The Rise of American Fundamentalism 1994-1997

Aug 24 2011 Published by under Uncategorized

The decade of the 90s is a story of changing attitudes, both those of the Christian right and among the population at large. We looked last time at the growing antipathy on the part of fundamentalists for the Other and this was to some extent reciprocated. Dolce and Maio find that in the period from 1988-96, “roughly one-fifth of respondents expressed intensely hostile feelings toward fundamentalism, that is, they rated members of this religious group no higher than they rated illegal aliens…The 36 percent who expressed negative feelings toward fundamentalists in the 1988 ANES sample are roughly the same proportion who told Gallup in 1989 that they did not want Christian fundamentalists as their neighbors”[1]

Not only did fundamentalists increasingly reject not only liberals and moderates within Republican ranks, but Frederick Clarkson, co-founder of writes that “As recently as the early 1990s, most evangelicals viewed Reconstructionists as a band of misfits without a following. All that has changed, along with the numbers and character of the Christian Right. The world of evangelicalism and, arguably, American politics generally will never be the same.”

By 1994 Christian fundamentalists had become popularly associated with the Republican Party and it has remained so ever since. Data from the 1994/96 Election Cycles show that “now many nonfundamentalists had begun to worry that the GOP was being ‘hijacked’ by fundamentalists.”[2] This revelation seems long in coming from the perspective of hindsight, and in any case, nobody seemed able to do anything about it. It was already far too late.

This Republican Party’s new political theology was all about religious intervention in politics in order to push a wide-ranging social agenda. As notes, “By election time in 1994 Christian Coalition had distributed 40 million copies of the “Family Values Voter’s Guide” in more than 100,000 churches nationwide.”

And it wasn’t love they were selling, or forgiveness, or tolerance. Christian apologist Josh McDowell, at a Youth for Christ rally in 1994, echoed the cry of Randall Terry in 1993: “Tolerance is the worst roar of all, including tolerance for homosexuals, feminists, and religions that don’t follow Christ.”[3] People in the 40s were right to fear  Youth for Christ and what it represented.

The Republican Revolution of 1994, what calls “a watershed year,” saw Republicans gain control of the House of Representatives for the first time in four decades and made huge inroads in State legislatures. points out that, disturbingly, “Out of forty-five new members in the U.S. House of Representatives and nine in the U.S. Senate in 1994, roughly half were Christian Coalition candidates.” Those 40 million voting guides had had the desired effect, informing Christian soldiers all over America where to direct their votes.

William Martin Chavanne: “1992, 1994 and, it appears, in 1996, they [the Religious Right] won about forty percent of the elections they were involved in.” It would turn out they had help, as a scandal involving up and coming conservative Christian superhero, Ralph Reed, would soon show.

John C. Green writes that “[T]he real story of the Christian Right is the steady growth in size and sophistication of a modern political movement, which like other movements, has both strengths and weaknesses.:  He notes that the “key to clarifying the movement’s role in 1994 is understanding that religion is an important factor in American politics, but that there are also limits to its influence.”[4] But limits, as America would find out soon enough, are not something the Religious Right is prepared to recognize. They want it all.

And then, as if to put an exclamation point on the events of the past thirty years, in May 1995 Time Magazine called 33-year-old Ralph Reed “The Right Hand of God” and credits the Christian Coalition with giving the Republicans their victories.

Randall Terry, founder of Operation Rescue, was meanwhile doubling down on the hate he expressed two years previously. At the Aug 8, 1995 U.S. Taxpayers Alliance Banquet in Washington DC, talking about doctors who perform abortions and volunteer escorts] he said:

“When I, or people like me, are running the country, you’d better flee, because we will find you, we will try you, and we will execute you. I mean every word of it. I will make it part of my mission to see to it that they are tried and executed… If we’re going to have true reformation in America, it is because men once again, if I may use a worn out expression, have righteous testoserone flowing through their veins. They are not afraid of contempt for their contemporaries. They are not even here to get along. They are here to take over… Somebody like Susan Smith should be dead. She should be dead now. Some people will go, “Well how do you know God doesn’t have a wonderful plan for her life?” He does, it’s listed in the Bible. His plan for her is that she should be dead.”

Susan Smith, of course, was in the news that summer, having been convicted on July 22, 1995 of murdering her two sons. She was sentenced to prison; Randall Terry wanted her dead along with abortion providers.

Of course, the left was still lurching toward reacting to the fundamentalist revolution. In 1996 The Center for Progressive Christianity (TCPC) was founded by a retired Episcopalian priest, James Rowe Adams, in Cambridge, MA.  TCPC introduced the idea of “progressive Christianity”, focusing attention “on those for whom organized religion had proven to be ‘ineffectual, irrelevant, or repressive.'” Unlike Christian fundamentalism, Progressive Christianity preaches tolerance and supports human rights.

The degree to which fundamentalists had been successful in mobilizing voters was felt again in the 1996 election. According to William Martin Chavanne, in the 1996 election, about two-thirds of White Evangelical Protestants voted, compared to slightly less than half of the general population. After putting out 40 million voter guides two years before, in 1996 the Christian Coalition puts out 45 million voter guides.

Almost half of Americans had misgivings about evangelical Christians, unsurprising, given the fiery rhetoric coming from conservative Christian speakers. The Pew Research Center for the People and the Press reports that a February 1996 poll shows 17 percent of Americans registered intensely unfavorable feelings toward evangelical Christians and another 26 percent said they generally disliked members of this group.[5]

Again, not unexpectedly, “The public’s stance toward the religious Right (that year represented as the Christian Coalition) was…polarized along party lines. The relatively higher standing of the Christian Coalition in 1996 can partly be attributed to the softening of rhetoric by Christian Right leaders, political maturation, and efforts within the Coalition to build a more ecumenical base of support.”[6]

In 1996, the rapid fall of Ralph Reed began when the Federal Election Commission (FEC) alleged that the Christian Coalition “violated federal campaign finance laws during congressional elections in 1990, 1992 and 1994, and the presidential election in 1992.” It was a storm Reed would not be able to ride out because the CC’s chief financial officer, Judy Liebert, “went to federal prosecutors with her suspicions of overbilling by Ben Hart, a direct-mail vendor with close ties to Reed, then the coalition’s executive director.”[7]

Two years after being Time’s “Right Hand of God” Ralph Reed resigns from Christian Coalition in April 1997 with the investigation pending. It would be the last time we’d see fundamentalism espouse the belief that the means justify the ends.

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
The Rise of American Fundamentalism – the Reagan Decade
The Rise of American Fundamentalism 1990-1993


[1] Dolce and Maio, 1999:39; Gallup Opinion Index 1989

[2] Dolce and Maio 1999:48

[3] See Josh D. McDowell & Bob Hostetler, “The New Tolerance: How a Cultural Movement Threatens to Destroy You, Your Faith, and Your Children,” Tyndale House, (1998). McDowell is the author or co-author of 77 books.

[4] The Christian Right and the 1994 Elections 1994

[5] Dolce and Maio 1999:40

[6] Dolce and Maio 1999:47

[7] Norfolk Virginian Pilot, September 26, 1997

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