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“One Nation Under God”: The Rise of the Religious Right

ISSUE:  Autumn 1982

One of the most striking features of American politics in recent years has been the impact of the right wing, frequently associated with evangelical Christians who seek to mix religion and politics in explicit and deliberate ways. They helped secure for Ronald Reagan the nomination of the Republican Party in 1980, and later that year they helped send the incumbent back on the midnight train to Georgia. Such activists have targeted the defeat of liberal and moderate candidates on the state and local level, and they have put on the defensive politicians who admit to having been born only once. The recent riptide of conservatism has ensured the destruction of the Equal Rights Amendment in state legislatures and has substituted abortion for race as possibly the most searing issue in domestic politics.

The activists of the New Right are thus involved deeply, though not decisively, in the issues that may characterize the 1980’s and perhaps beyond. They will be helping to define the terms on which politicians may be elected, the limits within which officials may feel obliged to work, the cases which will be decided in our appellate courts. The purpose of this article is to explain the historical significance of this movement and also to articulate some of the reasons why it threatens values which American public culture ought to sponsor and defend.

According to the evangelical magazine Christianity Today, the religious movement it represents and addresses contains two kinds of believers. The “orthodox,” sometimes known as fundamentalists, hold that the Bible is literally true. They believe that Jesus is divine and is the only hope for personal salvation. The others are “conversionalists,” and are born again; its members claim to have undergone an actual religious experience involving a plea to Jesus to be a personal savior. All evangelicals seek converts, but they do not share homogeneous political views: in the 1980 elections, Reagan, Jimmy Carter, and John Anderson all claimed to have been born again. Nevertheless, the most famous political expression of evangelical Christianity is the Moral Majority, and the most conspicuous spokesman of this movement is the Reverend Jerry Falwell.

The political ramifications of a resurgent, starboard-tilting Protestantism must be placed within an historical context if its present force is to be measured properly and understood. For many Americans, who belong to a people that has celebrated “innocence” and rebirth rather than the continuity of generations, even the 19th century may now seem like a distant mirror; and yet to neglect the social transformations of that era would create a distorting mirror as well. For in the century between the establishment of the republic and the outbreak of the Great War, approximately 23 million immigrants came to the United States. It was the largest mass migration in all of Western history; and it resulted in a remarkably heterogeneous society, one honeycombed with religious rivalries and with racial and ethnic antagonisms. The hospitality these shores provided meant that the older groups that had begun settling here from Britain would not be alone. Quite understandably then, nativism surfaced well before the Civil War, expressing political and cultural opposition to the primarily Catholic immigrants from Ireland and Germany. Nativism was revitalized in the rancorous atmosphere of World War I; and in its aftermath the Ku Klux Klan, for example, was animated at least as much by its hostility to Catholics, Jews, radicals, and aliens as it was by the racism that had engendered the organization during Reconstruction. It was symptomatic of the social tensions of the 1920’s that, at the 1924 Democratic National Convention, a resolution to denounce the Ku Klux Klan as un-American was defeated by the majority of delegates. In that decade immigration quotas against non-Asians were first imposed. The ideological basis of the 1921 and 1924 restrictions was racist, for Congress discriminated against southern and eastern Europeans and in favor of northern and western Europeans. During that decade such colorful episodes as the Scopes Monkey Trial also came to symbolize the opposition of fundamentalist Protestants to the spread of secularism and scientific teachings in the public schools, and it is worth recalling that the Dayton, Tennessee biology teacher was convicted of explicating the Darwinian theory of evolution.

Thus the 1920’s ought to be considered as the peak of conservative and repressive influence in the 20th century, as the last serious spasm of effort to resist the new forces of modernization. Even the 1920 census had made it official; we had become for the first time an urban nation, with only a minority of Americans living on farms or in villages. H. L. Mencken, who scoffed at the Monkey Trial for the Baltimore Sun and who helped plan the legal strategy for the defense, found Dayton, Tennessee far less devoted to the faith than he had anticipated. Mencken observed the hamlet’s citizens barely listening to the itinerant preachers who had flocked into town to denounce iniquity. To be sure, he noted, “they were all hot for Genesis, but their faces were far too florid to belong to teetotalers, and when a pretty girl came tripping down the main street, which was very often, they reached for the places where their neckties should have been with all the amorous enterprise of movie actors.” Even the Klan itself soon self-destructed as an organization, rocked by a series of financial and sexual scandals that ruined its reputation for promoting purity and shattered its influence by the end of the decade.

