The evangelical presidency: Reagan’s dangerous love affair with the Christian right

How Reagan's landslide victory in 1980 made the Moral Majority a force to be reckoned with in American politics

Topics: Books, Ronald Reagan, Christian Right, Jerry Falwell, Christian Fundamentalism, The Moral Majority, Editor's Picks,

The evangelical presidency: Reagan's dangerous love affair with the Christian rightRonald Reagan addresses the National Religious Broadcasters on Feb. 1, 1988 (Credit: AP/Doug Mills)

If 1976 was the Year of the Evangelical, then 1980 was the Year of the Evangelical Right. By that time, surprisingly few commentators noticed the difference. What would become known as the “Christian Right,” or the “religious right,” had largely coalesced by the end of the 1970s, but the presidential race of 1980 thrust it further into the national spotlight. That year witnessed a conclusive pivot in modern evangelical politics—a pivot, indeed, in the image of American evangelicalism as a whole. All three candidates in 1980—Democratic incumbent Jimmy Carter, Republican challenger Ronald Reagan, and independent Republican John Anderson—described themselves as born-again Christians. Yet Carter had lost his presumed base and Anderson had moved to the left in an effort to capture moderate Republicans and discontented Democrats. The energy resided on the right side of the evangelical spectrum. For the next three decades, the Christian Right—a movement propelled by evangelicals but also containing sympathetic Catholics, Mormons, and a handful of Jewish allies—occupied a distinct place in the imaginations of many Americans. The Christian Right’s leaders received disproportionate media attention, not least because they served up a steady dish of spectacles. In the minds of many, they were the public expression of born-again Christianity. Politics, of course, hardly captured the full power of evangelicalism within American culture. But it influenced all impressions of that power.

The process happened very quickly. Less than four years after the rise of Jimmy Carter, journalists were unlikely to be caught off guard again by a proliferation of pious politics. The booming “electric church”—later rebranded the “electronic church” and ultimately labeled “televangelism”—had been a news media staple since at least 1978. Coverage naturally gravitated toward Lynchburg, Virginia, preacher Jerry Falwell, who had supported Anita Bryant’s 1977 anti-gay-rights crusade, and Virginia Beach television mogul Pat Robertson, who was involved with the Washington for Jesus rally of April 1980 (scheduled to coincide with the anniversary of the first landing at Jamestown). The rally, which attracted a crowd of around 200,000, confirmed that born-again politics was back and that it now threatened President Jimmy Carter’s livelihood. “You have seen the great silent majority,” declared Robertson to the Capitol Mall crowd, invoking Nixon’s populist metaphor. Falwell was not among the rally’s participants, perhaps because he feared a low turnout, perhaps because the Baptist fundamentalist was uncomfortable with the charismatic faith of Robertson and the conference co-organizer John Gimenez. Yet Robertson himself was wary of risking his kingdom for a campaign. Falwell, head of the Moral Majority (another nod to Nixon), was more eager to enter the political arena. He thus became the first anointed spokesperson of what was then commonly called the “Religious New Right.”



