Review: Family Values and the Rise of the Christian Right

Jason C. Bivins

Jason C. Bivins is Professor of Philosophy and Religion at North Carolina State University.

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Jason C. Bivins, "Review: Family Values and the Rise of the Christian Right," Journal of Southern Religion (18) (2016):

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Seth Dowland. Family Values and the Rise of the Christian Right. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2015. 271pp. ISBN 978-0-8122-4760-2.

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Scholarship focused on political religions remains a growth industry, and interest remains especially vibrant in conservative Protestantism in all its shapes. What distinguishes notable scholarship from the merely competent is often an insightful organizational or interpretive framing. Seth Dowland’s monograph makes a fresh and valuable contribution to a densely populated literature, not simply with impressive research and writing, but with innovative engagement with the historical development of the contemporary Christian Right. It is, of course, well known that gender issues were a prominent focus for the Christian Right in each phase of its long development. Dowland shows, though, that gender was not simply one issue among many but was the central organizing category, fundamental analytical logic, and discursive self-understanding.

Opening with the 1997 Promise Keepers rally in Washington, D.C., Dowland seeks to understand how this salient expression of masculinity, with its commitment to particular gender and family norms, emerged as normative for conservative evangelicals. To accomplish this, he ranges back not just to key moments in the mid-century political awakening of conservative evangelicals, but to the long-gestating theological and sociological presuppositions of earlier eras, noting their contours and discrepancies. In part, it is a narrative about the development of institutional responses to changing cultural gender norms: Dowland provocatively links Christian schooling subcultures with legislative lobbying and militarism. More than this, Dowland’s attention to language and its effects combines discursive analysis with supple, archivally rich history. Unlike some other contributors to the literature, Dowland has a feel for political nuance (his focus on the simultaneous shift from “rights” to “liberty” as it shapes the transition from “equality” of the person to the privilege of the “family”) and for theological texture that makes his book especially valuable.

Dowland’s chapter on Christian schools not only extends familiar arguments about the role of race (by examining how prominent desegregation was to these nascent institutional networks), but shows also how masculinity was central to key actors’ self-understandings and organizational efforts. While other scholars have focused perhaps rather narrowly on curricular issues exclusively, Dowland focuses on the movement’s declension narrative to show how, by foregrounding the categories of proper order and authority, these schools can be interpreted partly as an institutionalization of gender concerns. It is convincingly argued, and Dowland has a good instinct for showing how tropes like “parents’ rights” (44) served to establish the “common language” and common opponents (47) necessary for the consolidation of a movement. The subsequent chapter on textbook controversies centers on a reading of the well-known Kanawha County, West Virginia, case from the 1970s; but as is typical of the book, Dowland gives us fresh angles of vision onto figures and events ranging from Texans Mel and Norma Gabler to the 2010 Texas curricular battles, capturing the long fetch of these ideas and their attempts to define and control the ideological spectrum.

Extending to an exploration of the rise of home-schooling, Dowland supplements the work of Mitchell Stevens and Amy Binder by examining the influence of James Dobson in this ascendant trend. These linked endeavors establish what are leitmotifs for the book and the movement: “transform local politics, unite across regional boundaries, and create institutions to press their agenda” (77). Moving beyond cases that, like Mozert v. Hawkins, ground most scholarship, Dowland ranges across judicial history in a narrative that culminates with the emergence of CLASS and Generation Joshua alongside Michael Farris’ HSLDA. The narrative would perhaps have benefited from greater attention to what might be called the sentimental education, or the reception dynamics of families and students, but it marks a strong confident first half of the book.

The sections exploring the Christian Right’s response to other, often competing identitarian movements–specifically the reemergence of feminism and the emergence of gay rights–is textured with an admirable feel for the self-understanding of participants. Focused on the recurring tropes of children at risk (a comparative category Dowland could possibly have thematized more overtly) and the rhetorical construction of “motherhood,” Dowland also suggestively and convincingly explores the opposition to abortion rights and to feminism through the lens of fatherhood, nicely appropriating the literature of men’s studies as well. While “the mother held unique symbolic and rhetorical power” (169) in this culture, Dowland rightly sees the increased emphasis on masculinity in this period as no mere echo of Muscular Christianity but as a specific response to the post-Vietnam crisis in masculinist norms.

While the book draws together many different scholarly idioms and historical expressions, it does not do so at the expense of detail or nuance. There are, however, occasions where the connections and implications Dowland notes could be extended and analyzed further. When noting how the Promise Keepers frame racism as “spiritual” (223), one is eager to know what other institutional or normative parallels might exist. It would also have been suggestive to explore more consistently (as opposed to largely in the introduction and conclusion) how an “imaginary past” is integral to creating an institutional present (231-232). And readers may also wonder about how large a role media technology, which deserves more explicit theorization, played in the discourse’s emergence.

These points, however, only underscore the ambitious and insightful nature of Dowland’s thinking. Meticulously researched, crisply written, and elegantly framed, this excellent and distinctive volume will benefit American religious historians, specialists in gender and politics, and perhaps even interested non-academic audiences.