Jerry Falwell and the Rise of the New Christian Right in America
Analysis of an excerpt from Jerry Falwell's "Listen America", as cited in:
Hyser, Raymond M., and J. Chris. Arndt. "The Christian Right's Call to Action (1980)"Voices of the American Past: Documents in U.S. History. 5th ed. Vol. 2. Boston: Wadsworth Cengage Learning, 2011. 571-74.
American politics have always to some degree been influenced by religion. As a nation whose long history of religious tolerance includes milestones like Thomas Jefferson's Virginia Statue of Religious Freedom and a rigid separation of church and state laid out in its constitution, the United States to this day has retained a blossoming and diverse religious culture. Government was neither ever to interfere with the religious affairs of its citizens, nor was it to establish any kind of regulation thereof, making religion in the U.S. virtually free enterprise. As a result, the spheres of public and political discourse have from time to time been swept by waves of assertions by the pious claiming their place in the governing of the nation. During the 20th century, there have been several prominent examples of intrusion into politics by the Christian Right defined by Clyde Wilcox as “a social movement that seeks to mobilize and represent evangelical Christians in politics” (Laying up Treasures 23). This paper will focus on the New Christian Right of the 1980s that was shaped primarily by assertive spiritual leaders. For this purpose, an excerpt from a work by the fundamentalist preacher and leading figure of evangelical political activism, the late Rev. Jerry Falwell, will be examined.
Prior to the movement spearheaded by Falwell and others, which came to be called the New Christian Right, the 20th century saw the surge - as well as dwindling - of two distinguishable political movements of Protestant fundamentalists, namely the effort to ban the teaching of evolution in the 1920s and religiously-embedded anti-communism campaigns during the late 1950s and early 1960s (Wilcox, Radical Right 47). The former movement culminated in the famous Scopes Trial in 1925, in which the fundamentalists, although formally succeeding in court, ultimately suffered a set-back, having been exposed to ridicule in what became an affair of national magnitude (Boyer 720). Thereafter, bible-believing Protestants largely receded from politics (Harding 1279). The next wave of fundamentalist political activism focused first and foremost on the perceived threat from domestic communists. It took its form in organizations such as Fred Schwartz's Christian Anti- Communism Crusade and was, although less significant than the emergence of the New Christian Right in the 1980s, able to harness support even from more secular right-wing sympathizers, which, as Clyde Wilcox suggests, was largely due to their fixation on the worldly issue of communism (Radical Right 51).
After the defeat of Barry Goldwater in the Presidential Election of 1964, the anti- communist crusaders largely vanished from the political stage (Wilcox, Laying Up Treasures 25). Even Supreme Court decisions with outrageous implications for fundamentalists, like the legalization of abortion in 1973, prompted no political resurgence of evangelical fundamentalism until the Internal Revenue Service under the Carter administration embarked on revoking the tax-exempt status of private Christian schools, an event that can be seen as a turning point for the return of the Christian Right to politics (Freedman 235-8). Apart from the latent accusation on the part of the IRS that the increase of children enlisted in private schools after the mid-1960s, particularly in the south, was due to public school desegregation, the move effectively constituted an intrusion into the private lives of many evangelicals that the aforementioned Supreme Court decision, for example, did not entail. Whether the IRS's allegation of discrimination was substantive or not is hard to determine, but it can be assumed that the evangelicals' rejection of secularist values taught in public schools was the main factor for the Christian school's success (Boyer 919).
At the end of the 1970s, public attention was drawn to the increasing number of conservative practitioners of evangelicalism in the U.S. by comprehensive inquiry into the matter. For example, a Gallup poll found that almost half of sampled adults believed the bible to be inerrant; more than 80 percent stated their believe in the divinity of Jesus Christ (Lienesch 404). In order to harness this massive potential, a number of strategists of the New Right, namely Paul Weyrich of the Committee for the Survival of a Free Congress, Howard Phillips of the Conservative Caucus, and the pioneer and director of the direct mail operations of the New Right, Richard Viguerie, reached out to prominent advocates of the Christian schools like Robert Billings and Ed McAteer (Lienesch 409). In staking out their political positions, these men won over media-savvy evangelists like Pat Robertson, James Robison and Jerry Falwell for their political cause. Previously, these figures had been known for their dexterity in utilizing radio and television programs to preach to their denominations and beyond (“televangalism”).
Among the various organizations associated with the emerging New Christian Right, the Rev. Jerry Falwell's politically conservative Moral Majority became one of the most prominent and successful (Wilcox, Laying up Treasures 25). The organization, which Falwell founded in 1979, held positions overlapping with those generally found in the Republican Party, namely a strong emphasis on family, morality and patriotism as well as the rejection of abortion and secularism (Boyer 919). Falwell, a Baptist Bible Fellowship pastor from Lynchburg, Virginia, had not only been astonishingly successful in establishing the Thomas Road Baptist Church, which grew into a megachurch of more than 15,000 members, but also founded Liberty Baptist College that evolved from a small institution of 150 students in its founding year of 1971 to over 3,500 students in 1984 (Wilcox, Laying Up Treasures 25; Bentley 49). In the early 1980s Liberty Baptist College which, like Thomas Road Church, is located in Falwell's hometown Lynchburg, became involved in a legal dispute over the teaching and promotion of creationism to prospective public school teachers.¹
In 1980, Jerry Falwell published a book entitled “Listen America!”, in which he laid out not only his bible-based political principles, but also his strategy to mobilize evangelical Christians into politics (Hyser 572-4). Among the “sins of America” that Falwell condemned, he identified five “major problems”: abortion, homosexuality, pornography, humanism, and “the fractured family”. With respect to abortion, he harshly stated that every year “millions of babies are murdered in America” and references the Supreme Court decision to legalize abortion as “nine men” having established the possibility to “kill unborn children”. Apart from his equation of abortion as essentially being murder, which liberal advocates of abortion on medical and feminist grounds would surely refrain from, Falwell supplemented his criticism of the Supreme Court decision with his disapproval of a “majority vote” by nine justices, indicating such a decision would either be off-limits for a democratic mechanism to decide over or need to be put before the entire populace in order for democracy to function properly and justly.
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- Christian Right America History Moral Majority Religion Politics Jerry Falwell televangelism evangelicalism christianity American conservatism New Christian Right