Jerry Falwell Helps Found the Moral Majority
Jerry Falwell, Paul Weyrich, Richard Viguerie, Robert Billings, Ed McAteer, Howard Phillips
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The Moral Majority, with the help of radio and television preacher Jerry Falwell, helped mobilize a generation of conservative Christian voters. The secularization of public schools and the advent of federal protection for abortion rights roused evangelicals and conservative Catholics during the 1970s, leading to the formation of several Christian advocacy groups, including the Moral Majority in 1979. The Moral Majority supported Ronald Reagan in the presidential election of 1980 and was credited with part of his landslide victory over Jimmy Carter, formerly an evangelical darling in 1976. The Moral Majority's success turned Falwell into a household name, even as the organization became a victim of its own success the late 1980s.
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During the 1970s, conservative Catholics and evangelical Protestants became increasingly worried about the moral direction of the United States. The U.S. Supreme Court had banned official prayers in public schools, upheld abortion rights, and protected free speech for pornographers. Moreover, the popular though ultimately unsuccessful movement to pass the Equal Rights Amendment for women’s equality in the workplace seemed to undermine the traditional family and male authority. Popular evangelical authors like Francis Schaeffer warned that these decisions were the fruit of a campaign by "secular humanists" to transform America from its true origins as a Christian nation. Schaeffer and other conservative intellectuals called for a mass response from evangelical Christians who had been traditionally reluctant to engage in electoral politics. In the late 1970s, however, they responded and a loose network of conservative Christian advocacy groups -- including the Christian Voice, the Moral Majority, the Religious Roundtable, and the National Christian Action Coalition -- were formed. These groups were at the center of the movement that academics later labeled the New Christian Right. The Moral Majority was the largest and most influential of these groups and Jerry Falwell was the key to that success. Falwell, a fundamentalist Baptist minister in Lynchburg, Virginia, had been leery of political activism prior to the 1970s. In March 1965, two weeks after the infamous "Bloody Sunday" in Selma, Alabama, Falwell preached a sermon titled "Ministers and Marchers" in which he criticized Martin Luther King Jr. and civil rights activists for engaging in political activism. Of course, Falwell's sermon was itself quite political in its refusal to challenge the segregated status quo, but it also is a prime example of the belief, common among evangelicals prior to the 1970s, that the church should remain above formal politics. During the late 1960s and early 1970s, Falwell's beliefs on race and politics shifted, in part because of the influence of Francis Schaeffer, who first alerted him to the significance of Roe v. Wade. Alarmed at the secular drift of American society, Falwell launched an evangelistic campaign with a political edge during the bicentennial in 1975-1976. Falwell called them "I Love America" rallies and the grand production, featuring patriotic music by a large choir from Falwell's new Liberty Baptist College (now Liberty University), toured a succession of state capitals. Falwell's campaigns and books promised to return America to the right, God-fearing track, while also attracting the attention of conservative political organizers like Paul Weyrich and Ed McAteer.Weyrich, who had founded the Heritage Foundation in 1973 with money from the wealthy Coors family, believed that evangelical Christians were an untapped source of conservative voters. Ed McAteer, a sales executive for Colgate-Palmolive, introduced Weyrich to Falwell at a Dallas rally in February 1979. The rally was held in response to a local television station that had banned popular televangelist James Robison after he had accused homosexuals of being child molesters. More than 10,000 people attended the protest rally, at which Robison introduced Weyrich as "a brother Cath-o-lic" and challenged any who had a problem with that to leave the stadium. Afterward, McAteer assembled a collection of preachers, including Falwell and local Southern Baptist preacher W. A. Criswell, to talk with Weyrich about forming a new Christian advocacy group. In response to concerns about church involvement in liberal politics, especially left-leaning judges, Weyrich commissioned a poll of evangelical church-goers that reported an overwhelming majority in favor of conservative activism. Falwell expressed interest and a meeting was scheduled for May of that year in Lynchburg, VA. At that meeting, Weyrich offhandedly said, "Out there, there is a moral majority, but it has been separated by denominational and historical differences." Falwell seized on the phrase "Moral Majority" as the name for their new organization, which sought to transcend the traditional divide between evangelical Protestants, conservative Catholics, and neoconservative Jews. The Moral Majority's founders embodied that goal, with three Catholics (Weyrich, Richard Viguerie, and Terry Dolan), a Jew (Howard Phillips), and two fundamentalist Baptists (Falwell and Robert Billings). Falwell hosted the Moral Majority's headquarters in Lynchburg and used his popular radio and television show, the Old Time Gospel Hour which aired on 350 stations, to popularize it with his extensive national audience. The Moral Majority Report, mailed monthly to more than 600,000 people, kept up the drumbeat of American dissolution and the need for social and spiritual revival. The following year, observers credited the Moral Majority with Ronald Reagan's landslide victory over Jimmy Carter in the 1980 presidential election. Despite the fact that Carter, a self-proclaimed "born again" Christian, had won a majority of the evangelical vote in 1976, Reagan, a divorcee with a less reliably religious background, won 61 percent of the evangelical vote to Carter's 34 percent. The Moral Majority's influence continued during Reagan's two terms in office and made Falwell a national name with real influence. For example, when Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin bombed an Iraqi nuclear reactor in the summer of 1981, one of the first people he called in America was Falwell, whom he asked for support in the subsequent American debate over whether to sanction Israeli for the unauthorized action.Yet Reagan's success also was the undoing of the Moral Majority. The Moral Majority had convinced Americans to fight against "secular humanism," pornography, homosexuality, the ERA, and abortion, but replacing a negative crusade with positive goals was harder. They had won and helped place a conservative Republican in the White House, but while Reagan talked a good game on issues that the New Christian Right cared about during his campaigns, he did not spend much of his political capital on those issues once in office. The Moral Majority began having a hard time attracting donations, changed its name in 1986, and was finally dissolved in 1989. The white conservative evangelicals and Catholics that supported it, however, did not fade away quietly into the night. They continued to vote in overwhelming numbers for conservative politicians in the 1990s and 2000s, giving George W. Bush, John McCain, and Mitt Romney more than three quarters of the white evangelical vote from 2000-2012. The Moral Majority had played an important role in mobilizing an entire generation of New Christian Right voters.
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Kennedy, Dennis James
The Fourth Great Awakening
Jerry Falwell preaching- National Portrait Gallery Smithsonian Institution- Gift of Time Magazine
Paul Weyrich- Wikimedia Commons- photo by c.berlet (CC BY-SA 3.0)
Howard Phillips- Wikimedia Commons
Larson, Timothy and David Bebbington and Mark Noll, 2003. Biographical Dictionary of Evangelicals. InterVarsity Press, Downers Grove, Illinois.
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Affliated with: Pennsylvania State University, Ph.D. in History