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The Woman Who Helped Build the Christian Right

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Beverly LaHaye died quietly in April at the age of 96. She always said she hated the spotlight. And yet, in the 1980s and 1990s, she was one of the most visible and politically powerful women in the U.S. 

Like antifeminist activist Phyllis Schlafly — her sometime ally and rival — LaHaye was an architect of the modern Christian conservative movement. Her legacy is everywhere, from the Supreme Court’s decision to overturn Roe v. Wade, to the rise of right-wing Georgia Congresswoman Marjorie Taylor Greene, to the much-debated #tradwives of social media.

The Christian Right is often associated with bombastic men like televangelists Pat Roberson and Jerry Falwell. This is unsurprising, given conservative ideologies about gender that emphasize men’s leaderships abilities and women’s work as helpers. Yet, women have always had a hand in leading the movement, from the grassroots to the very top. In fact, it’s impossible to accurately understand American conservatism without recognizing the impact of women like LaHaye.

Beverly Jean Davenport was born in 1929 in a working-class suburb of Detroit. Her early life was marked by hardship: her father passed away when she was a toddler, forcing her mother to take a job at the phone company and move in with a neighbor before remarrying two years later. When health conditions left her mother bedridden, Davenport had to take on adult responsibilities at an early age. 

At the age of 17, she enrolled at the evangelical Bob Jones University, where she met and married fellow student Tim LaHaye. Over the next seven decades, the LaHayes would become an iNFLuential power couple in conservative Christian circles, each selling millions of books, testifying before Congress, and helping to found some of the flagship organizations of the modern religious right. 

From the 1960s to the 1980s, Tim pastored Scott Memorial Baptist, a megachurch in the San Diego area. During the Cold War era, conservative California churches were fertile ground for the populist, pro-capitalist evangelical theology that would come to define the modern religious right and its core opposition to both “godless communism” and “secular humanism.” This political movement grew up alongside the development of an all-encompassing conservative evangelical subculture that fused religious and political identities in everything from sermons to Christian rock and self-help books.

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The LaHayes were stars in this culture. Beverly, painfully shy by her own account, stayed out of the limelight for as long as she could. But by the 1970s, evangelical audiences were demanding women’s voices. The tradition of gender segregated spaces in evangelical churches had given rise to a national subculture of conferences, ministries, and books by and for evangelical women. 

One example was Marabel Morgan’s explosive bestseller, The Total Woman (1973), a surprisingly spicy Christian marriage manual that captured, and somehow sanctified, the frank and fun sex advice of the era. When Tim LaHaye tried to publish his own Christian sex advice book in 1976, his publisher insisted on a female co-author. The book was published with Tim and Beverly’s names on the cover and this opened the floodgates for Beverly’s own writing. She published five books in the next seven years; over the course of her career, she would publish dozens.

In her writing, LaHaye presented the patriarchal nuclear family as the most basic building block of a stable society. She encouraged women to be “submissive” to their husbands, insisting that “true liberation” came from fulfilling their God-given roles. “Women who feel stifled by the biblical teaching on submission have yet to understand the biblical meaning of freedom,” she wrote in 1980.

But even as she asserted that “motherhood is the highest form of femininity,” her vision of submission did not limit women to kitchens and carpools. According to LaHaye, submission meant full obedience to God’s plan. And that included — even demanded — their political engagement in the 1970s and 1980s.

Since the 1960s, a resurgent feminist movement had shifted cultural conversations about gender, family, and sexual roles. Feminists helped enact new measures to protect women from domestic violence, expand their access to economic tools like credit cards, and ensure the availability of reproductive Health care, believing that these changes would benefit all women. But for conservative Christian women who understood traditional gender roles to be God-given, and who cherished their roles as housewives, the feminist movement seemed like an existential threat. As far as LaHaye was concerned, this threat meant that conservative women had a special duty to “end the monopoly of feminists who claim to speak for all women.”

In 1979, she founded Concerned Women for America (CWA), presenting a stark choice to the American woman: “She can join the feminists and spend her life with the family agitators who would destroy the ‘patriarchal’ system; or she can join those who are working to preserve Christian morality and the traditional family.” Apathy was not an option.

