The Moral Majority was a prominent American political organization associated with the Christian right and Republican Party. It was founded in 1979 by Baptist minister Jerry Falwell and associates, and dissolved in the late 1980s. It played a key role in the mobilization of conservative Christians as a political force and particularly in Republican presidential victories throughout the 1980s.
The origins of the Moral Majority can be traced to 1976 when Baptist minister Jerry Falwell embarked on a series of "I Love America" rallies across the country to raise awareness of social issues important to him. These rallies were an extension of Falwell's decision to go against the traditional Baptist principle of separating religion and politics, a change of heart Falwell says he had when he perceived what he described as the decay of the nation's morality. Through hosting these rallies, Falwell was able to gauge national support for a formal organization and also raise his profile as a leader. Having already been a part of a well-established network of ministers and ministries, within a few years Falwell was favorably positioned to launch the Moral Majority.
The Moral Majority was formally initiated as a result of a struggle for control of an American conservative Christian advocacy group known as Christian Voice during 1978. Robert Grant, Christian Voice's acting President, said in a news conference that the Religious Right was a "sham... controlled by three Catholics and a Jew." Following this, Paul Weyrich, Terry Dolan, Richard Viguerie (the Catholics) and Howard Phillips (the Jew) left Christian Voice.
During a 1979 meeting, they urged televangelist Jerry Falwell to found Moral Majority (a phrase coined by Weyrich). This was the period when the New Christian Right arose. Joining Falwell in the Moral Majority was Ed McAteer, who the same year, founded the Religious Roundtable in Memphis, Tennessee.
Establishment and organizational activity
Falwell and Weyrich founded the Moral Majority in June 1979. According to former Arkansas governor Mike Huckabee, who was Texas evangelicalist James Robison's communications director at the time, Robison's "Freedom Rally" at the Dallas Convention Center was the genesis of the Moral Majority.
The Moral Majority was predominately a Southern-oriented organization of the Christian Right, although its state chapters and political activity extended beyond the South. The number of state chapters grew quickly, with organizations in eighteen states by 1980. The variety of resources available to the Moral Majority at its founding facilitated this rapid expansion, and included Falwell's mailing list from his program, Old Time Gospel Hour. In addition, the Moral Majority took control of the Old Time Gospel Hour's publication, Journal Champion, which had been distributed to the show's donors. Through the 1980s, Falwell was the organization's best-known spokesperson. By 1982, Moral Majority surpassed Christian Voice in size and influence.
The Moral Majority's headquarters were in Lynchburg, Virginia, where Falwell was the presiding minister of the nation's largest independent Baptist church, Thomas Road Baptist Church. Virginia has been a seat of Christian Right politics, being the state where the Christian Coalition's first headquarters were established. Falwell was at the head of the Moral Majority and maintained an advisory board, constituting the organization's primary leadership. This leadership was drawn mostly from Falwell's fellow members of the Baptist Bible Fellowship. Falwell insisted the Moral Majority leadership also include Catholics and Jews, although not all members of the leadership approved of this inclusion.
The Moral Majority was an organization made up of conservative Christian political action committees which campaigned on issues its personnel believed were important to maintaining its Christian conception of moral law. They believed this represented the opinions of the majority of Americans (hence the movement's name). With a membership of millions, the Moral Majority became one of the largest conservative lobby groups in the United States and at its height, it claimed more than four million members and over two million donors. These members were spread among about twenty state organizations, of which Washington State's was the largest. The Moral Majority was incorporated into the Liberty Federation in 1985, remaining a distinct entity but falling under the Liberty Federation's larger jurisdiction. By 1987, Falwell retired as the formal head of the Moral Majority, and was succeeded by Jerry Nims, although he maintained an active and visible role within the organization.
By the end of Ronald Reagan's presidential administration, Christian Right organizations were generally in a phase of decline. After Reagan's two terms in office, donations were decreasing, possibly because after eight years of Christian Right-supported leadership, the nation did not appear to donors to be in the same state of moral peril as they perceived it to be when Reagan first took office. The Moral Majority's financial base seriously eroded by the time it became part of the Liberty Federation; its financial difficulties ultimately were a major factor in the decision to disband the organization. Falwell offered an optimistic public opinion about the Moral Majority's dissolution. Announcing the disbandment of the Moral Majority in 1989 in Las Vegas, Falwell declared, "Our goal has been achieved…The religious right is solidly in place and … religious conservatives in America are now in for the duration."
Organizational goals and composition
The Moral Majority sought to mobilize conservative Americans to become politically active on issues they thought were important. A variety of tactics were used to garner support. These tactics included direct-mail campaigns, telephone hotlines, rallies, and religious television broadcasts. Although the Moral Majority operated for only a decade, it rapidly became a visible political force and was relatively effective in its mobilization goals. According to Robert Liebman and Robert Wuthnow, common explanations for this success include:
- The Moral Majority was founded with strong financial backing already in place.
