The Moral Majority in American Politics

Jerry Falwell and the Evangelical Conservative Movement of the 1980s

The Rev. Jerry Falwell and the Moral Majority
The Rev. Jerry Falwell was the leader of the Moral Majority in the 1980s. Bettmann / Getty Images Contributor

The Moral Majority was powerful movement in American politics made up of evangelical Christian conservatives who felt their families and values were under attack amid the legalization of abortion, women's liberation and what they perceived to be the moral decline of society during the turbulent 1960s. The Moral Majority was founded in 1979 by the Rev. Jerry Falwell, who would become a polarizing figure himself in the decades that followed.

 

Falwell described the Moral Majority's mission as being "the agent to train, mobilize and electrify the Religious Right." In a speech at his own Baptist Church in Lynchburg, Virginia, in 1980, Falwell described the Moral Majority's enemy: “We’re fighting a holy war. What’s happened to America is that the wicked are bearing rule. We have to lead the nation back to the moral stance that made America great. We need to wield influence on those who govern us.”

The Moral Majority does not exist as an institution anymore, but the movement of evangelical conservatives remains strong in American politics. The Moral Majority dissolved as an institution in 1989, when Falwell proclaimed "our mission is accomplished." Falwell had resigned as the group's president two years earlier, in 1987.

"I feel that I have performed the task to which I was called in 1979. The religious right is solidly in place and, like the galvanizing of the black church as a political force a generation ago, the religious conservatives in America are now in for the duration," Falwell said in announcing the disbanding of the Moral Majority in 1989.

 

Indeed, several other groups remain influential in carrying on the mission of evangelical conservatives. They include Focus on the Family, run by psychologist James Dobson; the Family Research Council, run by Tony Perkins; the Christian Coalition of American, run by Pat Roberson; and the Faith and Freedom Coalition, run by Ralph Reed.

But public opinion has shifted on many of the issues that drove the formation of these groups following the 1960s.

Policy Goals of the Moral Majority

The Moral Majority sought to gain influence in national politics to that it could work to:

  • Prohibit abortion and overturn Roe v. Wade.
  • Require prayer in public schools.
  • Oppose and ban gay marriage.
  • Defeat the Equal Rights Amendment, which guaranteed women the same rights as men.
  • A return to tradition gender roles in American households. Falwell's Family Manifesto declared "the role of the male is most effectively that of provider, and the role of the female one of nurturer."

Bio of Moral Majority Founder Jerry Falwell

Falwell was a Southern Baptist minister who rose to prominence as the founder of Lynchburg Baptist College in Lynchburg, Virginia. The institution later changed its name to Liberty University. He was also the host of the Old Time Gospel Hour, a television show that was broadcast across the United States.

He founded the Moral Majority in 1979 to combat what he saw as the erosion of culture. He resigned in 1987 amid the group's sagging finances and poor election results in the 1986 midterm elections. 'Falwell said at the time he was returning to his "first love," the pulpit.

"Back to preaching, back to winning souls, back to meeting spiritual needs,'' he said. 

Falwell died in May 2007 at the age of 73.

History of the Moral Majority

The Moral Majority had its roots in the New Right movement of the 1960s. The New Right, eager to boost its ranks and hungry for a major election victory following Republican Barry Goldwater's loss in 1964, sought to bring evangelicals into its ranks and encouraged Falwell to launch the Moral Majority, according to Dan Gilgoff, the author of the 2007 book The Jesus Machine: How James Dobson, Focus on the Family, and Evangelical America are Winning the Culture War. 

Wrote Gilgoff:

"Through Moral Majority, Falwell focused his activism on evangelical pastors, telling them that issues like abortion rights and gay rights required them to cast off their decades-long political inhibitions and to stop viewing politics as a dirty business unfit for church people. In the early 1980s, Falwell barnstormed the country, speaking to countless congregations and pastors' breakfasts and logging 250,000 miles a year on a chartered plane.

"Falwell's activism seemed to pay off early. While white evangelicals had backed Jimmy Carter - a Southern Baptist who'd taught Sunday school in Georgia - in 1976, they broke 2 to 1 for Ronald Reagan in 1980, providing a major plank of support and establishing themselves as a lasting base of Republican support."

The Moral Majority claimed some four million Americans were members, but critics argue the number was substantially smaller, only in the hundreds of thousands.

Decline of the Moral Majority

Some conservative firebrands including Goldwater openly mocked the Moral Majority and portrayed it as a dangerous fundamentalist group that threatened to erase the line separating church and state by using the "muscle of religion towards political ends." Said Goldwater in 1981: "The uncompromising position of these groups is a divisive element that could tear apart the very spirit of our representative system if they gain sufficient strength."

Goldwater added that he was "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?"

The influence of the Moral Majority peaked with the election of Republican Ronald Reagan as president in 1980, but the re-election of the conservative icon in 1984 also sped the decline of Falwell's group. Many financial backers of the Moral Majority saw little need to keep contributing when the White House was safely in their control. 

"Ronald Reagan's reelection in 1984 led many supporters to conclude that further contributions were no longer as badly needed," wrote Glenn H. Utter and James L. True in Conservative Christians and Political Participation: A Reference Handbook.

The decline of the Moral Majority was also precipitated by nagging questions about prominent evangelists including Jim Bakker, who hosted The PTL Club until a sex scandal forced him to quit, and Jimmy Swaggart, also brought down by scandal.

Eventually Falwell's critics began to ridicule the Moral Majority, it was "neither moral nor a majority." 

The Controversial Jerry Falwell

In the 1980s and 1990s, Falwell was widely ridiculed for making a series of bizarre statements that made him and the Moral Majority appear to be out of touch with mainstream Americans.

He warned, for example, that a purple character on the children's show Teletubbies, Tinky Winky, was gay and encouraging tens of thousands of children to be gay as well. He said Christians were deeply concerned about "little boys running around with purses and acting effeminate and leaving the idea that the masculine male, the feminine female is out, and gay is O.K."

After the attacks of September 11, 2001, Falwell suggested gays, feminists and those who support abortions rights help create the environment for such terrorism.

"Throwing God out successfully with the help of the federal court system, throwing God out of the public square, out of the schools ... the abortionists have got to bear some burden for this because God will not be mocked. And when we destroy 40 million little innocent babies, we make God mad," Falwell said. "The pagans and the abortionists and the feminists and the gays and the lesbians who are actively trying to make that an alternative lifestyle, the ACLU, People for the American Way — all of them who have tried to secularize America. I point the finger in their face and say 'you helped this happen.'"

Falwell also claimed "AIDS is the wrath of a just God against homosexuals.

To oppose it would be like an Israelite jumping in the Red Sea to save one of Pharaoh's charioteers ... AIDS is not just God's punishment for homosexuals; it is God's punishment for the society that tolerates homosexuals."

Falwell's influence in politics waned dramatically in the final two decades of his life because of such statements, which he made a time when public opinion was shifting in favor of gay marriage and women's reproductive rights. 

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Murse, Tom. "The Moral Majority in American Politics." ThoughtCo, Feb. 27, 2017, thoughtco.com/moral-majority-evangelical-conservative-movement-4129390. Murse, Tom. (2017, February 27). The Moral Majority in American Politics. Retrieved from https://www.thoughtco.com/moral-majority-evangelical-conservative-movement-4129390 Murse, Tom. "The Moral Majority in American Politics." ThoughtCo. https://www.thoughtco.com/moral-majority-evangelical-conservative-movement-4129390 (accessed December 11, 2017).