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5 Questions for Gene Zubovich on Religion and American Politics

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Gene Zubovich is an Assistant Professor in the Department of History at the University at Buffalo, SUNY, as well as a Kluge Fellow at the John W. Kluge Center at the Library of Congress. He is the author of the “Before the Religious Right,” which is set to be released in early 2022.


First, can you give us an introduction to what you study generally, as well as to your particular focus at the Kluge Center?

I am a historian of the modern United States with interests in the US and the World, the history of human rights, intellectual history, and the history of religion. Broadly speaking, I write about how the political and cultural life of the United States has been shaped by its relationship to the rest of the world. I am especially interested in how Americans learn about events overseas, what kinds of institutions connect them to foreign countries, and how their ideas about their own country change in response to what is happening in the rest of the world.

In my first book, called “Before the Religious Right: Liberal Protestants, Human Rights, and the Polarization of the United States,” I investigated how international debates about human rights and world order transformed American domestic politics from the 1920s to the 1960s. I focused on the activities of American liberal Protestants, whose networks, ideas, and activism served as the crucial link between international developments and American politics. This influential religious community helped create the United Nations and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, and it mobilized politically in support of the New Deal, the civil rights movement, the Great Society, and anti-Vietnam War protests. I argued that it was precisely this group’s international engagement that motivated their influential domestic political mobilization and transformed American politics.

At the Kluge Center I am researching the other end of the political spectrum: the rise of the new right and its global dimensions. It seems to me that in the same way the international connections of liberal Protestants shaped American liberalism during its heyday at mid-century, so too did the international engagement of conservative Catholics, evangelicals, and Jews shape the new right during the late twentieth century. My new project is tentatively titled “Culture Warriors Abroad: A Global History of the American Culture Wars.” We often talk about the “culture wars” that the new right inaugurated as a distinctly American phenomenon, rooted in domestic politics about segregation, school prayer, and abortion. I think that is part of the story but what gets lost is how much figures like Paul Weyrich, Richard Viguerie, and Phyllis Schlafly cared about what happens overseas and how much time and effort they spent cultivating allies abroad. I came to the conclusion that you really cannot understand the US culture wars—back then or today—without understanding its international dimensions.


Paul Weyrich appears at an event in Australia. Credit: Paul M. Weyrich scrapbooks, Library of Congress

What interests you about the role of religion in American history?

I never intended to become a historian of religion. My interest grew out of a recognition of how important religion has been to the history of the United States, and especially to the country’s relationship with the rest of the world. Take, for example, the role of Christian missionaries. They constantly traveled abroad. Unlike other groups who went overseas—including tourists, corporate executives, and soldiers—missionaries resided abroad for many years developing close relationships with locals, they were more likely to live in rural areas, and they were more likely to end up in places that the US did not consider economically or militarily important. For these reasons, American missionaries played an important role as experts on international affairs for much of US history. Their pivotal role in advising American leaders on foreign policy only ended when Congress began pouring millions of dollars into area studies programs during the Cold War. But even after their influence over foreign policy diminished, missionaries still had (and still have today) audiences of millions of churchgoers, powerful lobbying groups, and political connections overseas.

This is just one example of how religion—and not just Christianity—shapes Americans’ views of international events. Folks in churches, mosques, temples, and synagogues continue to see the world through a religious framework and as members of transnational religious communities. Religion is interesting in and of itself, but I study it because I think it can tell us a lot about some of the most important events of modern US history. I am working alongside a group of historians who have been integrating religion into the mainstream narratives of American history over the past two decades.


Which resources from the Library of Congress have you found most useful in your work?

The Library has endless resources. I have been wading through countless books and news reports about well-known and grassroots figures—Jesse Helms, Jerry Falwell, Phyllis Schlafly, Ezra Benson, Judie Brown, Enrique Neruda, Julian Simon, and many others. One of my favorite sources has been the Paul Weyrich scrapbooks in the Manuscript Reading Room. Many know Weyrich as an influential figure in the new right who helped found the Heritage Foundation, the Free Congress Foundation, and Moral Majority. The scrapbooks consist of clippings, photographs, and other memorabilia from his political, religious, and personal life. These are things that he cherished and wanted to preserve for himself, his family, and posterity.