Of course, CWA was not the first or only group for conservative Christian women, though LaHaye sometimes claimed that it was. Phyllis Schlafly founded the Eagle Forum and STOP ERA in the early 1970s to rally conservative women on a variety of causes, most notably in opposition to the feminist-backed Equal Rights Amendment to the U.S. Constitution. Yet, while activist evangelical women worked with these groups, Schlafly’s Catholicism limited her ability to reach evangelicals who were more ambivalent about politic involvement. LaHaye’s connections to evangelical women’s subculture allowed her to organize through purportedly apolitical spaces like churches and women’s conferences and to convince women that political activism was a logical extension of their duty to protect their families from harm.

CWA grew quickly. By 1983, the organization had Washington headquarters from which it trained professional lobbyists and helped to pioneer key legal strategies for the Christian Right. It was one of the first organizations to bring cases to the Supreme Court in defense of conservative Christians’ “religious freedom” to maintain tax-free institutions and define Christian school curricula independent of state standards. 

The efforts of hundreds of thousands of grassroots members supported the national organization’s work. By 1986, CWA had chapters in 49 states and even one on a U.S. military base in Germany. It grew through networks of evangelical churches and through the purportedly apolitical spaces of evangelical women’s culture. Its structure mirrored women’s Bible studies, hosted by churches or by community members who held meetings in their own homes.

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CWA sent literature that guided these women in reflecting on Biblical passages and current legislation. The organization encouraged them to take part in national letter-writing campaigns, while also training members to engage on local issues. CWA also mobilized Christian women voters in elections, often publishing meticulous report cards rating each candidate’s record on abortion, gay rights, and other key issues. 

The group was at the center of the movement to repeal Roe v. Wade, in the courts, at rallies, and in the culture. The 1994 documentary After the Choice reached a generation of evangelical women and girls with its claim that abortion would likely leave them with long-term mental and physical illness. 

LaHaye remained at the forefront of these efforts into the 21st century. She won prestigious awards from conservative Christian organizations including the Southern Baptist Convention and the Evangelical Christian Publishers Association. In 2005, TIME recognized her and her husband among the “25 Most Influential Evangelicals in America.”

Donald Trump And GOP Presidential Candidates Speak At The CWA Women's Summit In Washington, D.C.
CEO and President of Concerned Women for America (CWA) Penny Nance says a prayer for former U.S. President Donald Trump after he addressed the Concerned Women for America Legislative Action Committee (CWALAC) on Sept. 15, 2023, in Washington, D.C. Alex Wong/Getty Images

LaHaye stayed on as president of CWA until 2010 and as Chairman of the Board of Trustees until 2019. Even without her at the helm, CWA continues to be a leading voice for conservative Christian women. In 2016, then-CWA president Penny Nance helped to swing evangelical women to Donald Trump, urging them to focus on his promise to appoint pro-life justices rather than dwelling on his personal conduct. When one of those justices, Brett Kavanaugh, met with serious opposition after being accused of sexual assault during his confirmation hearings, CWA organized “Women for Kavanaugh” rallies.

Underlying all of this work was LaHaye’s original core argument, that women could find a safer home in “traditional” gender roles than in the promises of the feminist movement. Her career demonstrated how women have interpreted those roles to make space for political leadership, and how their movements have relied on them to do so. This argument resonated with millions of Christian women who saw themselves in CWA’s messaging and worked to shape American politics and influence conservative Republican ideas about gender and family.

Conservatism, the Republican Party, and the religious right are all frequently characterized by white men. Yet women like LaHaye and the millions she mobilized have long been the bacKBOne of the right-wing conservatism that now dominates the GOP. Women like Katie Britt and Marjorie Taylor-Greene aren’t anomalies. They’re the latest standard bearers of a movement that has been shaping our political landscape for over half a century.

Emily Suzanne Johnson is associate professor of History and director of the masters of History program at Ball State University. She is author of This Is Our Message: Women's Leadership in the New Christian Right.

Made by History takes readers beyond the headlines with articles written and edited by professional historians. Learn more about Made by History at TIME here. Opinions expressed do not necessarily reflect the views of TIME editors.

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