Neil J. Young is a historian and independent scholar in New York. This interview is based on his new book, We Gather Together: The Religious Right and the Problem of Interfaith Politics (Oxford University Press, 2015).
JF: What led you to write We Gather Together?
NY: We Gather Together is a substantial revision of my dissertation which explored the Religious Right’s organizing and interfaith relations from 1972 through 1984. My dissertation could be described as a political history of religious actors, but as I expanded it into a book I decided I wanted to tell a religious history that explained political developments. What most interested me was the subject of interfaith relations among evangelicals, Catholics, and Mormons – the three pillars of the Religious Right. But I wanted to understand what came long before that period of political organizing and mobilization in the late 1970s and how interfaith relations and conversations laid the groundwork for whatever political alliances ultimately developed. I started reading religious publications from the 1950s – moving away from the presidential papers and the grassroots conservative publications that had informed my dissertation – and noticed that Catholics, Mormons, and evangelicals were all concerned with the liberal ecumenical movement coming out of mainline Protestantism. This opened up a whole new way of understanding the rise of the Religious Right. I realized that before these religious faiths began to recognize each other as political allies regarding issues like abortion, gay rights, and school prayer, they had appreciated each other’s religious commitment to resisting the ecumenical movement and opposing theological liberalism even while they still viewed each other suspiciously. Through examining Mormon, evangelical, and Catholic internal and interfaith discussions on topics including the authority of Scripture, the nature of salvation, and the question of Christian unity, I argue that we can better understand the rise of the Religious Right and its successes and failures.
JF: In 2 sentences, what is the argument of We Gather Together?
NY: The emergence of the Religious Right was not a brilliant political strategy of compromise and coalition-building hatched on the eve of a history-altering election. Rather, it was the latest iteration of a religious debate that had gone on for decades, sparked by the ecumenical contentions of mainline Protestantism rather than by secular liberal political victories.
JF: Why do we need to read We Gather Together?
NY: The Religious Right continues to be an important force in the Republican Party and in national politics, so understanding its historical origins and trajectory remains crucial for interpreting our present political moment. Additionally, much of our contemporary conversation, particularly from the media, treats the Religious Right as a monolith even when news events show otherwise. My book investigates and foregrounds the divisions within the Religious Right, demonstrating how this has always been a fragile coalition riven by theological and religious beliefs as much as it was united by political and cultural convictions. Lastly, We Gather Together demonstrates how “religious liberty” has become the focus and rallying cry of the Religious Right in the wake of political defeats and the nation’s monumental demographic shifts.
JF: When and why did you decide to become an American historian?
NY: I’ve always been fascinated by history, in large part because of the stories my parents told me about their childhoods in the segregated South. It was important to them, particularly my mom, that I understand how terribly different their growing up had been from my own so that I would be sensitive to the struggle African Americans faced in our nation. Whether they realized it or not, they had confronted me with the historian’s central task of understanding change over time. As a young person, I was utterly puzzled by my mom’s stories of attending all-white schools, drinking from “white only” water fountains, and having the three Civil Rights workers murdered one town away from her hometown in Mississippi. I read antebellum Southern history, Civil Rights Movement history, biographies and autobiographies voraciously, trying to understand the Southern world that had been made and remade over time.
As an undergraduate at Duke University, I quickly realized I wanted to be a historian because my professors seemed to have the best job in the world. Their encouragement helped me realize I had a talent for historical analysis and writing, and I benefited from Duke’s incredible emphasis on undergraduate research. As a graduate student at Columbia, I intended to continue focusing on nineteenth-century Southern history, so the real surprise was that I morphed into a twentieth-century religion and politics scholar. This was in the early years of George W. Bush’s presidency and historians were writing a lot about modern conservatism, particularly its religious strain. I wanted to join that conversation because it felt so fresh and exciting. On a personal level, as someone who had grown up with a very religious upbringing, I also realized how little I knew about my faith historically. So, the opportunity to study religious history provided me with a new way of understanding myself, just as I had once sought through my interest in Southern history.
JF: What is your next project?
NY: I’ve just begun work on a cultural history of a famous Hollywood icon. It’s a real departure from my previous work in many ways, but the commonalities include my persistent fascination with mid-twentieth century American life, the power and influence of cultural symbols, and the political meaning and consequences of seemingly non-political people and institutions.
JF: Thanks, Neil!