The Political Church Movement

Although the Conservative Intellectual Movement had been working and gaining ground in the thinking of American culture, Evangelicals and Fundamentalist had remained steadfastly and intentionally removed from political involvement and policy making until the late 1970s. The reason might be best understood in the person of Jerry Falwell who publicly denounced political involvement on the part of church leaders in his sermon titled, “Ministers and Marchers”:

…March 1965 sermon, “Minister and Marchers,” in which he leveled a broadside at King, his black ministerial colleagues, and the Northern clergy whose liberal theology made them fully as suspect as their politics. Although he acknowledged that “many sincere persons are participating” in the movement, he questioned “the sincerity and nonviolent intentions of some civil rights leaders such as Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., Mr. James Farmer, and others, who are known to have left-wing associations. It is very obvious that the Communists, as they do in all parts of the world, are taking advantage of a tense situation in our land, and are exploiting every incident to bring about violence and bloodshed.” Speaking of the role ministers should properly play, he declared that “our only purpose on this earth is to know Christ and to make him known. Believing the Bible as I do, I would find it impossible to stop preaching the pure saving Gospel of Jesus Christ and begin doing anything else – including the fighting of communism or participating in the civil rights reform…. Preachers are not called to be politicians, but to be soul winners.”(1)

As noted earlier, Falwell apologized for this talk. In part that was necessary as he was moving into the political arena himself. For forty years the Fundamental and Evangelical church had walled themselves off from the cultural interactions which shape the thinking of society:

The Scopes trial was the first “cultural workshop” that produced the social contract which exiled conservative – in the sense of Bible-believing and Christ-professing – Protestants from the nation’s public life. But it was by no means the last. Modern secular hegemony was produced over and over again during subsequent decades. In their theories, story lines, plots, and images, the nations scholars, journalists, novelists, playwrights, and filmmakers most explicitly articulated modern America as a world in which Fundamentalists figured as stigmatized outsiders. The terms of secular modernity were also written into a wide array of laws, court decisions, government policies, decrees, and regulations, codes of etiquette, customs, practices, and commonsense presuppositions that structured national public discourses.(2)

This self imposed retreat from culture was gradually seen by those who shaped the thinking of society as the defeat and even death of those who firmly believed the Bible and the morals it espoused:

The regime of secular modernity did however put a special onus on conservative Protestants, above all on those who called themselves fundamentalists, insofar as they had come to stand for religious partisanship and their exclusion was seen as essential for the survival of a secular, or “tolerant,” America. One form this exclusion took, one which testifies of the power of the regime, was the illusion, especially widespread among the nation’s intelligentsia, that conservative, Bible-believing Protestantism – that is, Fundamentalism – was unchanging, homogeneous, and gradually disappearing.(3)

The “illusion” of the “nation’s intelligentsia” would be shattered in the late 1970s as some of the fundamentalists moved from the Protective Church and began in the direction of the Political Church which would be led by Pastor Jerry Falwell. Falwell appears to be the likely candidate to unite those who would opt for political activism.

As an independent, unaffiliated fundamental Baptist preacher, Jerry Falwell during the 1970s was able to mix freely with preachers aligned with various networks, and he found many of them increasingly with one another. In his 1976 “America Back to God” crusade sermon, Falwell claimed that he was meeting monthly with some forty well-known fundamentalist preachers – among them John R. Rice, Jack Hyles, Lee Robertson, and J. Vernon McGee. Fundamentalists, or born-again believers, as he was beginning to call them, were America’s salt of the earth, its preservative, and he reckoned at the time that there were some 45-50 millions grains of salt in these United States.(4)

Recognizing that culture had gone on without the influence of Bible believing Christians there was a growing belief among these leaders that simply trying to protect their own was no longer (if it ever was) helpful. The salt and light needed to get out of the high walled Protective Church Movement and work at reversing the trend of moral breakdown. In other words, the hangover of Christian morals had largely worn off society. Falwell and other began to think that the way to reinsert morality was through political activism. The idea that they were 45-50 million strong came from George Gallup’s 1976 poll in which he reported that “34 percent of adult Americans professed to be saved, or born-again.”(5) This really began to coalesce after the first born-again president, Jimmy Carter’s interview in Playboy magazine and admission of lusting after women and committing adultery in his heart many times. Jerry Falwell followed up with a sermon “Seven Things Corrupting America” and the race to bring culture back to Christian morality was on although Falwell didn’t immediately see himself as the primary leader at that point and wasn’t altogether sure he wanted to make alliances with the Conservative Intellectual Movement.