With the unprecedented crisis that afflicted American capitalism after 1929, the conservative verities lost much of their power. The commitment to social welfare and economic regulation and intervention that marked the New Deal, as well as its internationalism, spawned by the Second World War, meant that the domestic and foreign policies of the American government would henceforth be decisively shaped by liberalism. What had once been deemed matters of individual or local responsibility were increasingly assumed by Washington; and a diminishing number of citizens deplored urban sanitation, for instance, as a terrible infringement of personal liberty.

The contours of this dramatic transformation, this legacy of the New Deal, are familiar; but what is relevant here is how effectively liberal policies and politicians managed to thwart the unification of any right-wing opposition. Consider the plight of such demagogues as the 1930’s radio priest, Charles Coughlin, who could arouse all sorts of social resentment against the New Deal and appeal to bigotry with his references to the “Jew Deal.” Yet those listening so raptly to his radio shows, generally members of the working and lower middle classes, were those deriving the greatest benefits from the economic policies of the Roosevelt administration. They might also appreciate Father Coughlin’s assaults on the gargoyles of Wall Street, perhaps without realizing how such assaults blocked any alliance with those very capitalists who nurtured their own reasons for opposing the New Deal. The blue-collar audiences that Coughlin mesmerized had little in common with the bluebloods of the Liberty League or the financial community he anathematized; and the buccaneering entrepreneurs, resentful of New Deal intrusions, might agree with the Christian vision of the meek inheriting the earth—except for its mineral rights. Among such disparate foes of the Roosevelt administration, no common ground could be found.

Similar disunity and class divisions, as S. M. Lipset and Earl Raab have analyzed in detail, continued to plague the struggle of the far right to mobilize itself. Senator Joseph McCarthy echoed the radio priest’s attacks on an Eastern Establishment but in so doing robbed McCarthyism of whatever claims it might have invoked that it represented conservative traditions. In condemning the most prestigious and comfortable sectors of American society, McCarthy denied himself the support of such conservatives and thus weakened his own attempts to erode civil liberties during the 1950’s. A decade later Barry Goldwater seemed such a threat to the conventional policies that had become the patrimony of New Deal liberalism that many big businessmen opposed him. In Michigan, for instance, Goldwater’s candidacy was publicly resisted not only by the U.A.W.’s Walter Reuther and by the Teamsters” Jimmy Hoffa but also by Henry Ford II. And when George Wallace cultivated national rather than merely regional ambitions, he managed to appeal to few elements of the corporate elite, whose backing might have given Wallace the stature and legitimacy—and the financial buttressing— that he needed to overcome the stigma of racism. The Alabama governor could therefore not advance beyond the undeniable appeal his rhetoric exerted upon the working and lower middle classes.


Ever since the New Deal, the upper-class elite and lowerclass mass could not be combined into a cohesive political force against the regnant liberalism. But the right has also struggled against another legacy of disunion, which is rooted in the Christian Reformation itself. The gap that has existed between the two branches of Western Christianity since the 16th century was reproduced, though not lethally, in the United States. The nativists of the mid-19th century had been Protestants fearful of Papal influence, warning of the challenge that parochial schools and an authoritarian church posed to public education and to the congealing of national loyalty. Nativist mobs had burned convents and assaulted priests, and the Democrats had later been condemned as the party of “rum, Romanism and rebellion.” In the South, the most thoroughly Protestant area in the Western Hemisphere, anti-Catholic smears were a staple of the demagogy of regional heroes like Georgia’s Tom Watson and Alabama’s Tom Heflin.

