Host: Bojidar Marinov
Summary: Leaving the details of history for another time, it is worth delving into the real reasons for the failure of the Moral Majority. After all, we in our time have seen the same failure, over and over again, of the religious right. We have also seen the failure of evangelical ministries – no matter how much money we poor into them – to change course of America’s moral downfall. With all these failures, seems like it’s time to start figuring out what led to them.
Recommended Reading: Gary North, ed. Tactics of Christian Resistance
The Failure of the Moral Majority
Welcome to Episode 20 of Axe to the Root Podcast, part of the War Room Productions, I am Bo Marinov, and for the next 20 minutes we will be talking about the Moral Majority, its initial successes and its ultimate failure to produce a dent in the culture or in the political process, or even to slow down the rotting of Washington DC and the local governments. A movement that was so promising at the beginning and even appeared to take the political process in America by storm, within a few years after its first spectacular victory lost momentum – much like the Tea Party in the last several years – and eventually had to disband, or rather surrender to what seemed to be inevitable, namely, the dissolution of the Christian social order inherited from previous generations, and the takeover of the political process by neopaganism.
For those of our listeners who are too young to remember, the Moral Majority was a political organization started in June 1979 with the purpose of fighting the dissolution of Christian morality in the public square and to oppose the political war on traditional family values; it also had the goal to create a permanent Christian presence in American politics, a presence that had been lost in the previous 50 years due to the self-conscious retreat of the majority of American Christians from politics. That new presence would later come to be known as the New Christian Right or simply the Christian Right: a loose movement of politicians, mainly within the Republican Party, political action councils, lobbyist organizations, religious organizations, and media networks, all devoted to pushing what is known as “socially conservative goals,” namely, fighting the laws that allow abortion, public expression and political protection of deviant sexuality, and laws aimed at the undermining the authority of the traditional nuclear family.
Such goals were quite revolutionary at the time, given that the majority of Christians didn’t bother with politics or voting at all. Just a few years earlier, the very founder of the Moral Majority, Jerry Falwell, would advise against political involvement by Christians. The Supreme Court had banned prayer in public schools in 1962, and had ruled against state laws banning abortion in 1973, but these did not produce any movement among the supposedly “conservative” Christian groups. No major denomination responded to the Supreme Court decision; if anything, some groups like the Southern Baptist Convention responded positively, and The Southern Baptists’ General Assembly affirmed a positive stance of approval of abortion in cases of incest, rape, or likelihood of damage to the health of the mother.
The goals were revolutionary, but the American society was ripe for them – or at least, that part of society which was was increasingly concerned about the continuing dissolution of morals, especially in the late 60s and in the 70s. There were previous attempts at creating such political organizations and influencing the political process. The Heritage Foundation was started in 1973. In 1974, the Conservative Caucus was organized. In 1978 Christian Voice was established. Withing the same period, a number of leading Evangelical preachers and evangelists gradually changed their view on political involvement. The wake-up call, of course, was the Roe v. Wade decision of the Supreme Court, but there were other factors as well, for example, the debacle with Jimmy Carter’s pretended faith: Carter garnered the Evangelical vote by claiming to be a born-again Christian but once in office, he was more liberal and anti-Christian than any president before him. The Moral Majority was mainly the fruit of the work of three men: Jerry Falwell, Paul Weyrich, and Howard Phillips. It is sometimes falsely claimed that these three men represented the three main religious groups in the US, Evangelicals (Jerry Falwell), Roman Catholics (Paul Weyrich), and Jews (Howard Phillips). The truth is, Howard Phillips was born in a Jewish family but had converted to Protestantism in the early 1970s; at that time he was already under the influence of Christian Reconstruction and specifically R.J. Rushdoony. (Unfortunately, Mr. Phillips’ Reconstructionist views didn’t take root in the Moral Majority; we would be having a different topic now if they had.) Weyrich and Phillips had previous political experience, both in government and in political activism, being instrumental in the establishment of several previous conservative activist groups. Jerry Falwell didn’t, and he just recently had abandoned his previous position of political non-involvement and had repented for it. But because of his reputation, Jerry Falwell became the central figure in the Moral Majority.
