When most people talk about “the Religious Right” or “the Christian Right,” they’re talking generally about theologically and politically conservative Christians who can be relied upon to vote a particular way (most of the time) and otherwise participate in politics (through donations or working on campaigns) in a particular way (most of the time). When they state specifics they often resort to breakdowns by denomination; the “Christian Right” consists of conservative Protestants, conservative Catholics, evangelicals, and Mormons. Never mind for the moment that this misses conservative non-denominational types (Calvary Chapel, Vineyard Christian Fellowship, etc.) and considers Mormons Christians; the former is complicated and the latter makes sense because Mormons in one part of the country (the Mormon Corridor, AKA the Jello Belt) can be identified as consistent, significant voter blocks.
Anyway, the history of the Christian Right over several election cycles has experienced a sea change: initially the issues and leaders came from Protestants and evangelicals and the coalition-makers tried to sell them to Catholics; now it appears that process has mostly reversed. See e.g. the Manhattan Declaration. I think this is because initially the analysis focused on the big numbers (there are more Protestants than Catholics) but now it focuses on smaller numbers (there are more Catholics than Southern Baptists or conservative Lutheran or what-have-you). Never mind that Protestants seem to be short on idea leaders and charismatic leaders, while Catholics do at least have a scholastic tradition that can occasionally manage more than a soundbite.
Dinesh D’Souza’s book (the whole title is Falwell: Before the Millennium: A Critical Biography [link]) is from 1984, and while it is mostly a straightforward biography of Falwell through about 1983, and is reasonably well-written, it’s important to understand that at least part of what D’Souza is doing here is attempting to make Falwell palatable to his Roman Catholic brethren. Here’s a quick rundown:
- About 70 pages putting Falwell in context in American history (the Scopes trial, etc.) and another telling of his conversion story. There are several good versions of Falwell’s conversion story, each with differing anecdotes but for the most part consistent with one another. This is a pretty good one.
- 40 pages or so explaining Falwell’s fundamentalist credentials, his entrance into national politics, and how those two things were at variance.
- 40 pages or so describing Falwell’s involvement in Moral Majority, national politics, etc. through about 1983.
- 50-60 pages of miscellaneous topics, including a visit to Lynchburg, a description of the various ministries circa 1983, etc.
- A rundown of the 1970 FCC decision that changed the way religious television was regulated, making it possible for some TV preachers to become popular without various media outlets being required to provide equal time to their less popular counterparts/brethren. Dinesh D’Souza says Falwell was especially grateful to FCC Director (and Reagan appointee) Mark Fowler. I’d never heard that one before.
- The claim on the part of D’Souza that Falwell believed that the Watergate break-in should never have been exposed. I don’t know that I ever heard Falwell say anything like this, and it struck me as a Republican article of faith that sounded weird in 1984 and still sounds weird today.
- A theme regarding Falwell’s disagreements with various people affiliated with the World Council of Churches/National Council of Churches. It’s easy to forget that WCC people were the voice of Establishment Christianity in the United States circa 1975 or so.
This is mostly a brisk read and an interesting period piece. Sometimes it gets bogged down with inside-the-Beltway (or is that inside-the GOP?) minutiae, but that’s to be expected given D’Souza’s perspective at the time. I do kind of wish he’d delved a bit deeper into Falwell’s racial past (e.g. his supposed relationship with Lester Maddox) or his relationship to the right-wing fringe in Republican circles (e.g. his supposed relationship to the John Birch Society), and while a book like this would have been a safe place to do so D’Souza has other fish to fry.
I’d recommend it to people who are interested in the history of the Christian Right and its entanglements with the Republican Party.
It’s hard to believe sometimes that James Robison was in the early Eighties a big deal in religious television and that he was the face of Religious Roundtable, the group that hosted Ronald Reagan’s “I endorse you” speech in 1980.
I tune in every so often to his Life Today show just to see what he’s up to. So far as I can tell he’s mostly running a relief charity and helping people who are already marginally famous in some other field tell stories of drama in real life and occasionally sell books to Christian television viewers.
Unfortunately his ever-changing set is infested with Reader’s Digest Condensed Books [link], the bane of inexpensive television studios everywhere. In one of the more recent configurations one hovers just above and to the right of his wife Betty’s head in the Robison half of the basic two-shot.
In this episode, devoted to the heart-wrenching story of former beauty queen Natalie Nichols [link], one floats into view in the right half of the slow zoom at about 1:23. Others are visible during the opening montage, again above Betty’s head, during the shot of the two Robisons cuddling on the couch.
These books are ideal for shots like these because they’re cheap, squat, have goldleaf on the spine, and vary slightly in design from year to year. Sadly once you learn to pick them out you’ll never watch cut-rate television the same way again.
I really do wonder sometimes what the bookshelf behind the Robison’s is supposed to contribute as a design element. It seems to me to be saying “we’re wealthy enough to have extra space, and we’ve got family we’re not ashamed to have pictures of in our home, but we don’t read enough to fill our bookshelves with books.” Or something like that.
Here’s a fascinating appearance by Larry Schweikart, University of Dayton professor and author of three books, on the Richard Land Live! radio show, December 2008 [link][mp3]. Schweikart is pushing his book 48 Liberal Lies about American History (That You Probably Learned in School) [Amazon].
Schweikart’s attention-getter here is that one can discern the quality of a history textbook by seeing how it treats Ronald Reagan, but to my ears his discussion of how he surveyed history books by counting pictures and taking these to be representative of editorial choices, was much more interesting [see also]. I’m not sure I agree that his conclusion that pictures of the Ku Klux Klan represent a pessimistic outlook on the part of the authors is entirely warranted. Other interesting points include
- His claim that Lee Harvey Oswald’s Communism is well-established, and characterizations of Oswald as a Marine are evidence of some sort of bias. I’m under the impression that Oswald was definitely a Marine and at best probably a Communist.