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During the 1980 campaign, Ronald Reagan and the evangelical conservatives engaged in a very public courting ritual. Evangelicals had entertained possible GOP alternatives to Carter since at least 1979. Options abounded— ranging from right-wing purist Philip Crane of Illinois to early front-runner John Connally of Texas—but Reagan, long a darling of conservatives in general, was an especially compelling choice. By the time Moral Majority executive director Robert Billings signed on as a Reagan campaign adviser, the deal was pretty much sealed. The 1980 GOP convention gave journalists further reason to believe that the Moral Majority had muscles to flex. As national outlets duly reported, Moral Majority supporters controlled the Alaska Republican organization. Congressman Guy Vander Jagt of Michigan, an evangelical conservative, delivered the keynote address. Convention delegates approved the GOP’s most socially conservative platform ever, as the party strengthened its antiabortion stance and reversed its historic support for the Equal Rights Amendment. On social issues, at least, the pew trumped the country club. “It’s right down the line an evangelical platform,” gushed one Republican at the Detroit convention. Reagan struck an explicitly religious note in his acceptance speech (whereas Carter made no direct mention of God in his), merging established modes of civil religion with a newer rhetoric of antisecularism: “I’ll confess that I’ve been a little afraid to suggest what I’m going to suggest. I’m more afraid not to,” declared the nominee. He then paused. “Can we begin our crusade joined together in a moment of silent prayer?” This gesture followed Falwell’s decision to stomach (if not endorse) the vice presidential selection of George H. W. Bush, a long-standing social moderate who had only recently embraced the antiabortion cause. While Bush vacationed with Billy Graham after the convention, Reagan intensified his courtship of the evangelical right. His most important stop was in Dallas for the National Affairs Briefing, an event intended to consummate the relationship between a vote-hungry Reagan and an electoral base in the making. There, Reagan uttered perhaps the most famous lines of the Age of Evangelicalism. They received prominent play in an influential Newsweek cover story three weeks later. “I know you can’t endorse me,” he was quoted as saying. “But . . . I want you to know that I endorse you.” The presence of Falwell in Detroit and Reagan in Dallas raised the profile of the Christian Right even further. Falwell soon appeared on daytime television shows debating liberal Protestant activist William Sloane Coffin.

The romance between Reagan and the Christian Right quickly experienced prominent hiccups. Christian Right leaders were not inclined to strike the more inclusive tone required of a successful presidential campaign. Baptist minister and former Carter backer Bailey Smith, speaking at the Dallas gathering, saw fit to aver that “God Almighty does not hear the prayer of a Jew.” Then, Falwell felt compelled to clarify that God did hear the prayers of any Jew or Gentile, provided that they were converts to Christianity. The topic of Jewish salvation predictably greeted Reagan during his October visit to Lynchburg, where Falwell hosted a gathering of the National Religious Broadcasters. Confronted by journalists at the airport, the candidate embraced a much more generous take on God’s sense of hearing. Falwell—by then a political operative, as well as a fundamentalist minister—agreed with Reagan a few days later, reversing his position after consulting with the American Jewish Committee’s liaison to Christians, Rabbi Marc Tanenbaum. God “hears the heart cry of any sincere person who calls on Him,” Falwell now stated.

The surge of attention given to the outspoken and provocative Falwell gave Carter an opening. Falwell, of course, did not speak for all evangelicals, not even for many of the televangelists who generally shared his theological outlook. “If I backed a Republican for President,” wondered prominent televangelist Rex Humbard, “what about the Democrats in my audience?” A number of Reformed theologians criticized Falwell’s politics as simplistic, while many members of the evangelical old guard—not least, Billy Graham— kept their distance from the Virginian. Carter and his religious liaison, Robert Maddox, were aware of these divisions. They reached out to relatively nonpartisan evangelists like Jim Bakker (who, to be sure, had interviewed Reagan on his television show earlier that year). The other side of Carter’s strategy involved branding the Moral Majority and its crowd as unrepresentative of American society in general and American Christianity in particular. Carter came late to this approach. In October, he noted that “the Bible doesn’t say how you balance the federal budget. . . . It’s never been done before, but certain religious groups are trying to say what the definition of a Christian is.” Carter’s tone was considerably more moderate than that of Secretary of Health and Human Services Patricia Roberts Harris. “I am beginning to fear that we could have an Ayatollah Khomeini in this country,” she declared in a September speech. Harris’s real problem, Falwell shot back, was with the “Judeo-Christian community” itself.

Reagan won in a landslide, but the post-election sorting out of Moral Majority’s role was much less conclusive. The initial verdict, buttressed by polling data that posited a near-equivalence between “evangelical” and “Moral Majority,” saw Falwell as the new political kingmaker. The minister did little to discourage such analysis. On the night following the election, Falwell offered commentary on an award-winning episode of “Nightline.” Via satellite, he was connected with the defeated Democratic senators George McGovern, Birch Bayh, and Frank Church—Christian Right targets all. “George Gallup didn’t get a chance to declare 1980 the ‘Year of Born-Again Politics,’ ” two chroniclers wrote. “The evangelicals beat him to it.” Christian Century listed the “ascendance of the New Religious Right” as the top religious news story of 1980. As more sophisticated number crunchers demonstrated, though, Reagan had not needed the Christian Right—however broadly defined—to win. Moreover, as Seymour Martin Lipset and Earl Raab argued, it was impossible to separate religious motivations from other reasons for choosing a particular candidate. An eclectic range of figures, including civil rights icon Ralph Abernathy and Watergate prosecutor Leon Jaworski, had backed Reagan. Perhaps evangelical voters simply reflected the broader momentum. Still, evangelicals unquestionably were an important force in the Reagan wave. They were “the major factor,” Albert Menendez subsequently contended, “in twelve of the seventeen states that switched from Carter to Reagan.”

