Magazine article National Catholic Reporter

Right Still Reads Falwell's Playbook: The Religious Language of the Moral Majority Shapes Today's Political Rhetoric Analysis

Magazine article National Catholic Reporter

Right Still Reads Falwell's Playbook: The Religious Language of the Moral Majority Shapes Today's Political Rhetoric Analysis

Article excerpt

Religion in America has long been prominent in the public square, but it is only recently that the primary face of religion in political discourse has been the face of conservative evangelical Christianity. The outsize role of conservative evangelicals in the Republican Party nominating process attests to the success of a group of conservative pastors such as the Rev. Jerry Fal-well, the Rev. Pat Robertson and others in representing the views of their adherents and bringing their flocks to the polls.

At the time of the American founding, there were a variety of religious accommodations in the different states. The Congregational church remained established by law in Massachusetts and Connecticut well into the 1800s. (The First Amendment prohibition against an established religion did not apply to the states until the passage of the Fourteenth Amendment after the Civil War.) In the Southern states, Americans had grown accustomed to an Anglican establishment during the colonial era, but most states chose disestablishment during the Revolutionary generation. Two states, and only two, Pennsylvania and Rhode Island, had long histories of religious tolerance.

In the antebellum period, the fight against slavery was born in the Christian churches. In the late 19th and early 20th century, such efforts as the YMCA and the temperance movement developed to inculcate Christian values, with a decidedly anti-Catholic emphasis. The Social Gospel movement, and the advent of the historical critical method of biblical studies, swept many churches of the Reformation, provoking a reaction in some circles that came to be known as fundamentalism. Fundamentalism denounced the Social Gospel movement and other efforts at social reform, but it largely kept to itself throughout most of the 20th century, building a vast network of churches and schools that were separated from the cultural mainstream.

In the 1960s, the most prominent religious figures in American life all hailed from the political left. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. led the civil rights movement, became a vocal critic of the Vietnam War, and died in Memphis, Tenn., where he had gone to fight for better wages for that city's sanitation workers. The Berrigan brothers--Dan a Jesuit and Philip a Josephite priest--were among the most famous antiwar protesters. William Sloane Coffin, chaplain at Yale University in New Haven, Conn., and subsequently senior minister at Riverside Church in New York, was a reliably lefty voice in the public square. In 1970, Jesuit Fr. Robert Dri-nan sought and won a seat in Congress on an antiwar platform, becoming the first Catholic priest to serve in Congress. He won re-election five times and was among the most visible progressive religious figures in America.

In 1979, Falwell formed the Moral Majority with the expressed purpose of organizing conservative Christians, registering them to vote and educating them about the issues the group thought most pressing. To justify his march into the public square, Falwell had to overcome the traditional Baptist belief in "the spirituality of the church," which held that the proper role of religion was to save souls and not to concern itself with "the externals." Falwell believed that America was beset by moral decline, as evidenced by legalized abortion, the sexual libertinism of the counterculture, and the spread of pornography and sex education in the schools. The final straw that broke the camel's back was a 1978 decision by the IRS regarding the tax-exempt status of racially segregated Christian academies. It was one thing to let the mainstream culture pursue un-Christian ways, but quite another when the federal government sought to change the rules of the road for private Christian schools. Conservative Christians saw this as a direct attack on the fundamentalist subculture that merited a response.

The Moral Majority sought to craft a political message that was open to non-fundamentalists by rooting itself in shared moral precepts rather than in doctrinal concerns. …

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