A Public Sphere for Poetry, Politics, and Nature
Before Ronald Reagan merged the Christian Right with a pro-business agenda to revitalize the Republican Party in the late 1970’s, no one thought of religion as a major part of modern American politics. Although the influence of the movement has waned in the past few years, the last three and a half decades may have changed American politics forever.
On August 22, 1980, a National Affairs Briefing organized by preacher James Robison brought 15,000 evangelicals to Dallas to demonstrate their new political clout. Robison, who had been forced off the airwaves after he claimed that gays recruit children for sex, announced, “I’m sick and tired of hearing about all of the radicals and the perverts and the liberals and the leftists and the Communists coming out of the closet. It’s time for God’s people to come out of the closet.”
The next speaker was Republican presidential nominee Ronald Reagan, who told the crowd, “I know you can’t endorse me. But I want you to know that I endorse you.”
From that day on, the alliance between the Christian Right and the Republican Party has done nothing less than reshape American politics:
The Christian Right changed how we talked about race. The movement originally emerged from the issue of school desegregation. In 1978, the Internal Revenue Service attempted to revoke tax exemptions for schools formed as white-flight havens from the public schools. The backlash was overwhelming. The IRS received more than a quarter of a million letters against the proposed rules. Congressional hearings reframed the issue from an attack on segregation to an attack on religion. As Newt Gingrich, then a freshman representative, explained, “The IRS should collect taxes—not enforce social policy.”
Early in 1979, Jerry Falwell formed Moral Majority, a prominent organization for the new Christian Right. Falwell ran Lynchburg Christian Academy which was clearly in violation of the new IRS guidelines. In 1967, the same year the local public schools desegregated, the academy opened its doors. As of the fall of 1979, it had an all-white faculty and only five African-Americans among the 1,147 students.
In August 1979, Congress inserted riders into the appropriations bill for the Treasury Department to prevent the IRS from implementing the proposed regulations. A fight over desegregation had galvanized white evangelicals, and the movement was born.
It made abortion a partisan issue. The Christian Right made opposition to abortion—which until Roe v. Wade had been a Catholic issue—into an evangelical and Republican cause. Although many evangelicals believe that the Bible forbids abortion, in fact scripture actually says nothing about abortion. Even W. A. Criswell, known as the “Baptist Pope,” initially praised Roe. “It was only after a child was born and had life separate from its mother,” he argued, “that it became an actual person.” Until the mid-1980s, Republicans in the electorate favored fewer restrictions on abortion than did Democrats. The Christian Right moved the Republican Party strongly in the direction of being pro-life, even going so far as to implicitly condone attacks on abortion clinics. The Christian Right found in abortion an issue to bind evangelicals together with conservative Catholics under the Republican banner.
It paved the way for the Tea Party. The Christian Right provided a useful template for the Tea Party. Just as the Christian Right toppled what a 1980s-era activist termed “Three Martini Episcopalians,” in local Republican parties, the Tea Party has aimed their ire at RINOs (Republicans in Name Only), launching primary attacks against them and making the GOP their own. And like the Christian Right, grassroots supporters coordinated their efforts across the country.
The Tea Party is not the Christian Right. It does not organize churches or afford a special place for religious communities or their leaders. Another important difference is that the Christian Right has been funded by direct mail campaigns with lots of small donations; whereas, the Tea Party is funded by a handful of billionaires, in particular the Koch brothers. But the two movements do share a socially conservative agenda. White evangelicals make up about 40 percent of Republicans nationally, not to mention a majority of Tea Party members. While the Tea Party has not escaped the central dilemma of the Christian Right, and so many other social movements across American history—how to take a minority viewpoint and make coalitions to forge a national majority – it carries the torch of social conservatism that the Christian Right brought to the Republican Party.
As it turns out, the Christian Right never won the national majority it sought. Instead, social conservatives exercise influence principally in the South. Abortion remains legal—though often inaccessible in conservative states—and school prayer remains illegal. Religious conservatives increasingly emphasize how big government threatens people and communities of faith, whether they are florists who refuse to cut roses for gay weddings or employers who refuse to allow contraceptive coverage for their employees. Although these cases attract national attention, they have little effect on overall trends in public attitudes.
In recent decades, Americans have become less Christian and more secular. Around 1990, following a series of sex and money scandals that engulfed leading evangelical pastors, the share of Americans identifying with evangelical denominations began to decline from its peak of about 30%. At the same time, public opinion on gay rights started shifting. New laws and norms around gay rights represent a huge setback for religious conservatives.
The Christian Right has also failed to build permanent political institutions. So while it made white evangelicals into Republicans, the preachers and brokers who led the movement now have no role. Direct mail, not billionaires’ checks, sustained the movement, and when the checks slowed down, the Christian Right’s most prominent groups folded.
Without group intermediaries, white evangelicals have failed to build coalitions with other power centers inside the Republican Party, and as a result, they have steadily lost influence. Often, they have become niche candidates in presidential elections, winning in caucus states and in the South, but getting nowhere close to nomination. That was the story of Mike Huckabee in 2008 and Rick Santorum in 2012.
So while there’s no longer a Christian Right with the influence it held in the 1980s and 1990s, without it we’d have a much weaker conservative movement, and a very different Republican Party. However, if Donald Trump, who like Ronald Reagan is not a Christian evangelical, wins the presidency with the support of the Christian Right, then the movement may return to an important role in shaping the national agenda.
For more information about the influence of social movements on American politics, see When Movements Anchor Parties: Electoral Alignments in American History by Daniel Schlozman (Princeton: 2015) from which this article was adapted.
Ronald Reagan and Jerry Falwell in 1980 (AP)