A History of Christian Right Political Activism
In 1979, a group of Barry Goldwater campaign veterans, including Paul Weyrich, Richard Viguerie and Howard Phillips, saw an opportunity to recruit social conservatives to the Republican Party. Evangelicals had recently emerged as an important political force - they helped elect one of their own, Democrat Jimmy Carter, to the presidency in 1976 - and Weyrich and his colleagues had a plan to lure these voters to the GOP. To do so, they tapped a charismatic but fairly obscure Baptist televangelist named Jerry Falwell to head the Moral Majority, an organisation whose founding marked the beginning of the modern religious right.
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It's hard to believe now, when evangelicals and fundamentalists make up the most organized bloc in American politics, but before the Moral Majority a person's churchgoing habits didn't tell you much about how they voted, and politicians weren't expected to make lavish displays of their piety. The notion of church/state separation, now widely regarded by Republicans as part of a devious war against Christianity, was a widely shared principle. Falwell himself once denounced preachers who got involved in governance, though not out of devotion to a secular republic: As a committed segregationist, he decried the work of Martin Luther King Jr, saying, "Preachers are not called to be politicians, but to be soul winners."
What changed? The religious right's creation myth holds that Roe v Wade so outraged the faithful that they could no longer sit passively on their pews. As the Columbia University historian Randall Balmer has shown, this is nonsense. The Southern Baptist Convention, Falwell's denomination, was officially pro-choice throughout the 1970s; anti-abortion activism was seen as the province of Catholics, a group then widely despised by fundamentalist Protestants. No, what really galvanized the religious right were Supreme Court rulings stripping whites-only Christian academies, like the one Falwell founded in 1966, of their tax-exempt status. Fervent opposition to abortion, which eventually cemented the alliance between conservative Protestant and Catholics, came later.
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