My Interview with Axel Schäfer on “Countercultural Conservatives”

countercultural conservativesAs promised, I offer up an insightful interview with Axel Schäfer, who teaches at Keele University (UK) and directs the American Studies program there. Thanks to Axel for taking the time to do this! I asked him to talk about his book, Countercultural Conservatives: American Evangelicalism and the Postwar Revival of the New Christian Right. Its a great read.

(By the way, Schäfer’s most recent book (2012) is Piety and Public Funding: Evangelicals and the State in Modern America with U of Penn Press… add it to your reading list!)


Jared: How did this study come about?

Axel: Mainly because I was wondering how evangelicalism, whose egalitarian and democratic impulses had played such a significant role in nineteenth-century abolitionism, the women’s suffrage movement, Populism and even American socialism, could ally itself so solidly with economic conservatism and the political Right. In particular, I was interested in how evangelicals navigate the built-in tension between traditional morality and market economics, considering that capitalism, which effectively turns everything into a commodity, undermines the very moral code it operates on (as Daniel Bell has lucidly argued a long time ago). In turn, I wanted to highlight the diversity, fluidity, and contingency of evangelical politics.

J: What would you like Evangelicals to realize about themselves from having read your book?

A: I suppose I would like evangelicals to take heart by showing that the Christian Right became dominant on the basis of internal movement struggles, rather than simply on the basis of the natural proclivity of evangelicals for rightwing politics. Although I agree that the evangelical Left was neither large nor deeply entrenched in the broader movement, it did pose a clear challenge to the evangelical establishment. Its advocates were highly educated, motivated, outspoken, and ready to shape the movement during a time of organizational and ideological upheaval. Although it was ultimately not that difficult for the Right to sideline the Left, the conservatives’ own sense that they needed to reign in liberal and leftwing tendencies in order to assert themselves meant that they were profoundly shaped by their engagement with their adversaries.

J. How is your explanation of the rise of the Religious Right nuanced differently than that of others?

A: Most studies of the rise of the New Christian Right in the U.S. since the late 1970s locate the organizational and political resurgence of evangelicalism in the so-called “backlash” against what conservatives view as the excesses of the counterculture, the militancy of the Civil Rights movement, the iniquities of the liberal welfare state, the immorality of growing secularism, and the betrayal of God and country by the anti-Vietnam War protesters. In many ways I see this image as an invention of later years when a fully formed Christian Right sought to construct a unifying historical narrative that ignored the internal battles, ideological compromises, political divisions, and sociocultural adaptations that preceded effective rightwing political mobilization. Seen from this angle, the backlash discourse was part and parcel of an effort to proscribe the internal evangelical debate by an ascendant Right.

J: The 1960s seem to be a pivotal era for your narrative. Why does this decade figure so prominently in your argument?

A: I consider the “long 1960s” (i.e. from the late 1950s to the mid-1970s) a crucial period of fragmentation and realignment for white evangelicalism in the United States–a time when the movement had emancipated itself from prewar fundamentalist militancy but had not yet coalesced into the New Christian Right. Nonetheless, the decade has received remarkably little attention from scholars of the evangelical resurgence. In particular, I wanted to suggest that conservative Protestants not only rejected, but also shaped and transported sixties impulses in unexpected ways. Evangelicalism was intimately connected to key transformations in this polarized period, including in the areas of race and gender relations, youth culture, consumerism, and corporate America. The sixties were a formative period during which the burgeoning religious movement negotiated its relationship with, among other things, desegregation, feminism, deindustrialization, and the expanding welfare state. The decade was thus pivotal not solely because it provided a convenient enemy image, but because evangelicals participated in and were shaped by the very movements and developments they professed to oppose.

J: I was struck by the very last statement of the book: “… the revivalist impulse can therefore inspire social movements with radically different sociocultural and economic agendas.” Would you “unpack” this statement? Why did you conclude your narrative with this?

A: I think it is important to note that historically, evangelicalism doesn’t just contain individualistic moralistic dimensions or serve as a normative legitimization for liberal capitalism, but also contains solidaristic, even collectivist impulses. For all intents and purposes, evangelicals are much closer to William Jennings Bryan than to Friedrich von Hayek or Milton Friedman. Although the New Christian Right is the movement’s most prominent and vocal political manifestation, it came about as a result of a tremendous organizational effort and skillful lobbying. However, radical and liberal evangelicals continue to vie with the conservatives for political influence, and many in the fold are suspicious of economic conservatism and political liberalism alike.

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