The Cresting Tide of American Fundamentalism in the 1960s

Aug 11 2011 Published by under Uncategorized

Just as the conservative religious resurgence of the 40s and 50s would have been impossible without the nascent fundamentalist movement of the 20s, so the coalescence of religious and political conservatism would have been impossible without the events of the events of the 40s and 50s. Nothing takes place in a vacuum; everything has a context.

It isn’t until the 1960s that Christian fundamentalism began to infiltrate the Republican Party. Depending upon how things turn out for us today, this might someday be seen by historians as the beginning of the end of the American experiment.  Fortunately that is an outcome we can still influence. America has always shaped her own fate and she will shape it still, through us.

But the past is a lost opportunity we can only do our best to understand – and learn from. In 1961, televangelist Pat Robertson, who was to become such a polarizing force on the American religious and political landscape, founded the Christian Broadcasting Network (CBN). Just a year later, he had something to talk about – 1962’s Engle v. Vitale, which determined that it was unconstitutional for state officials to compose an official school prayer and require its recitation in public schools.

Conservatives then as now look at this as a law banning school prayer. It is not. It was never that, however much they insist upon it. Engle v. Vitale did not ban school prayer. Students were still free to pray individually or in groups. All it did was conform school prayer to the demands of the First Amendment. Public schools do not have the right to teach our children to be Christians.

Another seminal event occurred in 1963.

On June 17, 1963 Abington Township School District v. Schempp (consolidated with Murray v. Curlett), 374 U.S. 203 (1963) declared school-sponsored Bible reading in public schools in the United States to be unconstitutional.

Again, it did not ban school prayer or “kick god out of schools” as has been claimed by the Religious Right. As Charles C. Haynes of the First Amendment Center writes, the ruling “requires that teachers and administrators neither promote nor denigrate religion — a commitment to state neutrality that protects the religious freedom of students of all faiths and no faith.”

But just as disagreeing with a fundamentalist is seen as persecution of that fundamentalist, so equality is seen as an attack on Christianity. The New York Times September 28, 1996, reports that one view is that “it was the Supreme Court decisions restricting school prayer and Bible reading in the classroom that truly ignited the religious right as the 1960-s began.”

This view is almost certainly right, even though – as is nearly everything coming out of that religious right – it was a lie. First the threat of communism, and then the perceived attack on Christian privilege, was used to motivate Christian conservatives to involve themselves in politics just as liberalism, feminism, atheism, science, Women’s Reproductive Rights and Marriage Equality are today.

Unsurprisingly, 1963 saw the founding of the Creation Research Society (CRS) promoting creationism, that the Bible is the “written word of God”. “The CRS advocates the concept of special creation (as opposed to evolution)” and they claim to “not engage in any political lobbying.” From here on out, Christianity would push creationism’s scientific pretensions[1] and this movement is anything but apolitical.

The stage was now set for Barry Goldwater’s failed 1964 campaign for president. The GOP, which had embraced a bigger tent in the 50s, now went the other direction.  As the New York Times observed in their September 28, 1996 issue

“Barry Goldwater’s 1964 campaign brought many evangelicals into active politicking.” It was then that religious conservatives got a toe-hold in the GOP that they never relinquished.

What was the attraction of religious conservatives to the GOP? “The Christian Right’s involvement in nomination politics parallels its involvement in Republican party organizations. Surely some of this interest reflects the natural affinity of conservative activists for the more conservative party. But there is much more at stake. Participation in the GOP offers the Christian Right two important benefits: direct access to the process of candidate recruitment, and, more importantly, a forum through which to build coalitions.”[2]

Goldwater’s defeat in 1964 was the impetus for the formation of the “New Right” which linked itself to the Religious Right. This New Right included Goldwater strategist Paul Weyrich, who recognized in the Goldwater election the untapped potential of religious conservatives in the Republican cause. Ironically, Goldwater wasn’t a part of this unholy marriage. As he said in a speech to the U.S. Senate on 16 September 1981:

On religious issues there can be little or no compromise. There is no position on which people are so immovable as their religious beliefs. There is no more powerful ally one can claim in a debate than Jesus Christ, or God, or Allah, or whatever one calls this supreme being. But like any powerful weapon, the use of God’s name on one’s behalf should be used sparingly. The religious factions that are growing throughout our land are not using their religious clout with wisdom. They are trying to force government leaders into following their position 100 percent. If you disagree with these religious groups on a particular moral issue, they complain, they threaten you with a loss of money or votes or both.

I’m frankly sick and tired of the political preachers across this country telling me as a citizen that if I want to be a moral person, I must believe in “A,” “B,” “C” and “D.” Just who do they think they are? And from where do they presume to claim the right to dictate their moral beliefs to me?

And I am even more angry as a legislator who must endure the threats of every religious group who thinks it has some God-granted right to control my vote on every roll call in the Senate. I am warning them today: I will fight them every step of the way if they try to dictate their moral convictions to all Americans in the name of “conservatism.”

So here we have the forces of reaction – reacting against modernism and secularism, reacting to communism and then to the 1964 rebuff to America’s conservative political party, beginning the process of subsuming that political party. It seems almost a natural next step now, looking back. Billy Graham had already stated it plainly:  “If you would be a true patriot, then become a loyal Christian.”

Conservatives began to take this idea to heart: they already had a good start on their revision of America’s purpose, from a secular union embracing the idea embodied by our first national motto, E Pluribus Unum (Out of Many, One) to “In God We Trust.” They had gotten “under God” added to the pledge of allegiance and had a national day of prayer institutionalized by Congress. They had significantly failed to pass an amendment making America beholden to Jesus but they weren’t through yet, as events would prove. We will cover the 1970s in the next article.


[1] Chris Mooney, The Republican War on Science (2005), 38.

[2] John C. Green, “The Christian Right and the 1994 Elections: An Overview,” in God at the Grass Roots: The Christian Right in the 1994 Elections ed. by Mark J. Rozell, Clyde Wilcox (1994), 13



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