A chill winter dusk had emptied the streets of Lynchburg, an industrial town of 67,000 at the foot of Virginia’s Blue Ridge Mountains. But on the city’s south side, traffic was streaming toward the gigantic white pillars of Thomas Road Baptist Church. In the parking lot—big enough to serve a moderate-sized shopping mall —parishioners braved icy gusts as they hurried into the vast 4,000-seat creamand-blue-broadloomed octagon. Inside, Fundamentalist preacher Jerry Falwell delivered a sermon to many of his 21,000-member congregation. Nearly 32 years after he and 35 dissident Baptists founded their church, it has mushroomed into a multimillion-dollar empire. As well as hosting his weekly Old Time Gospel Hour on 390 television stations, Falwell presides over the Lynchburg Christian Academy and his 8,000-student Liberty University —complete with its own Creation Museum of natural history and a white marble monument bearing the dedication “In memory of the millions of aborted babies that have died in America since Jan.
22, 1973”—the day the U.S. Supreme Court legalized abortion.
Indeed, as the president of Moral Majority Inc.—which he founded in 1979 as the lobbying arm of the religious right—Falwell has altered the American political landscape. Over the past decade he has given the fractious Fundamentalist and Evangelical movements—lumped together by their foes as the Christian Right—a new voice in the national debate. They have elected their own candidates, pushed their social concerns onto Republican party platforms, and now, one of their own, TV Evangelist Marion (Pat) Robertson, is running for president. Indeed, even the party’s front-runner, Vice-President George Bush, who in 1980 joked that he was the only candidate “born once,” is now telling interviewers about his personal encounter with Christ. Said University
of Virginia sociologist Jeffrey Hadden: “All of the leading Republican candidates sound like they’re born-again Christians.” Declared Falwell: “We have stirred up a lot of fire.”
Divisions: Still, at the very moment when Robertson has made the Fundamentalists most visible, some analysts see divisions in the religious right that may undermine their political influence. Televangelist Jim Bakker’s sex scandal with church secretary Jessica Hahn last year—and revelations of his extravagant lifestyle—have rocked the entire electronic church in what Falwell terms a “credibility crisis.” Most television ministries have since reported a dramatic drop in fund-raising. And after Falwell briefly took over Bakker’s PTL (Praise The Lord) empire last year, the usual $1.5 million in monthly donations to his Old Time Gospel Hour—already down from a 1983 high of $67.8 million-plunged by another 60 per cent. In November Falwell was forced to resign his presidency of the Moral Majority to tend his troubled flock.
Decline: Some observers say that Falwell’s withdrawal from the public arena is a symptom of the movement’s declining support. And they add that he is a metaphor for a segment of the religious right members who are now stepping back from the political fray to rethink their involvement and tactics. In fact, despite the Evangelicals’ apparent influence, they have not won a major legislative victory in the past seven years of Ronald Reagan’s presidency. And recent polls indicate that a majority in the religious right does not support Robertson’s bid for the White House. Even Falwell himself is backing Bush. Said Richard John Neuhaus, a co-editor of the recently published anthology Piety and Politics'. “A lot of Evangelicals have begun to say, ‘Maybe we have become tools of the power game itself. We have to think this through.’ ”
Such a retreat would not be new for
a movement that spent half a century—until the emergence of the Moral Majority—on the political sidelines. Threatened by such social doctrines as Darwin’s theory of evolution—which challenged the biblical version of history—the orthodox Protestant wing did not emerge as a force until the end of the 19th century. The movement sprang in part out of mass tent revivals led by such charismatic Evangelists as Billy Sunday. And in 1902 a group of conservative theologians set down their unwavering belief in scriptural truth in 12 volumes called The Fundamentals—bequeathing Falwell’s branch of the movement a name. But it was not until the 1920s that both groups united to flex their political muscle, fighting for Prohibition and challenging the teaching of evolution in public schools.
Resurgence: Lawyer William Jennings Bryan won their landmark 1925 case against evolutionist Tennessee teacher John Scopes. But public opinion discredited the Fundamentalists, driving them into isolation. Bitter and humiliated, they shunned the public arena for the next 50 years. Then, the 1960s’ permissive moral spree and a series of
Supreme Court decisions—a 1962 ruling prohibiting public school prayers and the 1973 abortion case—provoked the religious right into action. Said Falwell: “Religious and family values were breaking down. We realized that our uninvolvement might bring an end to this country.”
Networks: In June, 1978, rightwing strategists made a pilgrimage to Lynchburg. And over lunch at a local motel, they asked Falwell to head a movement that would tap the mounting frustration of conservative Christians. Falwell says that they won the 1980 election for Reagan. Virginia directmail expert Richard Viguerie saw the potential of the electronic church to mobilize a vast subculture estimated at 70 million Americans. In appealing for contributions, televangelists had set up phone banks and computerized mailing lists, enabling them to repeatedly solicit responsive viewers. And drawing on those sophisticated networks, Viguerie and others tapped a wellspring of new financial support for the Republican party. Most of the funds went to right-
wing political action committees that funnelled money to approved candidates or financed television campaigns against congressmen who had offended Evangelical principles.
Evangelicals also devised screening systems for politicians. In 1986 an Indiana Fundamentalist group called The Agora sent congressional candidates a questionnaire asking how often they went to church. And a Washington-based group called Christian Voice Inc. distributed 20 million copies of its Biblical Scoreboard rating candidates’ voting records on family issues as well as support for Taiwan and the Strategic Defence Initiative.
Armageddon: In fact, defence and foreign policy have been of prime interest to Fundamentalists. Their strict reading of the Bible predicts the second coming of the Messiah after a long period of tribulation on earth, climaxing in a final Middle Eastern battle called Armageddon. In that scenario, the Soviet Union, associated with the antichrist, will invade Israel—a belief that Robertson has admitted sharing. As a
result, the religious right has hailed Reagan’s pro-Israel policy and his anticommunism. And it was no accident that when the President damned Moscow’s “evil empire” in March, 1983, he was speaking to the National Association of Evangelicals.
The religious right’s greatest influence lies in the estimated four to 8.5 million new voters it has brought into the Republican party over the past eight years. In 1980 at his services, Falwell singled out unregistered voters with embarrassing reprimands, forcing them to stand before the congregation. Other pastors followed suit, even setting up registration booths at the back of their churches. And in one Alabama contest that year, the 5,000 new voters registered by the Moral Majority defeated eight-term moderate Republican Rep. John Buchanan, a Baptist minister who had incurred their wrath by supporting the Equal Rights Amendment. In a controversial 1985 broadcast of his religious television program, The 700 Club, Robertson made clear his views on qualifications for government office. Said Robertson: “Individual Christians are the only ones really—and Jewish people, those who trust the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob—that are qualified to have the reign, because hopefully, they will be governed by God and submitted to Him.”
Militants: Buchanan says that Robertson’s claim to hear God’s direct commands could be used “like a divine trump card, cutting off debate.” In fact, Robertson has already declared that he does not regard Supreme Court rulings as the highest law of the land. And Buchanan added that by branding those who disagree with them as ungodly, the militants in the religious right are creating “a much more intolerant political atmosphere.” Falwell protests those assessments. But he says that he does agree that Evangelical Christians are not likely to retreat to the political wilderness again. Said Falwell: “We’re here to stay.”
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