Starting in the mid-1970s, a resurgence of political activity began to develop among conservative Christians in the United States. Alarmed by what they perceived to be the moral decline of American society, they sought to introduce a new social agenda into American politics aimed at fighting the forces of secularization. They subsequently established a number of organizations to promote this agenda, the most prominent of which was the Moral Majority. Founded in 1979 by Jerry Falwell, an influential Baptist minister and televangelist, the Moral Majority joined with other political conservatives to promote the restoration of traditional moral values in American society. Falwell and his followers played a significant role in the election of Ronald Reagan to the presidency in 1980, and in following years sought to focus national attention on the controversial topics of abortion, gay rights, pornography, the exclusion of prayer from public schools, and the Equal Rights Amendment. The Moral Majority also advocated conservative positions on a variety of more secular issues, such as a balanced budget and defense spending. In 1989 Falwell disbanded the group, claiming that it had fulfilled its original mission of introducing support for social reform into American politics. Since then, it has continued to serve as a model for political activism among religious conservatives in the United States.
The Moral Majority was established with the support of various religious and political groups wanting to counter the liberal trends that had emerged within American society during the 1960s and 1970s. By mobilizing conservative Christians, they hoped to produce a rightward shift in the balance of power in American politics. To strengthen the influence of the Moral Majority, Falwell also attempted to expand its constituency beyond its original core within the fundamentalist Protestant community. The group thus came to include a diversity of other religious groups, including Mormons, conservative Roman Catholics, and Orthodox Jews. In addition, Falwell did not establish official connections between the Moral Majority and any specific political party, on the grounds that the organization's agenda focused primarily on moral issues rather than politics. In its status as an independent organization, not tied to any party or religious denomination, the Moral Majority represented an extension of existing fundamentalist strategies in the United States, which since the 1920s had concentrated on creating new institutions rather than reforming existing ones.
The Moral Majority proved to be very successful in building its coalition of like-minded conservatives. By the 1980 election, it included upwards of 2 million members, and perhaps twice that many during its peak years in the mid-1980s. In spreading its message to potential members, the Moral Majority used two distinct strategies, again following the approaches adopted by fundamentalist Christians. First, it made extensive use of the mass media, and particularly broadcasting. Falwell himself had gained considerable experience in the media as the host of the Old-Time Gospel Hour, a syndicated religious program dating back to the 1950s. The rapid growth of televangelism during the 1970s and 1980s provided a natural outlet for the Moral Majority's message, and helped it to find a sizable audience. The Moral Majority also benefitted from the attention of the mainstream news media, who saw in Falwell an articulate and readily accessible spokesman for the religious right. Through the extensive news coverage that Falwell received, particularly during the national political campaigns of the early 1980s, the Moral Majority became the leading symbol of the religious right's new political influence.
The other strategy adopted by the Moral Majority in spreading its message focused on the development of an extensive grassroots network. The key elements of this network were the many local chapters of Moral Majority established across the country. These organizations sought to implement the agenda of the Moral Majority at the local level through their involvement in political races and community issues, and they represented the primary vehicle through which the movement's followers became involved in its activities. Although their impact was not as conspicuous as that of the move-ment's national leaders, the local chapters had a lasting influence on religious conservatives by demonstrating the effectiveness of local political action. Local strategies thus became widely adopted by former members as they continued the work of the Moral Majority after it was disbanded in 1989.
Although Falwell asserted that the decision to disband the Moral Majority derived from its success in achieving its goals, a number of factors had contributed to a decline in the group's influence by the end of the 1980s. The Moral Majority faced extensive criticism from political liberals and moderates, who accused the group of trying to impose its own moral and religious views on America's pluralistic society. At the same time, some conservative Christians faulted the Moral Majority for its involvement in secular political issues, arguing that it should focus on its core religious message. Scandals involving televangelists Jim Baker and Jimmy Swaggart during the late 1980s also did much to discredit conservative Christian institutions; and the failure of televangelist Pat Robertson in the 1988 Republican presidential primary cast doubt on the continuing political strength of religious conservatives, at least at the national level.
Despite its relatively brief history as a formal organization, the Moral Majority had a major impact on America's political landscape and, more broadly, its popular culture. It played a key role in reintroducing religion to the realm of public debate, not just by addressing explicitly religious issues, such as school prayer, but by asserting the validity of religious belief as the foundation for public policy decisions, as in the controversy over abortion. Its stand on certain issues, however, produced a strong counterreaction among those Americans who supported feminism, reproductive choice, gay rights, and other liberal social trends, and pushed them to pursue a more active defense of their views. The Moral Majority thus helped to expand the debate between liberals and conservatives in American politics to include a broad range of social issues.
—Roger W. Stump
Fackre, Gabriel J. The Religious Right and Christian Faith. Grand Rapids, Michigan, Eerdmans, 1982.
Georgianna, Sharon. The Moral Majority and Fundamentalism: Plausibility and Dissonance. Lewiston, New York, Edwin Mellen Press, 1989.
Shupe, Anson D., and William A. Stacey. Born Again Politics and the Moral Majority: What Social Surveys Really Show. New York, Edwin Mellen Press, 1982.