- Its leaders frequently communicated with its constituents, enabling consistent messages to resonate throughout all levels of hierarchy.
- Its leaders generally had previous organizational and management experience.
- The general public was amenable to the issues the Moral Majority emphasized.
- Promotion of a traditional vision of family life
- Opposition to media outlets that it claimed promote an anti-family agenda
- Opposition to the Equal Rights Amendment and Strategic Arms Limitation Talks
- Opposition to state recognition or acceptance of homosexual acts.
- Prohibition of abortion, even in cases involving incest, rape or in pregnancies where the life of the mother is at stake.
- Support for Christian prayers in schools
- Marketing to Jews and other non-Christians for conversion to conservative Christianity
- Moral Majority Inc. – the organization's lobbying division, which addressed issues on local, state, and national levels.
- Moral Majority Foundation – the organization's educational component, through which the Moral Majority educated ministers and lay people on political issues and conducted voter registration drives.
- Moral Majority Legal Defense Fund – the organization's legal instrument, used primarily to challenge the American Civil Liberties Union and secular humanist issues in court.
- Moral Majority Political Action Committee – the organization's mechanism for supporting the candidacy of people whose political platforms reflected Moral Majority values.
The state chapters of the Moral Majority were financially independent from the national organization and relied on local resources to conduct their activities. Consequently, the national organization encouraged local chapters to cooperate with their policies but had little control over local chapters' activities. Political activity of the Moral Majority divided accordingly, with the national Moral Majority office usually focused on addressing multiple issues through Congress while local branches tended to work on a single issue within their respective states.
The Moral Majority engaged in political activity in a variety of ways, including national media campaigns and grassroots organization aimed at supporting particular candidates in elections and using mail and phone calls to reach office-holders. The Moral Majority's initial political actions were aimed at supporting Jesse Helms' proposed legislation on school prayer. Before long, the Moral Majority became heavily invested in presidential elections and national politics; although at the state level branches of the Moral Majority continued to pursue specific issues at lower levels of government. As far as elections, state Moral Majority chapters tended to deliberately focus their efforts towards particular candidates. For example, state chapters participated in campaigns to oust liberal members of Congress during the 1980 election. Also, in 1981, the Moral Majority mobilized delegates to the Virginia Republican state nominating convention in order to support Guy Farley, an evangelical candidate for lieutenant governor.
Nationally, the Moral Majority encouraged electoral participation among its members and used registration drives to register church-goers to vote, with the logic that Moral Majority members would be likely to vote for Moral Majority-endorsed candidates, thus strengthening the organization's electoral efficacy and strengthening its endorsements. Leaders within the Moral Majority asked ministers give their congregants political direction, reminding congregants when to vote, who to vote for, and why the Moral Majority held particular positions on issues. The Moral Majority, however, is probably best known for its involvement in presidential elections, specifically those of Ronald Reagan.
The 1976 election of Jimmy Carter as President of the United States marked a milestone for evangelical Christians. For the first time, a self-professed evangelical Christian had been elected to the nation's highest office, bringing the national awareness of evangelical Christianity to a new level. Despite commonality in religious identification, however, evangelical Christians in general and eventually the newly formed Moral Majority in particular would come to be disappointed with Carter's policies. Carter did not share the Moral Majority's political imperative to unify personal and political positions and would instead support the positions of his own party, the Democratic Party. In particular, Carter did not actively oppose his party's general pro-choice platform on abortion, nor did Carter work to bridge the church-state divide, both factors in the Moral Majority's decision to support Ronald Reagan's candidacy in 1980.
The Moral Majority was a relatively early supporter of Reagan, with Falwell announcing the organization's endorsement of Reagan before the Republican convention. According to Jimmy Carter, "that autumn  a group headed by Jerry Falwell purchased $10 million in commercials on southern radio and TV to brand me as a traitor to the South and no longer a Christian." Naturally, the Moral Majority continued working on behalf of Reagan after he gained the Republican nomination. Following the organization's heed, more than one-fifth of Moral Majority supporters that had supported Carter in 1976 voted for Reagan in 1980. After Reagan's victory, Falwell announced Reagan's success was directly due to the Moral Majority and others registering and encouraging church-goers to vote who had never before been politically active. Empirical evidence suggests that Falwell's claim about the role of Christian Right organizations in Reagan's victory has some truth, though difficult to determine definitively.
Reagan sought the input from the Moral Majority leadership during his campaign and appointed the Rev. Robert Billings, the Moral Majority's first executive director, to be a religious advisor to the campaign. Later, Reagan appointed Billings to a position in the Department of Education. This appointment was particularly significant for the Moral Majority, which had lobbied on education policy issues, especially those regarding private schools.
