Seth Dowland is Assistant Professor of Religion at Pacific Lutheran University. This interview is based on his new book, Family Values and the Rise of the Christian Right: Politics and Culture in Modern America (University of Pennsylvania Press, 2015).
JF: What led you to write Family Values?
SD: Like many other scholars, I am fascinated by late-twentieth century political conservatism, and in particular by the role of evangelical Christians in the conservative movement. As I spent more and more time researching the history of the Christian right, I came to believe that the growing body of scholarship on evangelical conservatism (which includes many great books) was missing part of the story. In particular, I thought there was more to say about how “family values” politics spoke to evangelicals’ beliefs about gender roles and authority structures.
JF: In 2 sentences, what is the argument of Family Values?
SD: During the 1970s, 1980s, and 1990s, Republican politicians and evangelical leaders developed a “pro-family” political agenda advocating for Christian schools, homeschooling, and masculine leadership, while opposing abortion rights, feminism, and gay rights. This agenda succeeded in national politics because it spoke to evangelicals’ belief that men and women were created to fulfill distinct gender roles, and that authority structures ought to govern a society that seemed on the brink of moral collapse at the end of the 1960s.
JF: Why do we need to read Family Values?
SD: Each of the book’s eight chapters focuses on different stories in the history of pro-family politics: I wrote three chapters on education, a chapter each on feminism and abortion, and three chapters on the development of evangelical ideas about masculinity. Though the book generally follows a chronological trajectory, these chapters overlap in time, demonstrating the multiple origins of the late-twentieth century Christian right. Historians have tried to pinpoint the issue that caused the Christian right to coalesce, arguing that the movement started in response to Roe v. Wade, or as a result of threats to segregated Christian schools, or as an outgrowth of culture wars politics that reach back decades. Family Values shows that there’s no single origin story for the Christian right; the movement drew from several streams of American evangelicalism and emerged in response to a variety of issues, in a variety of places.
JF: When and why did you decide to become an American historian?
SD: In a sense, I began the research for this book during my undergraduate years at the University of Virginia. My history thesis looked at the political career of Jerry Falwell, and I spent several happy days doing research for that thesis in the archives at Liberty University — days that helped convince me to get into the field of religious history. I am fascinated by the people I come across in archives, and I relish the challenge of making sense of their worlds. I’m also convinced that history’s emphasis on critical empathy is a desperately needed emphasis in contemporary American culture. We need to work on seeing the world through other people’s eyes, and on understanding the complexity of worlds unfamiliar to us. History helps in that pursuit.
JF: What is your next project?
SD: I am working on a history of Christian manhood from the 1880s to the present. Studies of “muscular Christianity” typically focus on the Progressive Era and then stop in 1920. I’d like to trace the ideas, institutions, and people who promoted muscular Christianity through the twentieth century. I’ve made several trips to YMCA archives in Minnesota, Massachusetts, and Chicago, and I have a couple of essays from that research in various stages of completion.
JF: Thanks, Seth!