A second round of reconsiderations took the form of media criticism. Early reports vastly overestimated the audience size for televangelistic shows. Playboy reported a weekly television audience of thirty million for Falwell’s “Old-Time Gospel Hour.” A better estimate for the average weekly audience for the top ten syndicated religious shows combined was seven to ten million. Even the higher-end estimates still trailed the weekly audience for the sitcom “M.A.S.H.” As such, Jerry Falwell remained less than a household name at the start of the Reagan Revolution. A Washington Post–ABC News poll published in June 1981 revealed that half of Americans had not heard of Moral Majority, while those who had were sharply divided in their evaluations of the organization. Moral Majority was better known in a Bible Belt locale like Dallas-Fort Worth, but it was far from popular even in that metropolitan area. Perhaps, argued journalist Tina Rosenberg, the media itself had “made the Moral Majority.” Players on both ends of the political spectrum, Rosenberg wrote, had “a powerful interest in letting exaggeration and oversimplification pass for gospel truth.” Still, she conceded, “what’s described as powerful often ends up being powerful.” Media construction or not, many Republican elites believed that they needed the Moral Majority—and the voters for whom it claimed to speak—to sustain a political majority.

By the mid-1980s, the “new Christian Right” (or the Christian Right) and the “new Religious Right” (or the Religious Right) had become the preferred terms for an enduring American political phenomenon, replacing references to the “religious New Right” and largely subsuming allusions to a self-styled “pro-family movement.” Indeed, the Christian Right outlasted its organizational parent—the conservative “New Right”—as a term with currency. Much of the print coverage acknowledged the diversity within American evangelicalism and used categories—“fundamentalist,” “charismatic,” and so on—that evangelicals themselves often employed. Billy Graham’s statement that Moral Majority did not speak for him received prominent play. Yet even Graham, who was a household name, was now framed in relation to the next big story. The joint meetings of the historically intertwined National Association of Evangelicals (NAE) and the National Religious Broadcasters during the late 1970s and early 1980s reinforced the impression that the new center of the evangelical world was the electronic church, especially its most politicized figures. Reagan’s presence at three consecutive such meetings, from 1982 to 1984, contributed to that belief as well.

The Evangelical’s President

Ronald Reagan was more an evangelical’s president than an evangelical president. While lacking Jimmy Carter’s Sunday School piety, Reagan was quite comfortable in his born-again skin (among many other skins). It was Reagan, not Carter, who inaugurated what scholars David Domke and Kevin Coe have called the “God strategy” in American presidential politics, as “religious communications increased to levels never before seen in the modern presidency.” Since Reagan’s two terms, “U.S. presidential candidates who want to be taken seriously by religious voters, particularly conservatives, now face a come-to-Jesus moment in which they must display public religiosity in a manner that is inevitably calculated and yet cannot appear overtly so.” Perhaps the clearest evidence of the God strategy was Reagan’s persistent use of the expression “God bless America” in his 1980 convention speech and throughout his two terms. A commonplace in presidential discourse at the start of the twenty-first century, “God bless America” appeared in a major presidential address precisely once before Reagan (in 1973, as Richard Nixon attempted to mitigate the Watergate scandal). To a certain degree, the flourish was but a new spin on the all-American tradition of civil religion. Politicians had long proffered mere Christianity for political gain. Yet it was no coincidence that this newest rhetorical wrinkle appeared precisely as the Christian Right arose.

