Falwell and the Political Awakening of American Christians

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Falwell and the Political Awakening of American Christians

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In the months after the U.S. Supreme Court’s infamous Roe v. Wade decision of January 22, 1973, Baptist minister Jerry Falwell had endured a tortured struggle on how to respond. He had always opposed abortion. But before Roe, abortionists faced prison time and fines in his state of Virginia. In 1967, the state Supreme Court had upheld the five-year sentence of a doctor who had performed an abortion on an 18-year-old college student. Because of this, there was little reason for Falwell to become politically involved on the issue. He could, and did, condemn the practice, but he did not see any need for political action in his state.

With Roe, however, the U.S. Supreme Court had decreed that states could not stop the practice. Despite their angst at the decision, fundamentalists such as Falwell had always chosen not to get involved in political issues. Falwell himself had preached against such secular involvement.

Then there was the time element. Not only was Falwell the pastor of a church with 15,000 members, he had a television and radio ministry, and he was writing books, teaching classes, and administering both a private Christian school and a growing Christian college. He was also in high demand as a speaker across the country.

He also felt inadequately prepared to speak on political issues, knowing that he would have to immerse himself in the issue if he was going to play a positive role in fighting abortion. Additionally, he was concerned that getting involved in politics — even on a moral issue such as abortion — could divide his congregation.

Finally, he sat down with his family to discuss the problem. “I confessed my own growing need to do more than preach against the Court’s decision,” Falwell recalled in his 1987 autobiography, Strength for the Journey. After summarizing the horrific results of the Court’s ruling, he told his children that it was doubtful they would live in a free America when they reached his age.

At this, Falwell’s seven-year-old son, Jonathan, walked toward him and looked directly into his father’s eyes — eyes filled with tears. “Daddy,” he said, “why don’t you do something about it?”

“A little child shall lead them,” were the words of Jesus, Falwell thought. “In that brief moving moment of consensus, our family began a brand-new journey together. Jonathan was absolutely right.”

The Clout of the Moral Majority

The decision to get politically involved in fighting against abortion eventually led to the creation of the “Moral Majority,” which proved to be a highly effective organization. Pollster Lou Harris credited Falwell’s Moral Majority (MM) with the victory of Ronald Reagan in the 1980 presidential election, and the defeat of several liberal Democratic senators. While this may be debated, it is clear that MM greatly impacted the magnitude of Reagan’s 44-state landslide. After a majority of evangelical Christians had supported Jimmy Carter in 1976 (who had openly appealed to evangelicals by saying he had been “born again”), evangelicals supported Reagan in 1980 over Carter by a margin of 56 to 34 percent.

MM altered not only elections, but also public opinion. Falwell and MM joined the fight against the Equal Rights Amendment (ERA), along with Phyllis Schlafly’s Eagle Forum and the constitutionalist John Birch Society. Millions of evangelical and fundamentalist Christians who had often not even bothered to vote shook off decades of political lethargy and entered the political battlefield. But the Moral Majority was larger than just evangelical and fundamentalist Christians. Through Falwell’s leadership, Roman Catholics (almost one-third of the membership of MM), conservative Jews, Mormons, and even non-religious persons concerned about the decline of morality joined MM as well. By 1984, MM had over six million members, plus many more who were in sympathy with, and were influenced by, Falwell’s organization.

 

This article appears in the April 6, 2020, issue of The New American. To download the issue and continue reading this story, or to subscribe, click here.

Courtesy of The New American