Here again the decade of the 1920’s established a standard against which later events and the reemergence of the far right might be judged. For the symbolic overtones which became associated with the consumption of alcoholic beverages pitted Protestants against Catholics. The taverns and saloons where urban workers—very often of Catholic faith—liked to congregate were denounced as sources of sin and corruption by fundamentalist Protestants who were religiously prohibited from consuming such drinks. It was about as predictable for Al Smith to be a “wet,” if only because of the centrality of wine in Catholic ritual, as for William Jennings Bryan, as secretary of state under Woodrow Wilson, to ban wine from diplomatic receptions. It may not be straining this argument to speculate that President Carter’s disdain for “the three-martini lunch” may well have stemmed from this Protestant tradition of Prohibition (if only because so much of what Carter represented was at least the faint echo of some tradition).

It was, ironically, the election of John F. Kennedy rather than the oratory of Coughlin and McCarthy that accelerated the rapprochement between American Catholics and Protestants. Although a political liberal whose religious convictions—if he had any—were kept firmly to himself, Kennedy executed the powers of the Oval Office in a way that extinguished whatever suspicions still lingered about the subservience of Catholics to the influence of the Vatican. The historic chasm between the two versions of Western Christianity thus became easier to bridge. Even though only about 10 percent of evangelicals today identify as Catholics, they have forged important alliances at least on the issue of abortion, thus subverting some of the strength of the Democratic Party’s liberal redoubts in the Northeast and Midwest. Another, smaller sign of the rapprochement within Christendom is the new tack adopted by the Ku Klux Klan, a very minor but growing organization. Not only has it slightly softened its racism, but the Klan has also largely eliminated the anti-Catholicism so embedded in its ideology in the 1920’s. Anyone troubled by this loss of intelletual consistency and abandonment of tradition should be reassured that the Klan still directs hatred against “Communists” and Jews, but at least certain religious and cultural antagonisms on the far right are waning.

But perhaps nothing demonstrates so clearly the rearguard action that political and religious fundamentalists have been forced to wage than the reinterpretation of the Constitution. In the 1920’s the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court, William Howard Taft, could privately describe two of his brethren, Oliver Wendell Holmes and Louis Brandeis, as “Bolsheviki.” But with Roosevelt’s appointment of Hugo Black, William O. Douglas, Frank Murphy, Felix Frankfurter (to some extent) and others, with Eisenhower’s appointment of Earl Warren as Chief Justice, the dissenting opinions of Holmes and Brandeis became the law of the land. Liberties that had previously been given lip service, or which had never been explicitly recorded (like the right of privacy), became operational to an extent that previous judges had not imagined and that the Founders may not have intended. The rights of workers were clarified, the rights of Communists were protected, the rights of teachers were invented, the rights of aliens were extended, and the rights of blacks were enormously magnified. In such landmark decisions as Baker v. Carr and Reynolds v. Sims, the Supreme Court for the first time enunciated the principle of “one man, one vote”; and in thus weakening the power of rural constituencies, the justices curtailed even further what had once been the hegemony of conservatism. Unlike liberal and radical opponents of the First World War, who had been ostracized, persecuted, tortured, jailed, and occasionally killed, critics of the American intervention in Vietnam generally discovered that the judicial system protected and even enlarged their civil liberties. It is true that the demands of homosexuals for equal treatment have been very imperfectly met, but one sign of the expansion of freedom in modern America has been the vocal representations and sometimes the stridency of what once was discreetly termed “the love that dare not speak its name.” But the most important unfinished item on the agenda of liberalism, affecting over half the population, has been unevenly extended within the judicial system. Nevertheless, one index of equal rights for women has been freedom of choice in abortion. In Roe v. Wade, less than a decade old, the Supreme Court upheld the right to an abortion for at least the first six months of pregnancy, so that today the most frequently performed medical operation in the United States is an abortion. It is within such a political climate that the New Right is obliged to function.

