Editor’s Note: The Rev. Jerry Falwell, founder of the Moral Majority, died on May 15. Two days after his death, Church & State Assistant Editor Rob Boston prepared this report, “The Religious Right After Falwell: Less Visible But More Powerful Than Ever,” to assess the strength of the Religious Right in the post-Falwell era.
The May 15 death of Moral Majority founder Jerry Falwell marks a point of passage for the Religious Right, but it does not mean that politically active fundamentalist Christians are in decline or that their movement is fading. Here’s why.
Falwell was an important figure in the early days of the Religious Right, but his influence had waned considerably in recent years. The Lynchburg, Va., televangelist shut down his Moral Majority in 1989, after a decade of political activity, to spend more time on building his Liberty University. Although Falwell still frequently appeared in the media and worked through various religious and educational organizations, he never recovered his former prominence.
Lessons Learned From Falwell’s Failings
The new breed of Religious Right leaders has learned from Falwell’s mistakes. Falwell’s rhetoric was often intemperate. While they made for lively television, his over-the-top remarks probably alarmed more people than they attracted. Even in his home state of Virginia, polls showed Falwell with high negative ratings.
Falwell also failed to truly cultivate the grassroots. By the time the Moral Majority collapsed, it had become apparent that the group was essentially a large mailing list with little local presence. By contrast, groups like the Christian Coalition saw the value in local organizing. The Coalition, founded by TV preacher Pat Robertson, at one time had viable chapters in most states and even some at the county level.
The Christian Coalition emphasized working within the Republican Party to achieve its goals. The group paid attention to local races as well as national ones. Employing a political model that stressed activity at the party precinct level, the Christian Coalition achieved great success in influencing the Republican Party and making certain that candidates seeking the presidency met rigid ideological litmus tests. While the Coalition has followed the Moral Majority into eclipse, the fundamentalist voting bloc in the GOP ensures that its theocratic agenda still has enormous power.
Even though Falwell and Robertson no longer have significant political operations, GOP presidential candidates this year have lined up to seek the TV preachers’ expressions of support.
Religious Right Image Makeover
The Religious Right has changed its public relations approach in the years since Falwell launched the Moral Majority. Movement leaders today are less likely to seek the kind of media notoriety that Falwell relished. Some Religious Right leaders, such as Colorado-based powerhouse James Dobson, shun almost all mainstream media interviews, using their own broadcast channels to spread their views. Other organizational spokespersons have toned down their public rhetoric – especially when speaking to general audiences through the mass media.
The emphasis is often on non-threatening terms like “family values” and “traditional values.” Arguments are made that all these groups want is “a place at the table.” They have let up on the triumphalist rhetoric and often couch their arguments in terms of “religious freedom.”
Thus, today’s Religious Right is much more sophisticated.
Religious Right Powerhouses
Religious Right groups are better organized and often operate from multi-million-dollar, tax-exempt broadcasting or denominational empires.
Consider the following:
• Dr. James Dobson’s Focus on the Family radio/publishing outfit brought in $137 million in fiscal year 2005. Dobson sat in the front row at the White House May 3 and was personally welcomed by President George W. Bush during a National Day of Prayer observance. Republican presidential candidates seek Dobson’s endorsement, and Republican leaders in Congress fear him. (Former House Speaker Newt Gingrich went on Dobson’s radio show to profess repentance for moral failings in his marriages.) Dobson, in addition to his sprawling Colorado Springs-based headquarters, has political affiliates in 30 states.
• Tony Perkins’ Family Research Council (FRC) serves as James Dobson’s beachhead in Washington, D.C. The FRC, with a budget of $10.8 million in fiscal year 2006, lobbies for the Religious Right agenda in the nation’s capital. Later this year, the group is sponsoring a mass gathering to vet Republican presidential candidates and mobilize evangelical voters in preparation for the 2008 elections.
• The Rev. Pat Robertson’s Christian Broadcasting Network (CBN) took in $236 million in contributions in fiscal year 2005. It claims nearly a million daily viewers. Robertson uses CBN to spread his – often shrill – religious-political message nationwide, and right-wing politicians and Republican political candidates are often showcased on his “700 Club” program.
• The Rev. Donald Wildmon’s American Family Association (AFA) targets “anti-family” forces in America. He rails against gay people and launches boycotts of companies with gay-friendly policies. Based in Tupelo, Miss., the AFA has a limited Washington presence, and thus operates beneath the mainstream media radar. However, Wildmon oversees a radio empire of more than 170 stations, and his AFA revenues reach $17 million annually.