- His analysis of the Japanese atomic bombing decision; this all seems to turn on the size and accuracy of troop casualty predictions, and whether 50,000 (or 100,000) Allied casualties was large or small.
- His discussion of the guilt or innocence of the Rosenbergs. I’m under the impression that modern views of the Rosenbergs are more nuanced: that Julius was guilty, Ethel not so much, and that they got harsher treatment than other Cold War spies because they were Jewish [link].
But it’s the discussion of Senator Joe McCarthy and the Red Scare that really makes this episode noteworthy; it starts at about 23:30 in the mp3. Land and Schweikart apparently agree that McCarthy was correct that Communists ran rampant in the government in the early Fifties, the fear of Communism that characterized the Red Scare was a “grounded fear,” and Schweikart says in his book that McCarthy was the victim of press bias, particularly on the part of Edward R. Murrow.
I realize that modern depictions of the Red Scare are generally seen through a Hollywood filter, particularly by people who were on a blacklist or were friends or colleagues of someone who was on a blacklist, but I am always surprised when I find someone whose interpretation of the Red Scare is this far to the right.
For the record, I’m of the opinion that if McCarthy had been correct in every detail someone would have taken up his crusade after his censure; if that happened I’m not aware of it.
This is an eight-minute excerpt from a two-hour interview with Jerry Falwell done by Don Carleton on October 13, 2005 for the Archive of American Television project of the Academy of Television Arts & Science Foundation.
This is real bread-and-butter stuff for Jerry: it starts with a question about his 1965 sermon “Ministers and Marches.” I haven’t seen or heard this sermon, and I have only seen characterizations of it as being critical of Martin Luther King Jr. Jerry blames the content of the sermon on what he had been taught in Bible college: that religion and politics don’t mix. He name-checks William Sloane Coffin Jr. as an example of a politically-involved liberal Christian minister of the time, and suggests that the failure of Prohibition had caused conservatives to turn away from politics for a generation.
He says he changed his mind about political involvement about this time and suggests that civil rights was the first of several issues (he mentions abortion and bans on voluntary prayer in public schools) that he got involved in. He mentions something about “baptizing black families” and the strong negative reaction he got for doing so in passing, but it isn’t clear to me how this fits the overall story.
He jokingly says the religious right “may have gone too far” but doesn’t say how.
He says Abington School District v. Schempp (1963) (school prayer) as being a major contributor to the formation of Moral Majority, but that Roe v. Wade (1973) (abortion) was “the straw that broke the camel’s back” in galvanizing something: either his own determination to start a political organization, or the attitudes of the people who got involved in Moral Majority. He says he consulted “Francis Schaeffer and others” about getting involved in politics; that he first got involved by registering people to vote, but that hearing Ronald Reagan on the radio was a major turning point.
He tried unsuccessfully to get Reagan nominated (instead of the incumbent Gerald Ford) in 1976, and then formed Moral Majority in 1979; he says at its height it included 100 000 pastors and 7 million members, one-third of which were Catholics. It had four main points:
- Pro-Israel; rejects Christian Zionist label and claims he does not support Israeli government when it’s wrong
- Pro-family; says the divorce rate was 30-40% then and is about 50% now
- Christian education; says “we’ve started 50 000 schools since then”
And says the Moral Majority included Catholics, Mormons, and conservative Protestants.
Oddly, he says they initially “looked at John Connally” before settling on Reagan, and that Reagan galvanized Moral Majority support in Dallas in August 1980 with his “I endorse you” speech at the National Affairs Briefing sponsored by the Religious Roundtable.
There’s a lot here for just eight minutes; Jerry doesn’t look well, but he’s still sharp as a tack and rattles off a surprising number of facts, talking points, names, etc. in a short period of time, only stumbling when he tries to remember the Christian education plank of the Moral Majority platform. At first glance his Sixties timeline doesn’t make an awful lot of sense, and of course he doesn’t mention the Bob Jones-IRS case as being important. It’s interesting how often he mentions Catholics, and that he mentions Mormons and not Jews as being part of Moral Majority. Finally, a casual observer might be forgiven for thinking that the Moral Majority was assembled for the sole purpose of endorsing Ronald Reagan.
Here’s a People for the American Way fundraising video from I’m guessing mid-to-late 1992 using footage from the 1992 Republican Convention. It is supposed to show the continuity between Reagan-era Religious Right participation in the Republican Party and Bush-era same, but by and large the differences strike me more than the similarities. First of all, did Dean Wycoff really suggest that the government should execute homosexuals? And did Gene Antonio really suggest that the Nazis were all gay? Whatever happened to those two guys? Wycoff appears to have surfaced as a Bay-area Moral Majority figure just long enough to say a couple of controversial things and disappear; Antonio is evidently still active in the home-schooling movement in the Dominican Republic [link].
Second, what really strikes me is how easily Ronald Reagan speaks our language, and what a hash George H. W. Bush makes of it. Even in these little clips it’s pretty clear that Bush just isn’t capable of talking the talk. Dan and Marilyn Quayle seem totally comfortable by comparison. And it’s important to remember that this is the same Dan Quayle that, according to Jeff Sharlet, agreed to teach a Bible study and then went looking for someone to teach him what the Bible actually said.
It’s also interesting to note that when Phyllis Schlafly is calling out Supreme Court Justices one of them is a Reagan appointee.