Eight Years of The Religious Right

The Jewish Humanist, October 1988

Eight years ago Ronald Reagan was running for President for the first time. And it was quite clear that – given the difficulties of Carter – he was going to win.

Eight years ago a sinister new political force presented its face to the public in the presidential campaign. The Moral Majority, under the leadership of evangelist Jerry Falwell, made its national debut in support of Reagan.

Eight years ago the Voice of Reason was born at the Birmingham Temple. Aroused by the danger to our civil liberties in the Falwell success, many of our members decided to respond in an organized way to this organized threat.

The Voice of Reason was an important chapter in our twenty-five year old history. It was an expression of our commitment to a liberal democracy and to the separation of religion and government which it implies. For that reason we have chosen to honor the Voice of Reason as part of our anniversary celebration.

Eight years later, at the time of another presidential election, it is appropriate for us to look back at the Falwell phenomenon and assess its successes and failures.

The religious right has been successful in mobilizing a large minority of the American people as a permanent activist lobby for fundamentalist causes. Some ten to fifteen percent of the American population is fanatically committed to tearing down the “traditional” barrier between church and state. Never before in American history have so many been so focused on this issue.

For many of the people in this political lobby the entrance of religious symbols and religious values into the public sphere is the most important political goal they have.

The religious right has been successful in assuming the mantle of moral defender in our troubled society. Sensitive to the concern that so many Americans have about the decline of traditional ethical values, especially those having to do with family and sex, the fundamentalist preachers have tuned into this anxiety and provided a simple and dramatic remedy. Secularism is now identified by many Americans with either immorality or moral permissiveness. Secular state schools are now regarded as neutral or negligent in the development of either patriotism or personal character. Private religious school systems are flourishing. And millions of non-fundamentalist parents have now come to accept the argument that religious education is moral education.

The religious right has been successful in encouraging a fanatic hostility to the decisions of the Supreme Court, especially those with regard to school prayer, school Bible readings, the integrity of science and abortion. The devotees of the right are determined to replace the justices on the court who espouse any liberal or moderate views with their own spokespeople. The chief criterion for the admission of these candidates to the court is their stance on the place of religion in public life.

The religious right has been successful in intimidating public educators and forcing them on the defensive. Cautious teachers, principals and superintendents are now reluctant to offer clear and direct support to secular education in a secular state.

Hoping to appease the “nudges” of the right, they have often consented to replace scientifically respectable textbooks with more timid alternatives. They have eliminated meaningful sex education. And they have allowed fundamentalist recruiters into their schools to seduce non-religious students into religious activity.

The religious right has been successful in putting science and scientists on the defensive. Building on the new fashionable anti-intellectuality of the past two decades and the stress that new information and new technology place on the public, the fundamentalists have compelled scientists to defend tried and true scientific conclusions that were no longer challenged forty years ago. In many places the theory of evolution is experiencing the same trial as Darwin experienced over a hundred years ago in England.

The religious right has been successful in making abortion freedom as a central issue of American political life. More determined than most conventional Catholics, they have elevated their answer to this question to be the moral litmus test for all politicians. Even Jerry Falwell, borrowing a page from the left and Martin Luther King Jr., has proposed a campaign of civil disobedience to undermine abortion freedom in this country. With assaultive demonstrations at abortion clinics, the debate is heating up to explosion.

The religious right has been successful in infiltrating the Republican Party and moving it to the right. Even though Pat Robertson did not succeed in remaining a viable candidate for the Republican presidential nomination, his followers and the devotees of other fundamentalist preachers retain a strong influence on Republican decisions and strategies. The near-win of Robertson in Michigan may portend similar events in other places. For sure, no secular sentiment ever passes the lips anymore of any successful Republican candidate.

Well, as you can see, the successes of the religious right are quite impressive. But there have been several significant failures.

The religious right has failed to turn its propaganda into effective legislation. Despite the promised support of both Reagan and conservative Congressmen, most of the agenda has failed to become reality. While some abortion restrictions have passed into law, very little has been achieved with school prayer, Bible readings and anti-evolution. While the Supreme Court has helped, the ambivalence of both moderates and many economic conservatives have prevented the energies of the religious right to be transferred to the legislators.

The religious right has failed to win the support of a majority of the American people despite the title of its most powerful national organization, (Moral Majority). On the contrary, its leaders have become some of the most hated figures on the American scene. While Falwell is adored by his followers, he is feared by almost eighty percent of the American population. The intensity of the fundamentalists has produced a counter-intensity of disgust and loathing that serves as an effective wall to fundamentalist ambitions.

The religious right has failed to unite its forces or discipline its leaders. The recent delicious fiascos with Bakker and Swaggart have revealed a world of unseemly competition and hypocrisy under the moral platitudes. We now know that fundamentalists and charismatics do not like each other and that kinky sex is a prerequisite for television evangelism. People are now beginning to laugh at what they used to revere. A lot of devotees have departed the fold.

The religious right failed to win its most ambitious attempt to control the Supreme Court. Although Bork is an atheist, his staunch conservatism and sympathetic feeling for religious symbolism in public life made him a test case for fundamentalist aspirations. His defeat was an enormous disappointment to diehard conservatives and a ray of hope to frustrated separationists and civil libertarians.

Now these failures were due to a variety of causes. One was the basic centrist position of most of the American people. The second was the internal feuding among the fundamentalist leaders and the stupid and embarrassing behavior of their most visible spokesmen. The third was the dichotomy between the programs of economic conservatives and lifestyle conservatives, the former of which see no connection between free enterprise and anti-science. The fourth was the determined political effort Of the American Civil Liberties Union, the People for the American Way, and smaller organizations like the Voice of Reason (now renamed Americans for Religious Liberty) to mobilize opposition to the agenda of the religious right.

Despite the failures of the fundamentalists the successes of the “enemy” of our constitutional liberties means that we must continue to be vigilant, continue to stay organized to respond to danger. That vigilance is the meaning of our tribute to the Voice of Reason.