When Reverend Dan C. Fore, the New York state chairman of the Moral Majority, announced that “God is an ultraconservative,” he was challenging, however unwittingly, the traditional response of the American political system to intense religious conviction. Piety has never been absent from our national life, and voters have often been addressed by candidates so manifestly devout that they seemed to regard the White House itself as merely a stepping-stone. But other politicians have perceived the dangers that tenacity of religious belief has posed to the already robust dialogue of American self-government, have sensed the menace that militant theology could present to national harmony and civility, and have preferred to let sleeping dogmas lie. In this respect the record of the Eisenhower administration can be taken as illustrative. For it was during that era that the phrase “under God” was inserted in the Pledge of Allegiance, and “in God we trust” was printed on American money and also became the motto of a postage stamp. On the first Independence Day of Eisenhower’s administration, he urged his fellow citizens to devote that Fourth of July to prayer and penance. Yet it must be added that Ike himself, whom one observer described as “a fervent believer in a very vague religion,” set a most peculiar example. That Fourth of July, according to one journalist, the president “caught four fish in the morning, played 18 holes of golf in the afternoon, and spent the evening at the bridge table.” Thus religion was supposed to matter to Americans—but not too much.

Such is the heritage which the resurgent right wing, with its combustible mixture of religion and politics, is seeking to alter. For example, its Human Life Statute—perhaps in the form of a prelude to a Constitutional amendment—would outflank the Supreme Court’s majority opinion in Roe v. Wade. The justices on that occasion were candid enough to admit that they could not define when life begins. The New Right wishes to rectify such ignorance in accordance with Catholic doctrine, which teaches that life begins at conception. That religious definition, rather than any scientific interest, animates the sponsors of the Human Life proposal. The New Right seems equally sure of when the universe originated, as well as life on this planet; and it has sought to require the teaching of “creationist” theory in the public schools along with Darwinism and current astronomical knowledge. The “creationist” theory is derived from, or is intended to be made compatible with, a reading of Scripture (despite differing accounts in Genesis of how and when woman is created). Such fundamentalist views have already produced political consequences. In March 1981 the governor of Arkansas, who had decribed his election as “a victory for the Lord,” signed a bill—which he had not read—into law, requiring the teaching of “creationism” along with conventional “evolution theory” in the public schools. The aim of the legislation was quite explicitly to “prevent establishment of theologically liberal, humanist, nontheist or atheist [sic] religions.” Though struck down in January by a federal judge in Little Rock, “creationism” has been sanctioned by a more subtle Louisiana state legislature, which has more artfully disguised the religious roots of this new educational requirement.

It is disturbing enough to consider what further damage the instruction of pseudo biology and pseudo geology can do to an already battered public school system. It is also obvious enough that no foe of fundamentalism is obliged to defend any particular set of scientific views, which historically have often been proven to be erroneous (although scientific methods authorize the hope that mistakes can be corrected). “Science has proof without any certainty,” one anthropologist has written, but “creationists have certainty without any proof.” But what is most significant is the challenge that such victories for the Lord represent in a political arena designed to include citizens of all persuasions. The law should not compel everyone, in a system subsidized by the taxes of heretics and the unchurched as well, to pay attention to the beliefs of a particular religious group. Citizens offended by The Origin of Species are not required to enroll their children in the public schools, and in their parochial and private academies they may teach—if they wish—that the earth is flat. But so long as public schools in a pluralistic society see fit to offer instruction in biology, they need not yield to sectarian pressure to disseminate religious doctrines camouflaged as scientific theory.


The analogy holds with respect to the ticklish and terrible issue of abortion, a surgical procedure toward which anyone with humane instincts should be at best ambivalent. Those who condemn it ordinarily derive inspiration from religious teachings, and the state should not prevent them from expressing their abhorrence in any peaceful manner. Opponents of abortion remain free to deny that option to themselves. But in attempting to prohibit others from exercising their rights, in summoning the police power and the criminal sanction of the government, the so-called pro-life forces strike at the core of religious liberty. Some faiths and creeds do not forbid abortion; and in any event our society has to accommodate everyone, not only the philoprogenitive. On this issue, at least, even the Moral Majority itself is a misnomer, since the ABC-Harris Polls have disclosed that 60 percent of the American public favors the freedom of choice principle enunciated in Roe v. Wade. In this instance the Moral Majority is attempting to impose a minority position, though it is a sign of the political effectiveness of the far right’s lobbying effort that Senator Strom Thurmond, who supports the option of abortion only in cases of rape and incest, is beginning to look like a moderate.