For the evangelical right, Reagan’s presidency provided a lot of symbolism and a bit of substance, often blurring the line between the two. Reagan saw evangelical conservatives in much the same way that he viewed other major GOP constituencies (big business, defense hawks, etc.). Even as allegations swirled that White House aide Michael Deaver wanted Christian Right leaders to enter through the “back door,” Falwell was among the first visitors to the Reagan White House. Reagan knew, though, that his new coalition partners wanted some clear victories. A few of the president’s initial appointments offered hope. James Watt, a Pentecostal and a strong conservative, joined the cabinet as Secretary of the Interior, antiabortion activist C. Everett Koop became surgeon general, and Robert Billings landed a position in the Department of Education. In the GOP-majority Senate, Richard Halverson— the ministerial dean of Beltway evangelicals—served as chaplain. Morton Blackwell used his evangelical connections to massage relations with the Christian Right during his time as Reagan’s liaison to conservatives. Faith Whittlesey, who took over Blackwell’s outreach to religious conservatives, likewise kept out the welcome mat for evangelical leaders. Such contacts no doubt factored into Reagan’s decision to declare 1983 the “Year of the Bible” and, that same year, to contribute an article to the antiabortion Human Life Review. At the start of the subsequent election year, the White House released an “Issue Alert” suggesting the “many ways” in which public school officials could encourage voluntary (i.e., constitutionally permissible) student prayers during the school day. These were mere gestures, no doubt, but Carter’s lack of similar moves had cost him dearly.

The Christian Right, to be sure, expected more substantive policy victories following the 1980 election. Moral Majority leader Ronald Goodwin was conscious of the need to move “from the media period to the organizational period.” One critical effort was the formation in 1981 of the Council for National Policy (CNP), the “first successful umbrella organization on the right.” Evangelical conservatives dominated CNP from the start. Tim LaHaye served as its first president, while other early members included James Dobson, Pat Robertson, Bill Bright, Jerry Falwell, and Robert Dugan of the NAE. CNP never attained the kind of gatekeeping authority to which it aspired. The first Reagan term did not produce decisive action on many of the social policies that Falwell had said mattered most, constitutional amendments concerning school prayer and abortion foremost among them. Falwell stuck to his line that Reagan was “the greatest thing that has happened to our country in my lifetime,” but being a team player frequently required compromise. An early case was the selection of George H. W. Bush. Then came the Supreme Court nomination of Sandra Day O’Connor. Falwell stomached the choice even though her judicial record suggested an unwillingness to overturn Roe v. Wade.

Almost from the start, then, most Christian Right leaders made a strategic decision to participate in the Reagan Revolution. Critics, such as liberal journalist Sidney Blumenthal, noted that the Reagan administration stood to benefit if evangelical conservatives remained just unsatisfied enough to be “in a state of perpetual mobilization.” While this line of analysis contained some truth, it downplayed the obvious legislative barriers facing the Christian Right’s agenda—namely, a Democratic-majority House of Representatives and a GOP-controlled Senate with many moderate Republicans. It also ignored the reality that conservative evangelicals had no place else to go in the two-party system. The national Democratic Party responded to the Christian Right by attempting to run against it. As historian Daniel K. Williams has argued, the Christian Right quickly became the most reliable component of the new GOP coalition (more reliable than, say, socially conservative Catholic bishops and less vocally critical than the secular wing of the New Right). Tellingly, then, Reagan delivered his famous address branding the Soviet Union an “evil empire” at the 1983 annual meeting of the NAE. He did so in no small part because the organization affirmed his resistance to the burgeoning nuclear-freeze movement, which had garnered support from many other religious leaders, including Catholic bishops. The evangelical right was not only part of Reagan’s coalition; it was also one of its pillars.

