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On PBS, a Balanced Look at the Religious Right

BY John Prizer

September 22, 1996 Issue | Posted 10/9/97 at 2:00 PM

 

THE RELIGIOUS RIGHT is the bogeyman of American politics, used to frighten mainstream voters about the dangers of a faith-centered commitment to conservative principles. Secular liberals and their media allies enjoy conjuring up images of an emerging puritan theocracy, peopled by intolerant fanatics, teetering on the edge of violence. If these so-called “extremists” were ever to come to power, it's argued that the Constitution and the Bill of Rights would come under serious attack.

With God on Our Side: The Rise of the Religious Right in America thankfully breaks with these stereotypes. A six-part documentary series which airs on PBS beginning Sept. 27 (check local listings for exact times), it mixes TV news footage, interviews with political professionals and evangelicals themselves for a surprisingly even-handed look at the subject

Series producers Calvin Skaggs and David Van Taylor tackle most of the explosive issues head on. They carefully examine the complex relationship between religious activists and vote-hungry politicians in a 45-year period, raising legitimate questions about each side's attempts to exploit the other. The different arguments about the role of Church and state are presented fairly, if less in-depth. There's even an acknowledgment of possible anti-Christian media bias.

The series begins in 1950, when evangelical and mainstream America shared a common set of moral values despite disagreements over a few high-profile issues like creationism. Evangelicals didn't perceive either the government or popular culture as threats to their way of life so, by and large, they stayed out of polities, concentrating on revival meetings and youth rallies to win souls for their cause.

During this period, fundamentalists strongly favored a strict separation of Church and state. Their opposition to John Kennedy's candidacy for president was based on fears that his Catholicism would make him more loyal to the Vatican than the U.S. Constitution. Kennedy successfully addressed the issue with his speech at a conference of pastors in Houston, Texas, in early 1960. But the controversy established evangelicals as a potent force in the secular political arena.

The series records some of the deep-seated anti-Catholic bigotry characteristic of Protestants of that era. A fundamental-ist scholar justified the Houston pastors' fears by commenting: “[Catholics] finally got around to forgiving Galileo last year. Another evangelical remarked: “The Pope controls Kennedy.”

The civil rights struggle, led by Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., pushed black evangelicals into politics as they battled Jim Crow. But their white brethren lagged behind. Moral Majority founder Jerry Falwell confesses to the PBS interviewer that he now believes his opposition to the civil rights movement was “incorrect,” a remarkable change of heart for an evangelical leader usually depicted as inflexible and mean-spirited by the secular media.

But it was a Supreme Court decision that finally woke the sleeping giant. In 1962 the high court banned prayer from public schools. This was followed by similar judicial decrees that kicked the Bible and overt displays of religious faith out of public places. Evangelicals believed the country was turning its back on God. Their way of life was now under attack by the federal government, and they decided to fight back through political means.

The 1964 GoIdwater campaign tried to corral some of the fundamentalist anger to its advantage with limited success. Soon thereafter evangelical discontent exploded in a Southern California-based grassroots campaign against the teaching of sex education in public schools. Local school boards were forced to change their curricula as the result of fundamentalist pressure.

“Evangelicals believed the country was turning its back on God. Their way of life was now under attack by the federal government, and they decided to fight back through political means.

The Nixon White House saw the evangelical vote as key to their so-called “Southern strategy” and shamelessly exploited fundamentalist discontent, turning the East Room into a chapel where every Sunday the President and specially targeted evangelical pastors ostentatiously worshipped together. The Rev. Billy Graham became the unofficial White House chaplain. The Watergate scandal shocked Graham and other Protestant leaders, alerting them to the dangers of manipulation by cynical politicians. But the permissive, secularist drift of American culture kept pushing evangelicals and political conservatives back into each other's arms.

Fundamentalist fury erupted again at the grassroots level during the 1974 textbook wars in Kanahwa County, West Virginia. A new series of high school texts, which their editor, James Moffett, describes as “reflecting the progressive spirit of the 60s,” clashed with many of the parents' deeply held religious beliefs. They feared that “their children were being mentally kidnapped.” Local evangelical pastors helped organize opposition to the textbooks, and when the school board refused to back down, demonstrations, violence and national media attention followed.