Perhaps no other issue reveals so strikingly what the New Right embodies and the values it sanctions. For opponents of freedom of choice are also commonly found among those who also reject the Equal Rights Amendment for women, and that demonstrates a certain consistency. A teen-ager or young woman who is coerced into giving birth to an unwanted child will have her life irrevocably changed, and she will thus be denied the same autonomy and freedom that the father of her child might enjoy. But inconsistencies dog this particular cause as well. Those who claim that abortion is murder and must therefore be forbidden rarely object when young, equally “innocent” life is taken in warfare; few Protestant fundamentalists or Roman Catholics are pacifists. Nor are they usually found in the ranks of those who wish to eliminate capital punishment; pro-life activists do not object on principle when the hangman rather than a physician takes a human life. Rarely have the champions of the Human Life Statute mailed appeals opposing the arms race or asking for foreign aid to reduce starvation and disease in the Third World.

Whatever the inconsistencies, which bedevil anyone engaged in political causes, evangelical ministers insist upon the same right to activate Christian teachings and bring religious morality to bear upon political questions that liberal ministers once promoting civil rights and the antiwar movement enjoyed. Such causes of the 1960’s and 1970’s attracted secular liberals, who rarely betrayed discomfort with the claim that Christian principles compelled Americans to extend equal rights and to stop American intervention in Vietnam. Such causes were enhanced and even legitimized by clergy who acted according to their understanding of sacred texts and of the heart of their faith. The evangelicals therefore have every reason to wonder why the activism of Martin Luther King, Jr. can be honored, while the rallies of Reverend Jerry Falwell provoke anger and distrust.

The explanation involves the definition of an open and pluralistic society. When Reverend King marched in the South to demand equal access to the ballot box, he challenged no principle grounded either in Constitutional law or in Christian faith. In the struggle to fulfill the promises articulated in the Fourteenth and Fifteenth Amendments, King was finally vindicated, though at a tragic cost, not because he was a Christian—although he was—but because he appealed to the dream of tolerance. His vision encompassed all citizens. It was unnecessary to share the source of King’s faith in order to agree with his conclusion that racial segregation was morally and legally wrong.

In retrospect no respectable political leader justifies such discriminatory practices, but it is less clear whether clerical opposition to the military conflict in Vietnam was as warranted. Here the historical record discloses that no clarification of divine imperatives was gained when ministers like William Sloane Coffin or the Berrigan brothers were pitted against Cardinal Spellman or Billy Graham. Horrible as the warfare in Vietnam was, religious faith has been far less successful in arousing outrage against the tyranny and misery that have scarred Vietnam since its reunification. One safe conclusion to be drawn from the melancholy coda to the antiwar movement that dictated American withdrawal from Indochina might be skepticism, for even those who have dedicated themselves to the religious vocation are not thereby exempt from fallibility. Both sides in the debate over American participation in the Vietnamese civil war could not have been correct, and therefore both sides might have recognized more fully the virtue of humility.

That is why serious risks ensue from the proclamations of Reverend Falwell and others that they express the divine will as applied to worldly issues. Mr. Dooley, the barfly created by Finley Peter Dunne, was wiser when he defined a fanatic as “a man that does what he thinks th” Lord wud do if He knew th” facts iv th” case.” Those who invoke absolute truths, who believe that they—and they alone—enjoy a heavenly benediction, threaten the efficiency of the democratic process itself. For if a sect is a religion which has abandoned its claim to a monopoly of truth, then our political system is most likely to succeed when it incorporates sects rather than religions, when the legitimacy of other creeds is not questioned, and when the option to adhere to no faith at all is neither penalized nor stigmatized. This was also the argument of Voltaire, who observed that in countries where there is one religion, there is despotism; where there are two religions, there is civil war; but where there are many sects, peace results because toleration becomes a necessity. He had the misfortune of living in an era in which many Europeans were not only willing to die for their faith but were capable of killing for it as well. But because America was settled by so many Catholics as well as Protestants, because so many different kinds of Protestants came to live here, this society harbored the dream of avoiding the religious wars that had wracked Europe, or that tore India asunder at its independence, or that inflict such agony today in Northern Ireland and in Lebanon.