In 1984, Falwell and other Christian Right leaders offered an unrestrained endorsement of the incumbent presidential candidate. They were omnipresent at the Republican National Convention in Dallas. Firebrand social conservative James Robison opened the convention with a prayer, and Falwell delivered the closing benediction, calling Reagan and Bush “God’s instruments in rebuilding America.” Reagan published an election-year book titled In God I Trust, while both he and the vice president attended the 1984 launch of another Christian Right vehicle, the American Coalition for Traditional Values. Pat Robertson called Reagan “probably the most evangelical president we have had since the founding fathers.” Reagan’s faith received closer analysis in the media. Especially apropos in 1984 was his long-standing interest in scriptural prophecy. According to an election-year poll, nearly 40 percent of Americans linked the biblical end-times with a nuclear apocalypse. Unlike Hal Lindsey, though, they were not eager to ponder this prospect. During the second presidential debate, Reagan fielded a question about a possible “nuclear Armageddon.” This was one of several areas where Reagan’s ties to the Christian Right threatened to cost him votes.

The campaign team of Democratic nominee Walter Mondale unsuccessfully tried to make the separation of church and state an issue. While conservative evangelicals, such as Carl F. H. Henry, complained that their input was not welcomed by the elites who controlled the Democratic platform committees, Mondale sought to cast Reagan as a tool of the Christian Right. “Both [party] platforms were prepared by Jerrys,” Mondale asserted during a late September campaign speech, “ours under the leadership of [vice presidential nominee] Geraldine Ferraro and theirs by Jerry Falwell.” A Mondale commercial began with the line “Ronald Reagan and Rev. Jerry Falwell cordially invite you to their party on November 6.” The ad was one of Mondale’s most effective spots, in the analysis of one Reagan aide; however, it did not appear until mid-October and ran sparingly.

Reagan ruled the religion issue in 1984. That fact alienated some secular voters, but it cemented his popularity among most evangelicals. “Religion is honored when it is separated from party platforms and valued for the moral force of faith and hope,” wrote columnist Colman McCarthy, a fierce critic of the president. “It is dishonored when it is Americanized and militarized. Earlier presidents have done one or the other. Reagan is the first to do both.” Reagan positioned himself as the defender of all American believers. Speaking at a prayer breakfast during the GOP convention in Dallas, he affirmed the “positive role” of religion in American history, from the abolitionist movement through the Civil Rights Movement. Now, he suggested, religion itself was a worthy political cause. Previously, “the state was tolerant of religious belief, expression and practice. Society, too, was tolerant.” This was the general context in which, back in 1960, John F. Kennedy famously stated that his Catholic faith would not determine his policies. That was a different America, Reagan argued. Now, the secularists and their political allies “refuse to tolerate [religion’s] importance in our lives.” Without explicitly saying so, Reagan spoke not of religion in general, but of a traditional—that is, conservative—faith in need of protection. Such a move did not require the religiously amorphous Reagan to consistently identify as an evangelical. Indeed, Reagan joined Mondale in offering a polite dodge in response to a presidential debate question about whether he considered himself “a born-again Christian.” (The question came from Baltimore Sun reporter Fred Barnes, himself an evangelical.) As the front-runner, Reagan ignored matters of labeling and reiterated his reliance on prayer. Mondale stressed his “deep religious faith” before turning the question into an attack on Jerry Falwell’s influence on judicial nominations. Labels aside, Reagan largely had born-again ballots in the bag. Eighty percent of evangelicals voted with the landslide majority that election year.