The initial successes of the Moral Majority shocked the political world in the US. Within a year of its founding, the fund-raising campaign brought in millions of dollars from tens of thousands of private donors. The mail list – always an indicator of the success of a public ministry – grew by another hundred thousand within that same year. Given that the Moral Majority was mainly active in the South (economically inferior to the rest of the nation at the time) and had chapters in only 18 states, this was a significant achievement. In one primary after another, candidates supported by the Moral Majority defeated the liberal candidates, and opened the door for a political change that Capitol Hill hadn’t seen since the 1950s. Then, the Moral Majority got involved in the presidential race, just a couple of months before the elections. Ronald Reagan was still trailing Jimmy Carter by a double digit difference. Within a month, the difference was not only closed, but it was Carter trailing Reagan. Within another month, Reagan carried 44 states in what was one of the most astounding victories in America’s politics. Of course, ascribing all of it to the Moral Majority would be an overstatement; many other factors contributed, like the sorry state of the economy, Carter’s foreign policy failures, etc. How much of a factor the Moral Majority was can’t be measured exactly, but one thing was sure: What the historian Godfrey Hodgson called, in an essay of 1976, the “liberal consensus,” was crumbling down. There was no real consensus. America had a silent majority which disagreed with that liberal consensus, and apparently, the Moral Majority found the right message to tap into the power and energy of that silent majority.
But the first disappointments came almost immediately after the election. Ronald Reagan didn’t turn out to be the Moses the evangelicals expected him to be. Always rather uncomfortable when speaking on socially conservative issues, he did nothing against abortion in the first year of his presidency. In addition, he appointed Sandra O’Connor to the Supreme Court, a move heavily opposed by the Moral Majority, with no success: Reagan didn’t change his mind, and some Republicans in the Senate who vowed to vote against her nomination eventually voted for it. Neither the newly elected Republican Congressmen – elected with the support of the Moral Majority – nor the new Republican majority in the Senate initiated anything towards achieving the goals of the New Christian Right.
Almost immediately after the elections, the level of donations started dropping; presumably, since the Moral Majority had betted all on the presidential elections, and since the elections was won by the right candidate, the donors didn’t perceive that the danger was the same as before the election. Throughout the 80s, until the final dismantling, donations continued dropping, even though the leaders continued assuring their followers that there’s much more to be done and achieved. Reagan won his second term hands down, but it was unclear if the Moral Majority had much contribution to that victory. In Congress and the Senate, the candidates of the Moral Majority didn’t show much initiative to promote socially-conservative goals. By the end of Reagan’s second term, the social energy of the Moral Majority was exhausted. So was the war chest, and the contributions were down to nothing. In 1989, ten years after the founding of the Moral Majority, Jerry Falwell disbanded it. His reason was that the goals were achieved. In reality, none were.
Leaving the details of history for another time, it is worth delving into the real reasons for the failure of the Moral Majority. After all, we in our time have seen the same failure, over and over again, of the religious right. We have also seen the failure of evangelical ministries – no matter how much money we poor into them – to change course of America’s moral downfall. With all these failures, seems like it’s time to start figuring out what led to them.
The greatest problem with the Moral Majority can – and could at the time, if they had ears to hear – be derived from Ronald Reagan’s attitude to them. Throughout his campaign, and later in office, Reagan was quite uncomfortable and awkward about their support. Not that he rejected their goals; to the contrary, he continued using the same socially conservative rhetoric as he did before his campaign. But when he came to enacting policies on goals of the Moral Majority, his reply was always the same: “I am not going to waste precious political capital on these goals. We need to take care of the economy first.”
Now, retrospectively, it is easy to blame Ronald Reagan for being hypocritical and not really concerned about the bloody massacre of unborn children in America. But let’s not judge Reagan before we start the judgment from the House of God. At the time, the church itself was not sure yet whether abortion is an important battle to fight at all. Remember, just a few years before Reagan’s election, the Southern Baptist General Assembly was still in favor of abortion. By the early 1980s, there were still not many sermons against abortion. When Operation Rescue started in 1986, the church still hadn’t awaken to the evil of abortion – only a precious minimal number of churches really supported Operation Rescue. (Most big celebrity ministries were against them, and John MacArthur, for example, encouraged the deputy police chief of LA, a deacon in his church, to use force against the rescuers; it resulted in brutal torture of rescuers on the street, and one pregnant mother was kicked by the cops until her baby died in the womb. MacArthur basically saved the abortion clinics in LA from Operation Rescue.) Others, like Bob Jones University, joined the Moral Majority for the wrong reasons – to protect their tax-free status, threatened by the IRS for their racial segregation on campus. Paul Weyrich would later remember that a good number of Christian schools who joined the Moral Majority were concerned more with their tax-exempt status in relation to segregation (calling it “religious liberty”) than with the plight of the unborn. It’s easy now to blame Reagan for not making abortion his priority, but let’s keep in mind that Reagan was only following the church, and the church hadn’t made abortion its priority yet. The judgment must always begin from the House of God.
