The Rise of American Fundamentalism – the Reagan Decade

Aug 20 2011 Published by under Uncategorized

This Reagan Display Epitomizes the Republican Attitude Toward the Modern World

I left off last time with the election as president of “Christian hero” Ronald Reagan, largely on the shoulders of Jerry Falwell’s Moral Majority, a group which would not quite last out the decade claiming a victory that wasn’t. Reagan and the Moral Majority would prove to be a disaster for America, in more ways than one.

The religious right’s opposition to environmentalism is well known. What is less well known is that from1981-83 James Watt, Reagan’s first secretary of the interior, “was a fervent antienvironmentalist with strong ties to the religious right.”[1]

And the Reagan support for creationism continued throughout his presidency (1981-89). Reagan’s science advisor (1981-85) – a physicist of all things – even refused to repudiate creationism! As Chris Mooney writes, “The Reagan administration’s sympathizes with creation ism signaled a new development for the Republican Party and conservatism more generally.”[2] These new flat-Earthers got a shot in the arm that has in the past few years given them far-reaching influence in American education. Science was thrown under the bus to satisfy Reagan’s religiously conservative supporters, including, especially, Jerry Falwell.

Falwell, meanwhile, now that he had his Christian hero in the White House, wasn’t resting on his laurels; in the early 1980s he “barnstormed the country, speaking to countless congregations and pastors’ breakfasts and logging 250,000 miles a year on a chartered plane.”

Timothy LaHaye co-founded and was first president of the Council for National Policy (CNP): “The CNP was founded in 1981 as an umbrella organization of right-wing leaders who would gather regularly to plot strategy, share ideas and fund causes and candidates to advance the far-right agenda.” If the Moral Majority could get Christians elected to the highest office, the CNP could guide their hands.

In 1983, James Dobson, host of radio show Focus on the Family, founded the Family  Research Council to act as the political lobbying arm of his radio show. FRC’s brag is that “Since 1983, Family Research Council (FRC) has advanced faith, family and freedom in public policy and public opinion.”

The war on Women’s Reproductive Rights also heated up in 1986 when Randall Terry founded Operation Rescue, the anti-abortion group that blockades abortion clinics. Suddenly actual political issues were becoming less the focus of the Republican Party than so-called social issues but what are in reality moral issues based on a narrow Christian understanding of what is and is not moral. What is today called the “culture war” is in reality a war of naked aggression waged by fundamentalist Christianity on a free and open society.

In 1987 the seemingly deranged ex-Baptist minister and televangelist Pat Robertson formed the “Christian Coalition of America“, a Christian advocacy group. According to the incorporation records of the State of Virginia the Christian Coalition, Inc. was actually incorporated on April 30, 1987, with the paperwork filed earlier (1989 is the date given on the cc.org website). We will hear from the Christian coalition again when we get around to reviewing 1990.

I mentioned the infiltration of Pentecostalism by Christian Reconstructionism in my last article. “Following a 1987 Reconstructionst/Pentecostal theological meeting, Joseph Morecroft exclaimed: “God is blending Presbyterian theology with charismatic zeal into a force that cannot be stopped!”[3] Perhaps it cannot be stopped but as of 2011 it also has not triumphed, for which we must be grateful, though the Rick Perry presidential campaign has a strong reconstructionists component, as does that of Michele Bachmann.

If they had not already, by March 1986 Americans began to discover the method by which fundamentalism was successfully infiltrating the Republican Party:  Joan Bokaer was on a speaking tour in Iowa and received a copy of a memo Pat Robertson had distributed to the Iowa Republican Council Caucus. She writes that from this memo it was clear that,

“[O]ne of their tactics was to tie up the meetings for hours until people left. Then they appointed themselves leaders and made key decisions. Once they took over the local leadership throughout the State of Iowa, they could control the state party apparatus. After their success in the Iowa ’88 primary, they used the same tactic in several other states — precinct by precinct.”

They also began to understand the extent of this infiltration. The demographics of Republican political theology are made clear by 1987, as William Martin Chavanne relates: thirty-five percent of White Evangelical Protestants were calling themselves Republicans. White Evangelical Protestants made up one-quarter of the Republican Party.

Robert Wuthnow writes that in 1988 “the vast majority of members in most denominations and faiths hold positive views toward one another” noting as exceptions culturally conservative religious groups evangelicals, Seventh-Day Adventists, Christian fundamentalists, Pentecostals, and Mormons.[4]

The irony of the above Wuthnow quote is that as historian Clinton Rossiter points out,

“Under the pressure of the American environment, Christianity grew more humanistic and temperate – more tolerant with the struggle of the sects, more liberal with the growth of optimism and nationalism, more experimental with the rise of science, more individualistic with the advent of democracy. Equally important, increasing numbers of colonists, as a legion of preachers loudly lamented, were turning secular in curiosity and skeptical in attitude.”[5]

But humanism and tolerance were thrown under the bus by the increasingly fundamentalist Christianity of the 1980s.

In 1988 fundamentalists hit a road-block when Pat Robertson ran for president and lost in the primaries to George H.W. Bush, who had the support of most conservative Christian voters.

Dolce and Maio write that “In 1988 the public did not see fundamentalists as crossing the line into conventional partisan politics. Religious controversy, evangelical political activism, and conflicts over abortion, prayer in school, and gay rights were viewed as skirmishes taking place on the fringes of the political and ideological mainstream.” The Religious Right was viewed “by partisans of all stripes as outsiders and at the margins of respectability.”[6]

In 1977 while he was engaged in riling up comedian George Carlin with his campaign against such television shows as M*A*S*H, Three’s Company and Dallas, Methodist Donald Wildmon had founded a group known as the National Federation for Decency; in 1988 it was renamed the American Family Association, an organization that would later by designated a hate group by the Southern Poverty Law Center and which was to become a force to be reckoned with in the first decade of the 21st century, strongly supporting Rick Perry’s candidacy for president.

Though it had closed its doors in 1987, Falwell officially disbanded the Moral Majority in 1989, claiming victory: “Our goal has been achieved…The religious right is solidly in place and…religious conservatives in America are now in for the duration.”[7] After the Moral Majority was disbanded, elements of the organization were transferred to the Christian Coalition network initiated by Pat Robertson.[8] The Moral Majority and Ronald Reagan might have been gone, but the war for America’s soul was far from over as America prepared to embark on a new decade.

READ ALL THE ARTICLES IN THIS SERIES:

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
The Rise of American Fundamentalism – The Year 1980


[1] Paul Krugman,  The Conscience of a Liberal  New York: 2007:161

[2] Mooney, 2005:36. That science advisor was George Keyworth, who later served as chairman and senior fellow of a technology think tank, the Progress & Freedom Foundation, which closed its doors in 2010.

[3] Frederick Clarkson, co-founder of Talk2action.org, “No Longer Without Sheep

[4] Robert Wuthnow, The Restructuring of American Religion, Society and Faith Since World War II (Princeton, 1988:91-92.

[5] Clinton Rossiter, Seedtime of the Republic, 1953.

[6] Dolce and Maio 1999:47

[7] Allitt, Patrick, Religion in America Since 1945: A History (New York: Columbia University Press, 2003),  198.

[8] Matthews, Terry. “The Christian Coalition-Part II“, RELIGION 166: Religious Life in the United States, Wake Forest University

 

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