Paul Weyrich carries an incense burner at the baptism of the daughter of Connie Marshner. Credit: Paul M. Weyrich scrapbooks, Library of Congress

The Weyrich collection has the kinds of sources that are underused by historians. One example is his tickets to the 1984 Republican National Convention. Where was he seated and what does that say about his relationship to the Republican Party’s leadership that year? We know that he was publicly critical of Reagan in the leadup to the election, and his seating assignment in the nosebleed section reflects that.

There are photographs that show his deep attachment to the ornate ceremonies of the Melkite Church. When fellow new right activist Connie Mashner’s daughter was baptized, Weyrich donned the vestments of a deacon and carried a thurible (an incense burner used in Christian liturgy) and candle at the ceremony. That such images rarely appeared in public—he always wore a suit—tells us something about the relationship between his religious and political life and the interfaith coalitions he was forging. There is a birthday photo of Weyrich playing a home-made board game that mocks big government, Christmas cards highlighting his children’s achievements, and photos of his travels in Australia, Israel, and Brazil. Each one tells us something about Weyrich and the new right that is hard to see in his countless memos, speeches, and correspondence.


Can you name a historical figure from your field who you think should be more of a household name?

We tend to forget that before the rise of the religious right, the religious left had a powerful role in American politics. In the 1940s and 1950s liberal Protestants like G. Bromley Oxnam, Benjamin Mays, and Henry Pitney Van Dusen graced the cover of Time magazine and received front-page coverage in the New York Times. Today they are largely unknown.

One of the most interesting figures of this generation is the Methodist activist Thelma Stevens. She was a white woman born and raised in rural Mississippi who became a tireless advocate of racial equality. In the 1930s she joined a group of women who sat in on trials involving African Americans to show that people were paying attention to the injustices against black defendants in the Jim Crow South. She also commissioned Pauli Murray to write a report on segregation law in the US, which Thurgood Marshall used while planning his arguments in the Brown v. Board Supreme Court case. She was also a prominent advocate of the United Nations and human rights. In the early 1960s she helped organize the Church Center for the United Nations. For Stevens, these were interconnected activities. Desegregation in the United States and human rights abroad were part of a single mission of living out her Methodist values. Recalling figures like Stevens reminds us that the religious right is not the whole story of religion and politics in our country. Religion is not the province of any single political party or any single ideology.


What do you think people would find most surprising about the way that religious identity interacted with American politics during the 20th century?

Many people find the role that religious women played in American politics counterintuitive. Take Thelma Stevens, who I mentioned above, as an example. Stevens was never married and never had children. Until recently, religious work was one of the few socially-acceptable life paths open to middle-class women who were not interested in marriage or motherhood. Some of these women, like Jane Addams and Lillian Smith, formed lifelong partnerships with other women. Others simply wanted to pursue careers that were unavailable to them (in the early twentieth century there were more American women working as doctors for missionary organizations in India than in the United States). These organizations also created spaces for women to organize and become involved in political debates. Before the feminist movement of the 1960s and 1970s, liberal Protestant organizations were one of the most important gateways for women to engage in US and international politics.

The role of religious women in the conservative movement was equally complex. Figures like anti-feminist activist Phyllis Schlafly and anti-abortion activist Judie Brown rooted their work in their Catholic faith and saw themselves as protectors of the traditional family structure. They took on powerful public roles that were largely reserved for men in the 1970s and 1980s, while also defending patriarchy. There is a wide gap in values between a liberal Protestant like Stevens and a conservative Catholic like Schlafly. But in both cases the widespread belief that women can defy certain social conventions if they do so in the name of religion played an important role. Religiously-sanctioned activism was important in American politics for both liberals and conservatives.

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