- The Washington Times - Friday, November 12, 2010

By Daniel K. Williams
Oxford, $29.95, 372 pages

”Now, Billy, you stay out of politics,” Lyndon Johnson instructed Billy Graham, who must have paid at least moderate attention to his friend and fellow paddler in the White House swimming pool. Mr.Graham’s much-advertised pastoral relationships with presidents brought him heartache and rebuke just once - when he lay abed with Richard Nixon and woke up, in Watergate days, scratching fleas. He would say years later that he felt like “a sheep led to the slaughter.”

To say the least, the relationship of American politicians and American religious leaders is a complicated one: driven, on both sides, by sincere conviction mingled with sharp calculation of interest and gain. How do you ever get it right, this inherently messy relationship, this tangle of competing interests, with its antecedents in the Old Testament tiffs involving kings, prophets, judges and, above and beneath it all, the Lord of Hosts?

The enterprise of Daniel K. Williams, assistant professor of history at the University of West Georgia is to walk readers through half the history of 20th-century America, pointing to the frequent intersections of faith and politics - government, if one prefers; introducing the major actors in the drama; showing what they tried, on both sides, to do and sometimes did but other times couldn’t; generally, sometimes infuriatingly, engaging the attention of the most generically religious people in the Western world.

No such book, with any such mission, will win the plaudits of all sides in the cultural-war controversies to which the “Christian right,” to borrow Mr. Williams’ designation, devotes so much energy. On the other hand, Mr. Williams strives, it seems to me, for objectivity. There’s no bashing here, either of secularists or the evangelicals he sees as having succeeded the fundamentalists of yore in their quest to make a society obedient to God.

He locates the original Christian conservative impulse for relevance and reform in the struggles of half a century ago against godless communism, as we used to call it. He notes the growing secularity of America from the 1960s forward as operative in the start of the culture wars over abortion and homosexuality - or, specifically, same-sex marriage.

He offers a discerning chapter on George W. Bush’s administration - shaped by a sincere evangelical as “the most overtly evangelical [administration] in American history” because of, as well as in spite of, the maneuverings of lifelong agnostic Karl Rove. Whatever Mr. Rove’s private views on the incarnation of Jesus Christ, he knew potential allies when he spotted them. He lurched toward the evangelicals, and they lurched back, hoping to reclaim ground lost during the Clinton years - and not necessarily occupied in a fruitful way under Ronald Reagan of blessed memory.

By the time Barack Obama came along, the imperatives of showing some sign of religious faith were large enough that even secular-leaning Democrats, including Mr. Obama himself, reached out to the religiously conservative. One factor making this easier was the new prominence of social justice concerns among younger evangelicals, who “had come to terms with the religious and cultural pluralism of their generation, and … viewed their religion not as a venue to protest against social trends, but as a means to show their culture the love of Christ through service.”

Still, as Mr. Williams reminds us in closing, the culture wars rage on. Nothing new under the sun, you know. A quick thumb-through of the Bible makes that proposition plain enough. Nor have evangelicals, for all their varied interests - peace, justice, the war on terror, morality, the protection of unborn life, opposition to stem cell research and same-sex marriage - ceased to raise their voices. Especially are the conservatives engaged, believing as they do, says Mr. Williams, in the book’s last sentence, “that, with the help of God and the Republican Party, they can restore a Christian moral order to the nation.”

Here and there - in the coupling, for instance of God and the GOP - Mr. Williams suggests an authorial preference for political ways and means not necessarily connected with Jerry Falwell and James Dobson. Yet readers will likely find Mr. Williams a trustworthy guide to the intricacies - and, oh, are they intricate - of the shifting alliances and concerns of people who, in many ways, are as individualistic as any secularists you happen to know. The difference, perhaps, is that the religious right tries to look upward for its inspiration, whereas the New York Times seems to provide primary guidance for their antagonists and critics.

What we have here is a useful field guide to the events and players who have made the religious right so large a phenomenon in the political world. That’s good. You can thumb through and find answers to a lot of questions. The larger questions, alas, don’t find much place here - chiefly because that wasn’t Mr. Williams’ intention.

And what are those questions? Chiefly there’s one: What are the proper expectations of religious people in a society of diverse beliefs and inclinations? Specifically, what does it mean for 21st-century Christians to gaze with a mixture of horror and delight upon the cavortings and satisfactions of a the larger society in which they live and move and have their being? The recent precedents for Christian activity in the secular sphere aren’t uniformly encouraging. Yet what are Christians to do if not engage the society? And if they engage it, how can they take with perfect seriousness Lyndon Johnson’s advice to Billy Graham? Tension between God and man seems embedded in the order of things.

What is possibly the most useful piece of advice ever offered in these fraught contexts? Possibly that of Psalm 146: “O put not your trust in princes, nor in child of man; for there is no help in them. Blessed is he that hath the God of Jacob for his help, and whose hope is in the Lord his God.” But, then, when did any society take biblical advice with the intense seriousness for which its Author may have hoped?

William Murchison is a nationally syndicated columnist.

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