The Rise of American Fundamentalism – The Year 1980

Aug 18 2011 Published by under Uncategorized

Jerry Falwell and Ronald Reagan

If the 70s were bad for America, the 1980s would be worse. By 1980 the Moral Majority, established in 1979 by Jerry Falwell, had organizations in 18 states, mostly in Sun Belt states.[1] Falwell’s message to his Christian soldiers was to “get them saved, get them Baptized, and get them registered.” Thousands of fundamentalist preachers participated in political training seminars in 1980 and by June, more than 2 million voters had been registered as Republicans. There was no mistaking either the intent or the method adopted to impose conservative Christian views on the country.

The full scope of the threat facing the country was revealed by Paul Weyrich, who, speaking in Dallas said, “We are talking about Christianizing America. We are talking about simply spreading the gospel in a political context.” This was the birth of Republican political theology that is now so much a part of our political landscape.

Also in 1980, Christian Voice (CV), which had been organized in 1978 by Robert Grant, Gary Jarmin and Colonel Donor in order to combat gay rights, created an associated group, Christians for Reagan, focusing on voter registration and issues such as gay rights, pornography, school prayer, and the Equal Rights Amendment.[2]

Ronald Reagan himself, eager to catch a cresting wave when he could, continued to draw the Religious Right into politics. Campaigning nationally in 1980, he continued with the anti-evolution narrative he had developed during his time as governor of California (1967-1975), and pronounced that “great flaws” existed in evolutionary theory and that public schools should therefore teach the “biblical story of creation” as well.[3]

On April 29-30, 1980 Washington for Jesus was founded by John Giminez, the pastor of Rock Church in Virginia Beach, Virginia. Religious leaders present included Pat Robertson, Jerry Falwell, Dr. William Bright, and Benson Idahosa. The noose around Democracy was tightening.

William Bright said during the rally:

“It’s no mystery. We’ve turned from God and God is chastening us. Laugh if you will. The critics will laugh. And they’ll make fun. But I’ll tell you, this is God’s doing. You go back to 1962 and ‘3 and you’ll discover a series of plagues that came upon America. First, the assassination of President Kennedy. The war in Vietnam accelerated. The drug culture swept millions of young people into the drug scene. The youth revolution. Crime accelerated over 300 percent in a brief period of time. Racial conflict threatened to tear our nation apart. The Watergate scandal. The divorce rate accelerated. There were almost as many divorces as marriages. And there was an epidemic of teenage pregnancies, an epidemic of venereal disease, an epidemic of drug addiction, an epidemic of alcoholism. And now, we are faced with a great economic crisis… God is saying to us, “Wake up! Wake up! Wake up!”

Speaking in Dallas on August 21, 1980, Reagan himself said “Religious America is awakening.”[4] According to PBS that speech was the “first National Affairs Briefing of the Religious Roundtable, a caucus founded to involve evangelicals in mainstream politics.”  As PBS puts it, “The event has been described as nothing less than “the marriage ceremony between Southern Baptists and the Republican Party.” Religious and secular conservatives realized the advantage of joining political forces to confront pressing social issues. With Jerry Falwell, Pat Robertson and other prominent evangelicals in attendance, Reagan addressed the crowd of 15,000 Christian conservatives.” He said, “I endorse you.”

And they endorsed him. Jimmy Carter had been a disappointment. Now they had another avenue into the Oval Office.

By this time, Christian Reconstructionism had become more of a threat to democracy: “Since 1980 much of Pentecostalism has begun to adopt aspects of Reconstructionism or dominion theology,”[5] bringing Reconstructionism more into the religious mainstream.

As observes, “In the 1980 elections, the newly politicized Religious Right succeeded in unseating five of the most liberal Democrat incumbents in the U.S. Senate, and provided the emerging that helped Ronald Reagan defeat Jimmy Carter.”

Unsurprisingly, as William Martin Chavanne observes, “In the 1980 election, Falwell’s Moral Majority was the most visible representative of what came to be called the Religious Right.” In 2002, Falwell would remember Reagan as a “Christian hero”:

I will remember Mr. Reagan primarily for his relationship with the evangelical Christian community in our nation. We had long been shut out of the White House when Mr. Reagan took office. But he realized that this community was largely responsible for his election and held the key to stalling our nation’s moral collapse. Many churches had organized (quite legally) voter registration drives through the help of my Moral Majority because we believed Mr. Reagan could make a difference in our nation.

We brought millions of new voters to the polls in 1980. We reactivated millions of discouraged religious conservatives who, though registered to vote, had given up on America. We believed we were electing the man who could return America to moral sanity. And he did not let us down.

He was pro-life. He affirmed the Judeo-Christian values of our Founders. And he respected the presidency (unlike our 42nd president).

Nonetheless, John C. Green argues that the Christian Right’s strategy did not really “jell” and that “in general, the Christian Right failed to impress the electorate” – that in 1980 “the Right demonstrated the same capacities as other narrow-gauged interest groups; it mobilized enough activists to influence some statewide and local races, especially in low-visibility, low-turnout, primaries and caucuses; raised modest sums for favored candidates…and added a few voters to the conservative totals.” In other words, he says, “The Christian Right…fulfilled neither the hopes of its friends nor the fears of its foes.”[6]

Still, with the 1980 election behind them and a president in the White House, American fundamentalism had every reason to believe they could only build onto this success as the decade of the 80s began.


The Antecedents of American Fundamentalism 1606-1925
The Rising Tide of American Fundamentalism in the 1940s and 50s
The Cresting Tide of American Fundamentalism in the 1960s
American Fundamentalism in the 70s – The Rise of the Moral Majority

Image from PBS.og


[1] Liebman, Robert and Robert Wuthnow, The New Christian Right  (New York: Aldine Publishing Company, 1983),  31-32

[2] Glenn H. Utter, John Woodrow Storey, The Religious Right: A Reference Handbook (ABC-CLIO, 2001), 169

[3] Mooney, 2005:36

[4] Mooney, 2005:37

[5] Frederick Clarkson, c0-founder of from his article “No Longer Without Sheep

[6] John C. Green, Religion and the Culture Wars: Dispatches from the Front: 21


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