PRINT September 1989


the Moral Majority

“THE MORAL MAJORITY IS NEITHER” was a popular T-shirt slogan in the mid-’80s; and now the Moral Majority is also nonexistent. Reverend Jerry Falwell made the announcement on June 11, 1989: the right-wing religious organization which he had led since 1979 had accomplished its mission, he explained. Presumably, its 6 million claimed members were now free to toss out their Christian key chains, address books, and other Moral Majority memorabilia, put their dues money back in their pockets, and go about their business.

On the face of it, intransigent fundamentalism seemed to be following the pattern laid down earlier in this century: a brief, flamboyant emergence, followed by ridicule and ignominious retreat. In the 1920s, fundamentalism bestirred itself to challenge the teaching of evolution in the public schools. William Jennings Bryan won the case against science teacher John Scopes, but only after Clarence Darrow had succeeded in making both Bryan and the Bible look half-baked. Fundamentalism skulked back into its rural southern nesting spots, far from the giggles of secular folks, and lay low for another 50 years.

Similarly, one might conclude fundamentalism woke up in the 1970s, briefly flailed against the devil’s dominion—manifested now by abortion, homosexuality, feminism, and allied transgressions—only to slink away again in shame after a series of moral embarrassments. Televangelists Jim Bakker and Jimmy Swaggart were caught succumbing to the temptations of the flesh. Evangelical presidential candidate Pat Robertson boasted of deflecting a hurricane and is known to indulge (though not publicly) in glossolalia. Oral Roberts achieved comic status by attempting to blackmail the deity. Falwell himself became one of America’s least popular public figures, according to polls—“our own Ayatollah” as some put it. In the last couple of years, televangelism’s disillusioned TV audiences have been switching the dial, and electronically solicited contributions are down.

But I see no reason for secular humanists and related sinners to rejoice. In many ways, Falwell’s explanation for the disbanding of the Moral Majority is sound: the organization has served its purpose and succeeded in its mission. That purpose was laid out in a 1979 meeting between Jerry Falwell, already famous for his “I Love America” rallies, and Howard Phillips, one of the founders of the secular New Right. As Phillips and his colleagues saw it, militantly religious Americans—especially white, Protestant fundamentalists—were potentially a readymade constituency for the far right. The Moral Majority would be the instrument of their conversion to right-wing ideology, and would serve as a bridge between the right’s more secular concerns (e.g., defeating communism and “big government”) and its religiously-tinged “social issues,” such as abortion, school prayer, and homosexuality.

In the worldview of the New Right, America’s central problem is “permissiveness” and its source is invariably the “liberal elite” or, as they are described in the more intellectual writings of the right, the “new class.” “Permissiveness” provides the link between the right’s economic concerns and social issues. Thus “permissive” welfare programs are said to foster laziness and promiscuity among the poor, while permissive educational policies (sex education, programs in “values clarification”) corrupt the young. This analysis meshed well with that of fundamentalists like Falwell, who see America in the midst of a “moral breakdown” promoted by a shadowy, presumably well-educated, cabal of “secular humanists.” (The religious right’s hostility to the intelligentsia or secular humanists helps explain the vigilance with which the arts have been monitored over the past several years, for example, the recent punitive measures taken against institutions for sponsoring “indecent” art.)

During the ten years of its existence, the Moral Majority barraged its membership (mailing list is probably a more accurate term) with a flood of literature concerning not only the familiar ills of permissiveness and perversion, but the need for nuclear build-up, for SDI, and for solidarity with the ruling regime of South Africa. It directed a special educational campaign at clergymen, and contributed to the conversion, between the late ’70s and mid ’80s, of a majority of Southern Baptist ministers to the Republican Party. In 1980 and 1984, it claimed to have registered a million new voters among previously apolitical fundamentalists—presumably all Reagan voters.

The abortion issue has been central to the politicization of American fundamentalism. In his autobiography, Falwell attributes his own decision to move into political activism to the fad that, in the ’70s, “ . . . Satan had mobilized his own forces to destroy America by negating the Judeo-Christian ethic, secularizing our society, and devaluating human life through the legalization of abortion and infanticide.” From its inception, the Moral Majority lobbied President Reagan to appoint only certifiably anti-abortion justices to the Supreme Court—an effort we now know to have been resoundingly successful.

If there is no more need for an institutionalized “Moral Majority,” this is largely because white Protestant fundamentalism has been thoroughly politicized—by the right. People who may once have been content to be “saved” have become savvy lobbyists and organizers, alert to any affront to their notion of America as a “Christian nation.” They travel to anti-abortion demonstrations, for example, in church-owned buses; and are urged on Sundays to support the candidate most sympathetic to “Christian” concerns. Thus, through the efforts of Falwell and his fellow evangelists, America’s long quiescent fundamentalist churches have become the grass-roots infrastructure of the political right.

In fact, this politicization itself may be in part responsible for the growth and revival of fundamentalist and evangelist religion in the last decade and a half. Through its association with militant patriotism—and with the middle-class values of striving and acquisition—fundamentalism has climbed out of the “hollers” and hamlets and gone mainstream. Today’s congregants are far more upscale than the backwoods rednecks of stereotype; they’re likely to be businessmen, engineers, even scientists. Even “high church” George Bush feels obliged to claim to have been born again, and Ollie North, the quintessential right-wing patriot, reportedly spends his Sunday mornings writhing and speaking in tongues.

The Moral Majority–style hybrid of religion and politics has already altered the tone, as well as the substance of American politics. Basically religious issues—having to do, for example, with the presentation of religion in textbooks—are now pursued with all the technological sophistication of modern political campaigns, while potentially secular issues, like abortion, excite the moral frenzy of a revivalist camp meeting. And at least some of the recent outbreak of flag worship reflects the new political culture of fundamentalism, in which flag and cross merge into a single emblem of embattled righteousness.

We cannot hope to confront Moral Majority–style politics with arid appeals to reason and constitutional tradition. We need a genuinely moral majority, capable of defending individual rights as part of a larger vision of human purpose and potentiality. How, for example, should we defend a work of art in which the flag is treated disrespectfully? On the grounds that it is “not illegal”? Or can we find a way to argue that diversity of expression is a positive and creative challenge to a free people? Just as the religious right has created a moral legitimation for repressive measures, we need to resurrect the ethical basis for freedom. If that turns out to be what the Christian right reviles as “secular humanism,” so much the better. At least the battle lines in the coming moral wars will be clearly drawn.

Barbara Ehrenreich is a political analyst and the author of many books including most recently Fear of Foiling: The Inner Life of the Middle Class, 1989.