That is why the fusion of an intense Christianity with an ardent conservatism represents a certain threat to the diversity that is the secret of civil order. That the Protestant majority is not alone on this continent is a lesson that sometimes must be relearned, and that in the coming years the confident evangelical ministers will undoubtedly confront as well. In 1960 the Reverend Norman Vincent Peale attacked the Democratic Party candidate for president because Kennedy was a Catholic. Peale quickly realized how impolitic and bigoted a statement that was and apologized, offering the excuse that he was “not too bright.” No one could accuse T. S. Eliot of that; and yet, delivering the Page-Barbour lectures at the University of Virginia in 1933, the poet risked falling into a similar trap. On that occasion the most famous of all Anglican converts announced that no truly Christian society could permit in its midst a large number of “freethinking Jews.” This dictum was included in the book he published in England, where Eliot’s church was of course established; but the statement was discreetly omitted from the edition published in the United States. Representing an Illinois congressional district in 1965, John Anderson introduced a Constitutional amendment that began, “This Nation devoutly recognizes the authority and law of Jesus Christ, Savior and Ruler of nations. . . .” But 15 years later, when Anderson sought to speak to and for all Americans, he sharply repudiated such an effort, realizing its implications for the definition of democracy. For if majority rule is to be enshrined without regard for minority rights or individual liberties, as the New Right seems prepared to do, then such a revision of democracy would be conceptually little different from a lynching, during which—as John P. Roche has noted— there is usually only one dissenting vote.


The 2.7 percent of the American population that is Jewish has been especially sensitive to the implications of the alignment of many Protestants with some Catholics in the New Right. When the president of the Southern Baptist Convention, Reverend Bailey Smith, asserted that “God Almighty does not hear the prayers of a Jew,” Smith was enunciating something that a devout Christian might plausibly believe. It is a strong implication—though not the only possible conclusion—derived from a complete acceptance of Christian belief, which holds that no salvation is possible for those who spurn the opportunity to accept Jesus as their Savior. Yet Reverend Smith’s assertion generated an outcry greater than anything aroused by his coarser statements (such as “I think they [Jews] got funny-looking noses”), because his description of a hearing-impaired deity diminished the legitimacy of the Jewish community itself. That is why many Southern Baptists repudiated Reverend Smith’s claim that Jewish prayer was in vain, why so many Southern Baptists insisted that Smith did not speak for them, and why he himself apologized to American citizens of Jewish faith and asked for an audience with the national director of the AntiDefamation League. Because religious intolerance is widely perceived as un-American, because the civic equality of Jews with more numerous Protestants and Catholics appears so firmly established, evangelical ministers can be forced to realize the political and moral liabilities of seeming to criticize Jews. Indeed, the myrmidons of the New Right sometimes learn this lesson a little too well. When Reverend Fore was accused of anti-Semitism, he responded in a statement quoted in the New York Times: “I love the Jewish people deeply. God has given them talents He has not given others. They are His chosen people. Jews have a God-given ability to make money, almost a supernatural ability to make money. They control the media, they control this city [of New York].” It is one of the healthier paradoxes of American politics that such classic stereotypes can be uttered in the accents of benevolence.

The heterogeneity of American society is also likely eventually to undermine the increasingly successful efforts of censors. They have realized the futility of attacking such reputable groups as religious minorities; and since pornographers do not have supporters (only customers), such volumes as John Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath, Ken Kesey’s One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, Richard Wright’s Black Boy, Eldridge Cleaver’s Soul on Ice, and Kurt Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse Five have been removed from the shelves of certain public and school libraries. Folly has also resulted. One school board banned a book entitled Making It with Mademoiselle before discovering that the volume was a how-to pattern book for girls hoping to learn dressmaking. Several school districts have banned The American Heritage Dictionary because some of the words ensconced in our language are unacceptable, such as “bed,” which the lexicon defines as a transitive verb. A Florida organization entitled Save Our Children has been seeking to purge from public libraries all volumes written by reputed homosexuals, regardless of subject matter or point of view.