November 1984, even more than November 1980, was Falwell’s moment in the sun. Every national news network was on hand in Lynchburg to record his response to the election. A leading newsmagazine soon rated him the fourteenth most influential person in the nation (third in the private sector, behind businessman Lee Iacocca and newscaster Dan Rather). Falwell was a persistent and savvy media presence. He demonstrated how the Christian Right could shape public discussions even without achieving clear policy victories. With the help of speechwriter Cal Thomas, Falwell evinced a knack for quips that were simultaneously provocative and disarming. When confronted by gay-rights supporters, Falwell voiced the emerging conservative truism, “God created Adam and Eve, not Adam and Steve!” Those “mainline” Protestants who chafed at such lines were now on the “sidelines” of relevance. Critics wrote of the “Falwell Goosestep.” “I think it’s fair for the conservative goose to do what the liberal gander does,” Falwell said in explaining his entry into the political arena. “People are saying to me,” he declared during the 1980 campaign, “‘You’re trying to get born-again Christians elected to office.’ That’s ridiculous. We’re trying to get rid of some.” He and his supporters were “not trying to jam our moral philosophy down the throats of others. We’re simply trying to keep others from jamming their amoral philosophies down our throats.” Immediately following the 1980 election, Falwell frequented recording studios around the nation, granting interviews to nearly all comers, including Los Angeles Times reporter Robert Scheer (who had conducted Jimmy Carter’s Playboy interview) and two independent journalists. The latter duo promptly sold their tapes to Playboy’s competitor, Penthouse. Falwell remained eminently quotable. No, he would not run for office. “That’s the Khomeini approach. That’s wrong.” While increasingly artful in his public comments, Falwell’s antics retained the qualities that had made him such a compelling public personality in the first place. For example, he unsuccessfully sued to prevent the sale of the Penthouse issue featuring his interview (in which he criticized Carter for granting an interview to Playboy). Penthouse’s lawyer, Norman Roy Grutman, toyed with Falwell during the court hearing, going so far as to include scriptural references in his remarks. “Where the spirit of liberty is,” Grutman declared in a twisted paraphrase of 2 Corinthians 3:17, “there is the Lord. I don’t think it should start retreating in Lynchburg.” Falwell subsequently turned the flap into a fund-raising mailer headed, “I Did Not Give an Interview to Penthouse Magazine.” A few years later, Falwell turned around and hired Grutman to bring suit against Larry Flynt, whose Hustler magazine ran a satirical liquor ad containing a facetious interview in which Falwell discussed how he lost his virginity (while drunk, in an outhouse, to his mother). The case went all the way to the Supreme Court. In 1988, Falwell lost that one, too.

The rapid ascendance of evangelical conservatism unleashed political energy that a power broker like Jerry Falwell could not always control, however. Not everyone on the evangelical right was content to be a cheerleader for the Reagan Revolution. Francis Schaeffer, whose theory of co-belligerency had provided conceptual cover for Falwell’s turn toward politics, sought to ensure it did not become a synonym for compromise. Schaeffer moved even farther to the right in the final years of his life. His 1981 “A Christian Manifesto” posited a kind of religious-political struggle between secular humanists and Christians. The former, Schaeffer deduced from the research of fundamentalist lawyer John Whitehead, were attempting to subvert the nation’s Christian heritage. “As Christians,” Schaeffer wrote in his call to arms, “we must stand absolutely and totally opposed to the whole humanist system, whether it is controlled by conservative or liberal elements.” The famous commandment of Jesus to “Give to Caesar what is Caesar’s, and to God what is God’s,” Schaeffer argued by way of ideogram, did not render those spheres equivalent:

                              “GOD and CAESAR
It was, is, and it always will be:
GOD
and
CAESAR.”

To be sure, the recent “conservative swing” had left “an open window” for political solutions. Yet Christians also needed to ponder “what to do if the window closes,” in which case civil disobedience might be necessary. Either way, argued Schaeffer’s son and would-be heir, the times called for an “ecumenism of orthodoxy.”

One Schaeffer disciple became the most influential antiabortion activist of the late twentieth century. Randall Terry, a charismatic-fundamentalist Christian, played a major role in bringing Protestants into the pro-life movement. When his organization, Operation Rescue, began its work in 1987, antiabortion activism still was a predominantly Catholic affair. Over the next few years, Operation Rescue encouraged many evangelicals to express their pro-life sentiments in arenas beyond the voting booth. “If we believe that abortion is murder, then it is time for us to act like it is murder,” stated Terry in what amounted to his organization’s rallying cry. In advocating sit-down protests and other acts of civil disobedience, Terry and his group explicitly invoked the legacy of Martin Luther King Jr., sometimes singing “We Shall Overcome.” Schaeffer was a more immediate influence, Terry told journalist Garry Wills. Despite Terry’s often abrasive style, Operation Rescue gained the endorsement of numerous Christian Right leaders, including Falwell, Robertson, and James Dobson. By the 1990s, a scholar could claim that two-thirds of the antiabortion movement was evangelical.

Excerpted from “The Age of Evangelicalism: America’s Born-Again Years” by Steven P. Miller. Copyright © 2014 by Steven P. Miller. Reprinted by arrangement with Oxford University Press, a division of Oxford University. All rights reserved.

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