What is more important is that Reagan’s response, emphasizing other priorities, showed that he considered the Moral Majority a one-issue lobbying group. When your advisors have a comprehensive view, with a strategic view of priorities in the context of a fully consistent worldview, you don’t tell them to go fly a kite until the time of their priorities come. You listen to such advisors. When someone comes obsessed with one issue only, unconcerned about the full picture, you tell them to wait outside. That’s what Reagan did to the Moral Majority.
Don’t get me wrong, abortion is a very serious issue, and I am not trying here to justify Reagan’s lack of concern about it. The truth is, however, that indeed, the Moral Majority had no comprehensive view of reality. Its leaders were focused on one – or may be a couple issues – but they were oblivious to the larger world out there, and had no idea what a Christian strategy should be in such a world. The bewailed the immorality of American politics, but they had no idea what a fully consistent moral politics or civil government would look like. As I pointed out, many of them had the wrong idea about what the right political goals should be – keeping tax-exempt status with racial segregation policies, for example. But even those who had the right priorities – abortion – had no idea how abortion fit in the bigger picture of the American society, and in the bigger picture of the Biblical view of society. Even more precisely, they had no bigger picture. They could see how morality played in certain issues like sodomy and abortion. But they couldn’t see any application of the ethical principles of the Bible in politics in general – taxation, regulations, monetary policies, foreign policy, technology, government schools, unions, etc., etc., etc. in the early 1980s, the American society was facing a number of different challenges from within and from without. The Moral Majority had no answer to any of them, and neither did it have a comprehensive and consistent Biblical worldview to answer any of them in a strategic, consistent manner. It was only concerned with a couple of these challenges, and it had no idea what needed to be done besides electing the right people to power. In a very real sense, the Moral Majority was looking for a Messiah who would know what to do without being helped by the church. Short of a Messiah, they had no plan, and no worldview to make a plan.
This lack of comprehensive worldview also led the leaders Moral Majority to misjudge the real problem and the real immorality in the society. For them, the immoral revolution started some time in the mid-1960s, with the hippies and the sexual revolution and Woodstock; or, in the political arena, with the ban on prayer by the Supreme Court in 1962, or Roe v. Wade in 1973. Somehow, if America could return to the good times of the 1950s, with the prevalence of that American spirit and the traditional values, things would be so good. The problem is, America’s immorality didn’t start in the 1960s,; the events in the 1960s were only a symptom of the true immorality that started much earlier, in the first half of the 20th century. That root immorality, that abandonment of the Christian social order in America was the rise of American nationalism and statism, and the establishment of the Federal government as the supreme lord over America and over every American. The Federal Reserve, the federal income tax, the government schools, the laws restricting immigration, the Social Security Ponzi scheme, individual and corporate welfare (corporate started much earlier, mind this), standing armies and empire abroad – all these were established way before the 1960s, and they all had the purpose of placing enough power in the hands of the Federal government to make any resistance against its policies futile. Abortion and sodomy wouldn’t become part of national politics unless there was an all-powerful federal government – contrary to the earlier, decentralized and individualist Christian social order – which federal government could pass its policies unafraid of any political challenges. But the Moral Majority lacked the worldview and the insight to see the real roots of the problem; it remained silent on that real root. Gary North’s words about this situation are very relevant:
The churches find themselves temporarily outgunned and undermanned in today’s confrontation with the State because conservative, Bible-believing preachers have not been reliable pastors for four generations. They have not called the attention of church members to the inescapable conflict between the society of Satan and God’s society. They have not set forth the principles of righteous, God-ordained civil government, generation after generation. They have neglected the law of God. This was also the sin of the Levites in ancient Israel, and it led to the apostasy and subsequent enslavement of Israel on several occasions.
Pastors have not preached that taxation at 10% or above is immoral by biblical standards (I Sam. 8:15, 17), since it elevates the State to the level of the church, which alone can legitimately collect 10% of one’s increase. They have not warned the flock constantly against fiat money, fractional reserve banking, and the Federal Reserve System, which debases the currency unit, in direct violation of the biblical requirements of honest weights and measures. Christians were politically silent in the United States in 1913, when the sixteenth amendment was passed, establishing the Federal income tax, the same year in which the Federal Reserve System was created.
From the end of the Civil War until the 1960s, conservative critics of the Social Gospel movement had no systematic, Bible-based criticism of the liberals’ social, political, and economic programs. The Social Gospel had its critics, but the critics never attempted to offer a full-scale biblical alternative set of programs.