• The Southern Baptist Convention (SBC) is firmly in the grip of far-right fundamentalists, and its leadership pushes a Religious Right agenda. The SBC is the largest Protestant denomination in America with some 16 million members. SBC top lobbyist Dr. Richard Land acts as a powerbroker in the Republican Party, declaring which presidential candidates are acceptable to evangelical Christian voters. Land’s office works alongside Religious Right groups to lobby on “moral” concerns in Washington, and its attorneys often file court briefs on the side of the Religious Right in court cases.
• The Rev. Louis P. Sheldon’s Traditional Values Coalition (TVC) is a specialized Religious Right operation. While it takes stands on a wide range of issues in Washington and in its California home base, it is known for its strident attacks on gays. In fiscal year 2005, it operated with an annual budget of $6 million. TVC is typical of an array of smaller Religious Right organizations that influence public policy.
The Religious Right’s Reach In The Courts And Other Government Venues
The Religious Right’s influence reaches deep into all three branches of government. In the courts, Religious Right legal groups press their views on a range of social issues, arguing for more religion in public schools and against church-state separation, abortion rights and legal protections for gay people.
The Alliance Defense Fund, an Arizona-based legal group founded by Dobson, Wildmon and other Religious Right figures, has an annual budget of over $26 million. Pat Robertson’s American Center for Law and Justice (ACLJ) pulled in $14.5 million in fiscal year 2004. The ACLJ is so powerful it has helped vet the Bush administration’s Supreme Court nominees.
This crusade often comes with assistance from the Justice Department, which has a special unit devoted to “religious liberty” concerns. The Supreme Court is increasingly stacked with right-wing appointees, thanks to a decades-long pressure campaign by Religious Right operatives.
Robertson’s Regent University contains a law school and claims to have 150 graduates working in the Bush administration. (Former Attorney General John Ashcroft teaches at Regent.) Falwell’s Liberty University has a Bible-based law school as well.
Meanwhile, in Congress a Republican-sponsored Values Action Team meets weekly with Religious Right leaders to coordinate and strategize.
Influencing Both Political Parties
The Religious Right’s role in the Republican Party is now secure. During primary elections, its activists make up such a large percentage of GOP voters that candidates ignore them at their peril. Recent events bear this out, as candidates like John McCain, Mitt Romney and Rudy Giuliani have adopted more conservative stands to appeal to social conservatives.
While Religious Right leaders have yet to identify a presidential favorite, their influence in the race is undeniable. McCain, after identifying Robertson and Falwell as “agents of intolerance” in 2000, appeared as the commencement speaker at Falwell’s Liberty University last year. Romney appeared at Robertson’s Regent University this year.
Recognizing the movement’s power, even some Democrats have sought to court the evangelical Christian bloc. Democratic advisers increasingly stress the importance of reaching out to “people of faith.” In 2006, one top party adviser even told candidates not to use the phrase “separation of church and state” because it might turn off church-goers.
Religious Right Goals
There are no signs that the Religious Right is moderating its agenda. The movement seeks to scale back church-state separation and bring in a government that reflects “Christian” values. In keeping with fundamentalist theology, activists seek to ban all abortions, deny civil rights protections for gays, fund religious schools and other ministries with tax dollars and teach the Bible and creationism in public schools.
At Religious Right conferences to rally the faithful, the speeches and tactics are as controversial as ever. The crowd is treated to generous amounts of gay bashing alongside attacks on Democrats, liberals, legal abortion, public education and the church-state wall. At last year’s Family Research Council “Washington Briefing,” one preacher referred to gay people as “sissies,” “faggots” and “sodomites.” Another speaker urged church members to use deceptive phone bank techniques to win votes for favored candidates.
So-called “moderate evangelicals” are a hot media topic right now, but there is precious little evidence that this movement has clout or that it even exists in significant numbers. While many evangelical leaders cringe at the shrill rhetoric from leaders like Robertson, few have taken a public stance against Religious Right extremism. In addition, many moderate evangelicals tend to layer a few issues like global warming on top of a very anti-church-state separation, anti-choice, anti-gay agenda. To the extent that moderate evangelicals exist at the organizational level, their movement is dwarfed by the political influence and money of the Religious Right.
Jerry Falwell’s death marks the passing of an era. He was a member of the Religious Right’s founding generation. But Falwell was merely one midwife of the crusade to blend ultra-conservative politics and fundamentalist religion. He was not the entire movement; indeed, the Religious Right he helped shape left him behind some years ago as it matured.Certainly there are many Religious Right activists who will miss Falwell’s energy and leadership. However, they are faced with no lack of replacement leaders.