The attitude of such censors, for whom the Bible alone constitutes valid reading, resembles that of our least intellectual movie star, Jean Harlow, who, when asked what she wanted for her birthday, replied: “Don’t buy me a book; I got a book.” But surely the First Amendment ought to embrace books that have not sold as well as the Bible (President Reagan’s reason for believing in its divine origin). The Constitution should even protect books that some will find offensive or prurient. “Whatever obscenity is,” Justice Douglas once observed, “it is immeasurable as a crime and delineable only as a sin. As a sin, it is present only in the minds of some and not in the minds of others, and is entirely too subjective for legal sanction.” Neither judges nor the cultural vigilantes stalking our libraries are fully qualified to define obscenity and to proscribe taste; and so long as librarians lack the authority to force anyone to read The Grapes of Wrath, the deprivation of the right to read such novels in publicly financed institutions is incompatible with the meaning of liberty.

First Amendment rights are more directly in collision when television programming is at stake. The networks enjoy certain legal guarantees. But so do citizens such as Coalition for Better Television, based in Tupelo, Mississippi, a group whose members have promised not to buy products of the sponsors of television shows repugnant to Christian morals. Such programs as Dallas, Charlie’s Angels, Three’s Company, The Newlywed Game, and The Dating Game have recently come under this indirect attack, The wisdom of selecting these particular targets is certainly debatable. But the Coalition for Better Television surely has as much right to object to such shows as does the liberal Action for Children’s Television in decrying the level of violence and huckstering on Saturday morning programming. It is noteworthy that no network executive has defended The Dating Game with the plea that a necessary social truth or artistic message must be Communicated, even against popular opposition. No producer seems willing to risk martyrdom so that Dallas may be aired, since the networks are inspired more by Nielsen’s ratings than by Jefferson’s writings. No damage to the image of a free society could be inferred were Coalition for Better Television to succeed, beyond its wildest dreams, in sanitizing such shows.

But the dream of a pluralistic polity which maximizes opportunity is tarnished when freedom of choice is denied to pregnant women, when prayer and scriptural versions of cosmogony are introduced into the public schools, when sin is discovered in books, when political debate becomes overloaded with a religious charge. The current drive on the far right to infuse the responsibilities of self-government with the passions of faith challenges what is most promising and perhaps most essential in the American experiment itself— what Jefferson called “an empire of reason.”

But a principled opposition to political fundamentalism need not tap unwarranted anxieties and inflated fears that this empire of reason is endangered; and in liberal precincts the power of the New Right has been considerably overstated. For every viewer of Reverend Falwell’s Old-Time Gospel Hour, five or six Americans are watching The Phil Donahue Show. Falwell’s program is only the sixth most popular of the syndicated evangelical programs, the so-called stations of the cross; and of the top ten, his is perhaps the only one with an explicit political message. More Americans watch M*A*S*H every week than tune in to all the “electronic churches” combined. Even in the 1980 elections, only 11 percent of those who actually voted for Reagan did so primarily because of his conservative ideology. There are good reasons to suspect that, whipsawed between high crime rates and high prime rates, embittered by stagnation at home and humiliation abroad, most voters in 1980 sought change rather than associate membership in the Moral Majority. Since then, the legislative achievements of the New Right have been very limited, and its agenda has received very little judicial sanction. For the ambitions and the desire for repression of these activists are less extensive and less formidable than earlier manifestations in American history of political fundamentalism, and liberal segments of Christianity and of the general community are far stronger than were their predecessors who combatted nativists and the Klan. The New Right threatens no one’s religious liberty and does not countenance violence, though its capacity for considerable mischief cannot be discounted. Civil libertarians like to say that their victories are never final, that their struggle never ceases. And so long as the American political culture—with its stress on compromise and conciliation and its indifference to theology—cannot satisfy the spiritual hungers that many citizens feel, a climate will exist in which evangelical politics may be nourished.


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