Onishi: Goldwater presented an uncompromising conservatism. He was bombastic on the campaign trail. He said that we might need to use nuclear weapons in Vietnam. He said that while he personally supported the idea that Black and white folks in the South should live and work next to each other, he said that he was not going to sign any laws that forced integration. And he famously delivered a line during his presidential nomination acceptance speech where he said, “Extremism in the defense of liberty is no vice.”

I think that’s worth thinking about. In essence, he’s saying that in times like these — the 1960s, when the civil rights movement was brewing, there were calls for immigration reform, women were pushing for independence and autonomy — extremism is the way that you can keep a hold on your country. Extremism is the modus operandi you are going to need to adopt if you are going to continue to hold positions of power in the political, social and economic realms. The foot soldiers of Goldwater’s campaign never forget this message.

Ward: Speaking of his foot soldiers, historians often point to the formation of the Moral Majority in 1979 as the moment when the religious fervor of evangelicals like Jerry Falwell formally entered into a political alliance with the political extremism of the New Right, led by former Goldwater supporters like Paul Weyrich and Richard Viguerie. But in some respects, that moment marked not only the beginning of a new sort of conservative politics, but also the culmination of a decades-long project of organization and collaboration between those two camps. What sort of political legwork went into making that union possible?

Onishi: Goldwater lost in a landslide in ’64, but his foot soldiers never lost their enthusiasm for his message and for this extremism. So throughout the ’60s, people like Paul Weyrich, Richard Viguerie and Morton Blackwell were working to build a political apparatus that would match what they saw on the Democratic side. What they wanted to do was take all of the charisma of Goldwater and turn it into a set of institutions and bureaucracies that would enable the takeover of the GOP and of American politics writ large.

What they realize in the early 1970s is that they don’t have enough votes, but they realize that if they can form a coalition with white, conservative Christians, they can find tens of millions of votes. And if they can promise the leaders of that movement — someone like Jerry Falwell — access to power, [those leaders] will no longer be laughed away as backward, rural Christians or old-timey people that have not caught up with modern America. This coalition building was already happening in the late ’60s and early ’70s, well before the official formation of the Moral Majority in 1979.

Ward: Weyrich, in particular, was not coy about his aims. For instance, you cite his statement: “We are all radicals working to overturn the present power structure.” If that’s not a pretty clear echo of Goldwater’s endorsement of political extremism, I don’t know what is.

Onishi: That’s exactly right. And Weyrich said that as somebody who was actively building the Council for National Policy and the Heritage Foundation. It’s easy to write him off as a boring institution builder, but what he was trying to do was instill the revolution into the institutions that make the GOP move and run — and he succeeded, largely.

Ward: One of the first actions of the New Religious Right was to declare war on Jimmy Carter. Carter was an evangelical, but he embodied a very different style of evangelical politics. What did the clash between the New Religious Right and the Carter administration reveal about the nature of their project?

Onishi: Jimmy Carter was almost made in a lab, in terms of being a white Christian president. He’s a Southern Baptist by birth, a military officer, a peanut farmer, and married to his high school sweetheart. However, when Carter got into the White House, he put more women and people of color in the judiciary than anyone before him. He was not publicly outraged by calls for more representation of gay Americans and gay families. He was not taking a hard-line stance on abortion. And perhaps most damning was that he was a dove on foreign policy — he wanted to use diplomacy when it came to America’s interest in conflicts all over the world.

It was all of those components that led Weyrich, Falwell and their cohorts to put everything they had behind Ronald Reagan, who was not one of them in a very strict sense. What this tells me is that their project was about power and not piety.

Ward: Another defining feature of the New Religious Right was an intense focus on “family values” — and in particular on a certain vision of sexual purity — embodied by groups like James Dobson’s Focus on the Family. You write very movingly in the book about how purity culture influenced your own upbringing, but could you explain how the movement’s intense focus on individual purity also contributed to its political radicalism?

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