Phyllis Schlafly, a social conservative icon, died yesterday at the age of 92. For decades she had been the head of the Eagle Forum, after an early career in helping move the voters of California in the direction of conservatism and preparing the state for Ronald Reagan. Though not a native or resident, Schlafly was very much like one of those that Darren Dochuk wrote about in his fascinating book, From Bible Belt to Sunbelt: Plain-Folk Religion, Grassroots Politics, and the Rise of Evangelical Conservatism (2012). She became an advocate for political conservatism and an activist in the cause during the 1960s. Her book A Choice, Not an Echo (1964), written in opposition to the more liberal Northeast Republicans such as Nelson Rockefeller, was seized on by Californians in the run-up to the 1964 Goldwater-Johnson race, and made a difference. Schlafly also was instrumental in helping to defeat the Equal Rights Amendment, which she saw as both perverse and unnecessary. Shalfly also consistently and stridently opposed radical feminism, in its most pernicious form. For this, many might condemn her, but she never claimed perfection. She was a product of the particular historical context of her day, and some of the particular statements she made were by our standards a bit narrow. But many or even most were remarkably consistent with Biblical truth.
She continued her conservative advocacy throughout the 1980s, when I remember her influence at its height. It was then that she was an ally of the Moral Majority and made an appearance at Liberty University while I was teaching there. Her organization continued its work against abortion and for the family but Schlafly seemed to retire from the public eye in the 1990s and 200os, at least until this election cycle, when she wrote and expressed her opinion on Donald Trump, once again evoking the specter of the “Liberal Republicans.”
I would characterize Schlafly not as a public intellectual, though she was no slouch in her academic training, but rather as what I called her above, an advocate for a range of conservative causes, mainly confined to the social realm. Abortion, the family, were her area of particular interest. Let me add that we seem to be missing any really strong women for that cause who also can come at it from a Christian perspective (though Schlafly was Roman Catholic). I would like to see some intellectually strong women who can speak to other women as Evangelicals. I said this also about the great male intellectuals lost in the last few years. Where are their replacements? The ones who can stand on their shoulders and see better and farther even than they could? I am not glorifying everything Schlafly has said, but then, no public person has avoided missteps. We are human as she was. But I appreciated what she stood for all those years. Evangelical Christians can learn from people like Schlafly.