In the aftermath of Watergate and the resignation of President Richard Nixon in 1974, millions of evangelical Christians voted for Jimmy Carter for president in 1976, contributing importantly to his narrow victory over Gerald Ford. In that same year, George Gallup reported that as many as fifty million Americans could be described as evangelicals, and Newsweek ran a cover story in which it dubbed 1976 "The Year of the Evangelical." Though disappointed by Carter's presidency, particularly his support of the Equal Rights Amendment, his grudging acceptance of abortion, and his belief that homosexuals should not be discriminated against because of their sexual orientation, conservative Protestants began looking for ways to use their newfound political muscle to push the country in a more rightward direction. At the same time, a tightly knit group of conservative political operatives, associated with such organizations as the Heritage Foundation and the Free Congress Foundation and calling themselves New Right or "movement conservatives," were actively seeking ways to enlist this evangelical army into their movement.
By the end of the 1970s, Jerry Falwell, pastor of the fundamentalist Thomas Road Baptist Church in Lynchburg, Virginia, was beginning to use his broadcast ministry—a half-hour daily radio program aired on approximately 250 stations, and a weekly television program that could be seen on more than 330 stations throughout the nation—to speak against gay rights, abortion, and other issues he traced to the influence of "secular humanism." In 1979, with the encouragement and assistance of New Right leaders, Falwell founded Moral Majority, declaring that it would be "prolife, profamily, promoral, and pro-American." Its stated aims included registering evangelical Christians to vote, informing members about what was going on in Washington and in state legislatures, lobbying to defeat leftist legislation, and pushing for legislation that would protect and advance a conservative social agenda.
Throughout the 1980 election campaign and for several years afterward, Falwell traveled extensively throughout the nation, telling pastors, mostly fundamentalist Independent Baptists, that their duty was "getting people saved, baptized, and registered to vote" and helping them organize chapters of Moral Majority. At the same time, an organization called Religious Roundtable worked to mobilize southern Baptists, and Christian Voice played a comparable role among charismatic and Pentecostal Christians. Because of Falwell's attention-getting message and style and his ubiquitous presence on television and in the press, Moral Majority became the best-known representative and symbol of the movement that came to be called the Christian New Right or, more simply, the Religious Right.
Moral Majority and its allied organizations helped elect Ronald Reagan and a Republican-majority Senate in 1980, but the Religious Right still lacked the political clout and organizational savvy to win significant White House or congressional support for its conservative social agenda. Falwell remained loyal to Reagan, but financial problems with his television ministry and a rapidly expanding Liberty University, of which he was founder and chancellor, demanded his increased attention. In 1986 he quietly disbanded Moral Majority, clearing the way for the appearance of more sophisticated and effective grassroots organizations.
D'Souza, Dinesh. Falwell, Before the Millennium. 1984.
Falwell, Jerry. Listen, America! 1980.
Martin, William. With God on Our Side: TheRiseof theReligious Right in America. 1996.
MORAL MAJORITY. The Reverend Jerry Falwell, an evangelical Christian, formed the Moral Majority, a civic advocacy and a political action group, in 1979. The name was meant to project strength by highlighting and validating the ethical and numerical supremacy of ordinary Americans, especially in rural areas and religious communities, over affluent, urban, and more educated people. Of particular concern were secular, individualistic, liberal movements—including pacifist, gay, and feminist groups—and their impact on private life, popular culture, and public policy. The members of the Moral Majority frequently perceived the modern lifestyle as decadent, promiscuous, self-indulgent, and vacuous. They wanted to challenge its prevalence and its influence.
The essence of the Moral Majority was its religious fundamentalism, which insisted upon reliance on a strict interpretation of the Christian version of the Bible, a belief in God's moral authority as conveyed to people and imparted by the clergy, and an awareness of His close supervision of human deeds. The agenda was socially conservative, anticommunist, populist, and nationalist. It exuded pride in the traditional American heritage of freedom and piety, but also reacted against the perceived excesses of the 1960s often embodied in the Democratic Party.
The Moral Majority supported collective prayer in public schools, the widespread teaching of Christian scriptures as superior to the findings of modern science, as in its support of creationism, and lobbied for these goals throughout the United States. The group took a strict pro-life stance, advocating the reversal of the U.S. Supreme Court's decision in Roe v. Wade (1973) that permitted abortions. Although that campaign failed, a growing public awareness of the claim that life begins at conception was achieved and a dismay at abortions—especially those performed in the last trimester of the pregnancy—grew measurably.
The Moral Majority also played a role in blocking the adoption of the Equal Rights Amendment, which was supported by women's organizations, as defending vulnerable members of society. The Moral Majority objected to the promotion and the protection of homosexual rights, with varying results in individual states. It denounced nuclear disarmament agreements with the Soviet Union, notably the two phases of the Strategic Arms Limitation Treaty, SALT I and II. The group's major accomplishment was its voter registration and fund-raising activities in 1980, which propelled conservative candidates, primarily Republicans—including presidential nominee Ronald Reagan—to local and national offices.
On 10 June 1989, Falwell announced that "our mission is accomplished" and dissolved the Moral Majority, effective 31 August 1989. The surviving organization most resembling it was the Liberty Foundation.
Wilcox, Clyde. Onward Christian Soldiers? The Religious Right in American Politics. 2d ed. Boulder, Colo.: Westview Press, 2000.