Even when it came to the central issues that he Moral Majority was concerned about – abortion and sodomy – it had no systematic judicial approach to these issues on the basis of the Bible. The Moral Majority’s sales pitch was, “We are defending the traditional family.” This pitch worked for a while, but then, since the organization’s goals were political, it had to have some form of consistent judicial view of how the civil government should deal with the two evils. Abortion was acknowledged as murder. (Although, not right away; it wasn’t until the Operation Rescue started in 1986 that the Christian Right started referring to abortion as murder.) But the New Christian Right could not bring itself to the point of declaring that abortionists should get the same prevalent civil penalty as that for murder, let alone ask for the Biblical penalty, death. Concerning sodomy, the situation was the same: every state had laws on the books against sodomy, but the Moral Majority never asked for those to be implemented, let alone ask for the Biblical penalty, death. Their defense of the family eventually earned the reputation of wishful thinking; they had no consistent worldview behind their goals, and therefore could have no strategy for achieving them, and no clear vision of what a judicial system would look like if it applied their goals in practice.
The result of this lack of vision of what a Biblical government should look like, the Moral Majority expected its goals to be achieved within the context of the executive federal state developed in the first half of the 20th century – developed by statists like Theodore Roosevelt, Woodrow Wilson, and Franklin Delano Roosevelt – with all its executive agencies and policies, from the Federal Reserve to the system of government schools. But that executive state was, and still is, immoral by its origin; it is not the original social order of the United States, and it certainly has nothing to do with the Biblical view of civil government. The leaders of the Moral Majority didn’t stop to make an analysis of whether it was possible at all to achieve moral goals using the apparatus of a state whose very origin is immoral and anti-Christian. They made the same mistake many conservatives make to day when they say that the public schools are failing or that the Federal Reserve has failed – to the contrary, they are very successful in their assigned tasks. In the same way, the system of Federal government and courts formed in the first half of the 20th century did not fail to maintain a level of morality in the civil sphere – it never had such a purpose. That system was created by the enemies of God with the express purpose to destroy the moral character of government, and to promote immorality by the means of state policies. Jerry Falwell never seemed to have made that connection between the nature of the Federal government and the promotion of immorality as a policy. Even in the last several years of his life, when he tried to revive and restore the Moral Majority, he still didn’t get it, and he still continued trying to seek solutions within the very structure of government which was designed to create the problems in the first place.
And of course, it didn’t help that most of the leaders of the Moral Majority had an eschatology that instilled in both leaders and followers a deeply pessimistic view of the future. Conservatism as a political ideology is by default pessimistic; combined with the pessimism of the premillenial and amillennial eschatology prevalent in the 1980s, it discouraged any positive expectations. The 1980s saw the culmination of end-times books – Hal Lindsey made his best millions during that same period. Others made good money, too, on the same fad. (Remember 88 Reasons to Believe the Rapture Will Be in ‘88?) For all the concern with the moral disintegration of America, most of those who should have supported the Moral Majority preferred to pass; after all, that disintegration was only a fulfillment of the prophecy. The Moral Majority didn’t address this psychology with an optimistic eschatology. To the contrary, its own leaders espoused the same pessimism. Thus, even if they had any comprehensive worldview, they wouldn’t have the emotional and intellectual fuel to prepare a long-term strategy. After all, you don’t polish the brass on a sinking ship; let alone make a plan for its voyages for years ahead. When the Moral Majority was dissolved, no one was surprised. The majority of Christians in the US expected things to get worse.
In the final account, what killed the Moral Majority after its initial successes, was its own lack of comprehensive Biblical worldview, and its lack of optimism for the future. Without these, any organization will spin its wheels for years and will eventually run out of fuel and dissipate its capital. In addition, it won’t be considered seriously by others in the arena; being hyperactive without a clear goal or vision is a sign of insanity, and your enemies eventually notice it. They don’t have to do much to defeat you; leaving you to your own hyperactivity until you run out of fuel is enough. That’s what happened to the Moral Majority.
And that’s what’s going to happen to any organization or movement which do not learn these lessons: that success never comes to those who lack a comprehensive vision and a positive expectation of the future.
The book I will assign this week is Tactics of Christian Resistance, a collection of many essays with editor Gary North. The book was written back in the 1980s, at the time when the Moral Majority was exercising its greatest influence on American politics. If you read the book carefully, you will see that the authors in it predicted the failure of the Moral Majority. And an even more careful reading will help you build your own work and ministry in ways that will give you long-term success.
I read that book in the 1990s, and I based my ministry in Bulgaria on it. That’s why our work there is growing, not by using scare tactics but by preaching a comprehensive worldview and victory of the Gospel in history. Again,My appeal to you all is this: help me grow it even more. Visit BulgarianReformation.com, subscribe to the newsletter, and donate for publishing Christian books in Bulgaria. God bless you all.