Outsiders from the political right, such as the Heritage Foundation, the John Birch Society, and soon-to-be-Congressman Bob Dornan, rushed in to help. According to Moffett, the controversy “put the fear of God into the publishers,” and “the books were sanitized.” Angry believers and political professionals had successfully joined together to win a victory in the first of many battles of what would soon be called “the culture wars.”

The election of Jimmy Carter in 1976 seemed to temporarily change the equation. Both a liberal and a self-proclaimed “born-again” Christian, he persuaded many conservative evangelicals, like Pat Robertson, to support him. This alliance was short-lived. The politics of his Democratic administration seemed to accommodate the permissive, secularist forces in our culture rather than confront them. These differences came to a head during the ill-fated White House Conference on Families, which couldn't even agree on a definition of family.

Fearing that gay-rights and pro-abortion advocates were setting the agenda, conservative pro-family groups walked out. They felt their born-again brother, Jimmy Carter, had betrayed them. Conservative Catholics also played an important part in this highly publicized confrontation. Opposition to the changes in America's moral climate had begun to spread beyond evangelical Protestants. The Religious Right was becoming an ecumenical movement.

Conservative activists, Morton Blackwell and Paul Weyrich, set out political out to create a national Christian political organization and persuaded Jerry Falwell to set it up. Following Weyrich's lead, Falwell named it the Moral Majority. Ronald Reagan aggressively courted this and other similar groups, who subsequently registered millions of evangelical voters, helping provide Reagan with his margin of victory over Carter in 1980.

Once in office, Reagan put his economic agenda first, neglecting moral issues like school prayer and abortion which were important to evangelicals. Religious leaders were forced to choose between the role of truth-speaking prophet and that of trusted adviser. Most, like Falwell, opted to be insiders and muted their public expression of disappointment with Reagan's policies. As Falwell's assistant, Ed Dobson, puts it, evangelicals were “thrown bones and dog biscuits.”

Disillusioned with Reagan's compromises, Pat Robertson decided to run for the White House himself in 1988. The scandals which broke around televange-lists Jim Bakker and Jimmy Swaggart didn't seem to effect his prospects. Mobilizing his evangelical supporters at the precinct level, he finished ahead of Bush in the Iowa caucus.

Bush's operatives deployed a variety of dirty tricks to defeat Robertson in the South where the born-again vote was strongest. Bush then used much of Robertson's message on moral issues to win 81 percent of the evangelical vote in the final election.

Afraid that Bush, like Reagan, would neglect the interests of evangelicals, Robertson founded the Christian Coalition and hired Ralph Reed, a brilliant political organizer, to run it. They were determined never to have to kowtow to a Republican president again. Reed declared: ‘We will be the most powerful force in American politics.” Using the same people and offices deployed in Robertson's primary campaign, he built up an organization modeled on the AFL-CIO and the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, with strength at both the grassroots and Capitol-Hill level.

As anticipated, Bush's relationship with religious activists was a stormy one. To placate them, he gave Robertson and conservative Catholic Pat Buchanan prime time for their speeches at the 1992 GOP convention in Houston. The media played up their remarks about “culture wars” and America's moral decline. The Religious Right was then branded as extremist. Its influence was supposedly pulling Republicans away from the concerns of mainstream Americans. These damaging allegations were never challenged by the Bush campaign.

Nevertheless, the Christian Coalition was key to the GOP upset victory in the 1994 congressional elections as it broadened its scope and took positions on economic issues. During the 1996 primary campaign Reed even hinted at a willingness to compromise on abortion if this would help the Republican coalition.

Some born-again activists, like Operation Rescue's Randall Terry, believe Reed is compromising his Christian principles to gain a seat in the halls of power. ‘I don't want a place at the table,” Terry declares. “The table is corrupt.” To Terry, only “God's law” matters.

Opponents of the Christian Coalition are wrong to assume that infighting among evangelicals over political tactics in any way dilutes their potential power. For, as long as America continues its slide into moral and cultural relativism, the Religious Right will grow from strength to strength.

John Prizer wrote and co-produced the PBS documentary Inside The Republican Revolution.