The period of time between the assassination of John F. Kennedy in 1963 and the creation of the Moral Majority organization in 1979 was a period of great upheaval in American society. The Civil Rights Act of 1964, the Watt’s riots, hippies in Haight Ashbury San Francisco, the Black Panthers, the Freedom Marches, the rise of feminism and the ERA, there was a great deal of things upsetting for conservative Christians.
In the midst of this social upheaval, increasing public displeasure with Southern segregationism and the political pressure to segregate private Christian schools further agitated fundamentalist Christian leadership. But these leaders continually failed to appeal to a broad enough group to slow or thwart progressive legislation. It is at this point that the temptation to over-simplify and evaluate the evangelical development in the 80s and 90s in terms of a binary cause becomes apparent. I confess, I had, before making a more thorough study, leaned towards understanding modern evangelicalism primarily in terms of White Nationalism. This is an easy assumption to make if one thinks solely in terms of Southern fundamentalism. And, yes, fundamentalism thinking had a huge impact on direction and priorities of the evangelical movement from 1980 onward. However, the seeds of ultra conservatism were already within evangelicalism long before Jerry Falwell’s Moral Majority.
Rather than see fundamentalism as a minority subset of evangelicalism, as some historians do, I tend to think of modern evangelicalism, as opposed to classic evangelicalism of the 18th-19th centuries, as an outgrowth of early 20th century, fundamentalism, dispensationalism and an apocalyptic world view. Matthew Avery Sutton’s “American Apocalypse, A History of Modern Evangelicalism,” is a wonderful resource for tracing this development. (1) So, as the segregationist, fundamentalist preacher, Jerry Falwell readied his Moral Majority movement in 1979, the wedge issues he planned to use: abortion, the ERA, homosexuality, civil rights, liberalism, were already a part of the more moderate evangelical “worry-list.” Yes, his concerns were more racially motivated, but the wedge issues already concerned most evangelicals to one degree or another.
So what new impetus did Falwell bring to the evangelical table that had not already been there before? The most obvious is a new emphasis on rigidity in response to the wedge issues. Take abortion for example. Catholics had an absolute stance: abortion was wrong under all circumstances. Evangelicals were more conflicted and divided on the issue.
“If Republicans were reluctant to restrict abortion in the late 1960’s and early 1970’s, so were most evangelicals. They greeted the first state abortion legislation laws with silence and apathy.” (2) Overall, the majority response to abortion was that “therapeutic abortion” was morally permissible, but not “abortion on demand.” Fundamentalists generally were more adamant on the subject and laid the sole burden for sexual responsibility squarely on the woman. For example Billy Sunday, John Rice and Henry Stough. (3)
When Falwell courted Catholics, not only was he breaking with the long-standing mistrust fundamentalists had of Catholics, but he was speaking language Catholics could understand concerning abortion. Hence, the Moral Majority borrowed from the Catholic playbook and effectively moved the needle decisively to the right for evangelicals. This is where I believe the long term effect on evangelicalism lay: fundamentalism moved evangelicals to the right, making them more conservative than they were prior to the Moral Majority.
While I believe, judging from Falwell’s views on “separation of the races,” that segregation was more on his mind than abortion, legal protection for Christian schools that discriminated against blacks ultimately failed, even though Carter was denied a second term by evangelicals. Where Falwell succeeded, and I believe decidedly succeeded, was galvanizing evangelicals and Catholics under the common cause of overturning Roe v Wade. Between the academic assault on moderates within the evangelical system of higher education, and labeling of abortion as “murder,” a noble cause was born that enabled evangelicals to politically resist “liberal causes” that they felt supported abortion. To put it another way, evangelicals could broadly condemn governmental efforts at progressive social programs because they, at least, did not support the “mass murder of infants.” The Moral Majority was wildly successful in hiding their morally questionable views of racism under the rubric of defending the unborn. To be fair, I suspect a fairly large group evangelicals still believe there are morally excusable reasons for abortion under some circumstances, but fundamentalism combined with Catholicism has affected the legal aspirations concerning abortion towards completely overturning Roe v Wade.
Not that abortion is the only residual concern of evangelicals: a concerted effort was attempted to curtail Gay rights as well as the Equal Right Amendment for women. While the attempts to halt Gay marriage ultimately failed and the ERA quietly went away, the desire to overturn Roe v Wade has remained a pressing concern for evangelicals. It is still the cause de celebre among many evangelicals.
Which brings us to the current evangelical agenda: to stack the court system from the SCOTUS on down, to reflect conservative social causes. While the initial rise of the Religious Right was arguably fueled by fundamentalist racism, that was too narrow a cause and too unpopular to remain a central focus of the Religious Right. As Falwell skillfully used wedge issues to his advantage I believe the political landscape and emphasis for evangelicals changed as a result when the next century arrived. Although white evangelicals and evangelicals of color may vote differently, evangelicals of every stripe have found a common cause in its efforts to forge a “Christian Nation.” In other words, no longer content to vote on single issue items, there is an all out push towards Christian Nationalism, a blend of Christ and Caesar.
This will be the subject I tackle in the future. Ultimately the dangers inherent to Christian Nationalism are far more dangerous to democracy than the racism of 20th century fundamentalism as it appeals to a much larger audience and has managed to infiltrate much of the Republican Party platform. But more on that at a later time.
1 “American Apocalypse, A History of Modern Evangelicalism,” Matthew Avery Sutton, Harvard College, 2014.
2 “God’s Own Party, The Making of the Religious Right,” Daniel K. Williams, Oxford University Press, 2010, p. 111, 115.
3 Ibid., pp. 145-146.