He was first approached that year, in 1976, by a group of conservative leaders, among them Howard Phillips, Paul Weyrich, and Richard Viguerie. They proposed Falwell create an organization that would mobilize fundamentalists and evangelicals as voters. He declined, but the idea apparently took root. He not only began to preach more openly toward such an end, he took some initial steps, joining singer Anita Bryant in her crusade against the homosexual rights ordinance in Dade County, Florida, in 1977 and 1978 and lending some support in Virginia to block the ERA amendment, and protest the White House Conferences on the Family in 1978. Finally, in the spring of 1979, after meeting again with conservative leaders, Falwell announced the formation of the Moral Majority.(6)

This alliance of the New Christian Right and the Conservative Intellectual Movement proved to be a powerful force in the nation’s politics and brought about the election of Ronald Reagan. This move split the Protective Church Movement pretty much down the middle:

…hiving off those who would forsake much of their biblical separation from the world, and allying them with conservative evangelicals who were already more at ease in the world but had lately become alarmed about its moral state and the prospect of accommodating to it. This alliance, which formed the core of the New Christian Right in the 1980s, was as much a cultural merger as it was a political pact among leaders.(7)

Oddly enough, as concerned as these leaders were with the moral decline of the nation, the thing which seems to have been the motivating force which propelled them into the political fray wasn’t:

…abortion, school prayer, and the ERA, they felt able to deal with those on a private basis. They could avoid having abortions, put their children in Christian schools, and run their families the way they wanted to, all without having to be concerned about public policy.(8)

What seems to have united them was a move by the IRS, backed by President Jimmy Carter, to remove the tax exempt status of Christian schools.

Several key figures on the Religious Right credit the 1978 IRS/Christian School battle with playing a pivotal role in bringing together conservative Christians and creating a genuine politically effective movement. Paul Weyrich emphatically asserted that “what galvanized the Christian community was not abortion, school prayer, or the ERA. I am living witness to that because I was trying to get those people interested in those issues and I utterly failed. What changed their mind was Jimmy Carter’s intervention against Christian schools, trying to deny them tax-exempt status on the basis of so-called de facto segregation.”(9)

Although Francis Schaffer and C. Everett Koop had been trying to get born-again believers to practice a more integrated faith which included teaching sound doctrine, intellectual training, social involvement and a clear proclamation of the gospel it pretty much fell on deaf ears until the church’s “self interest” (a continuation of what de Toqueville had noted in the previous century), Christian Schools tax-exempt status, was in jeopardy. Suddenly churches and church leaders were very interested in politics!

1 William Martin, With God on Our Side: The Rise of the Religious Right in America, Broadway Books, a division of Bantam Doubleday Dell Publishing Group, Inc., New York, NY, 1996; 69-70
2 Susan Friend Harding, The Book of Jerry Falwell, Princeton University Press, Princeton, NJ, 2000; 74-75
3 Susan Friend Harding, The Book of Jerry Falwell, Princeton University Press, Princeton, NJ, 2000; 75
4 Susan Friend Harding, The The Book of Jerry Falwell, Princeton University Press, Princeton, NJ, 2000; 125, emphasis in the original
5 ibid, 126
6 ibid, 128-129
7 ibid, 129
8 William Martin, With God on Our Side: The Rise of the Religious Right in America, Broadway Books, a division of Bantam Doubleday Dell Publishing Group, Inc., New York, NY, 1996, 173
9 ibid


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