The Moral Majority maintained their support for Reagan's 1984 reelection campaign and, alongside other Christian Right organizations, influenced the Republican platform for the election, shaping the party's campaign stances on school prayer and abortion. The nation's political climate, however, had changed since Reagan's first campaign. Although Reagan won reelection, the role of the Moral Majority in the victory had changed since 1980. A study of voters in the 1984 election showed that more anti-Moral Majority voters voted for Walter Mondale than pro-Moral Majority voters voted for Reagan, suggesting the Moral Majority may have actually had a negative effect on Reagan's campaign.
1988 was the last presidential election for which the Moral Majority was an active organization. With Reagan having reached his two-term limit, the Republican nomination was open to a variety of primary contenders. The evangelical minister and televangelist Pat Robertson sought the Republican nomination and would have been, at first glance, a natural choice for the Moral Majority's support. Although Robertson's political platforms were extremely similar to the ones the Moral Majority supported, Falwell gave his organization's endorsement to contender George H. W. Bush instead. Falwell's decision highlighted the rivalry between Falwell and Robertson as televangelists but also revealed the deep-seated tension that still persisted between competing evangelical traditions – Falwell's fundamentalist tradition was at odds with Robertson's charismatic tradition.
Challenges to the Moral Majority
By 1987–88, the views of the Moral Majority were challenged widely and the organization started to crumble. With its waning support, critics said "The Moral Majority is neither", meaning the organization was neither moral nor a majority. By 1988, there were serious cash flow problems and Falwell dismantled the organization in 1989.
During its existence the Moral Majority experienced friction with other evangelical leaders and organizations as well as liberal leaders and organizations. For example, Bob Jones particularly sought to challenge the public position of the Moral Majority and was known to make public statements that the Moral Majority was an instrument of Satan. Such rivalries affected the Moral Majority's grassroots efforts. In South Carolina, the Moral Majority had no presence because Bob Jones University's religious network had already organized the state's independent Baptists. The tension between Falwell and Pat Robertson also affected the Moral Majority, as noted in the presidential elections section of this article.
On the ideologically opposed side, Norman Lear's liberal organization People for the American Way was formed with the specific intention of opposing the platforms of the Moral Majority and other Christian Right organizations.
Moral Majority Coalition
In November 2004, Falwell revived the Moral Majority name for a new organization, the Moral Majority Coalition. The intent of the organization is to continue the "evangelical revolution" to help conservative politicians get elected. Referring to the Coalition as a "21st century resurrection of the Moral Majority," Falwell, a father of the modern "religious right" political movement, committed to leading the organization for four years. He died on May 15, 2007.
Notable people within the movement
- Liebman, Robert and Robert Wuthnow (1983) The New Christian Right, p. 58. New York: Aldine Publishing Company. ISBN 0-202-30307-1
- Allitt, Patrick (2003). Religion in America Since 1945: A History, p. 152. New York: Columbia University Press. ISBN 0-231-12154-7
- Lernoux, Penny. "A Reverence for Fundamentalism," The Nation, vol. 248, Issue #0015, 17 April 1989
- Martin, William (1996). With God on Our Side: The Rise of the Religious Right in America. New York: Broadway Books. ISBN 978-0-553-06745-3.
- Sara, Diamond (1995). Roads to Dominion. New York: Guilford Press. ISBN 978-0-89862-864-7.
- Margalit Fox (October 10, 2004). "Edward E. McAteer, 78; Empowered Christian Right". The New York Times. Retrieved May 26, 2016.
- Hudson, D.W. (2008). Onward, Christian Soldiers: The Growing Political Power of Catholics and Evangelicals in the United States. Threshold Editions. p. 15. ISBN 9781416565895. Retrieved 2014-11-15.
- Levy, Ariel (2010-06-28). "Prodigal Son". The New Yorker. Retrieved 22 January 2012.
- Liebman, Robert and Robert Wuthnow (1983) The New Christian Right, pp. 31–32. New York: Aldine Publishing Company. ISBN 0-202-30307-1
- Williams, Daniel K. (April 2010). "Jerry Falwell's Sunbelt Politics: The Regional Origins of the Moral Majority" (Fee). Journal of Policy History. Cambridge University Press. 22 (02): 125–47. doi:10.1017/S0898030610000011. Retrieved 2010-09-17.
- Liebman, Robert and Robert Wuthnow (1983) The New Christian Right, p. 61. New York: Aldine Publishing Company. ISBN 0-202-30307-1
- Allitt, Patrick (2003). Religion in America Since 1945: A History, p. 153. New York: Columbia University Press. ISBN 0-231-12154-7
- Wilcox, Clyde (1996). Onward Christian Soldiers?, p. 96. Boulder: Westview Press. ISBN 0-8133-2696-6
- Lohmann, Bill (February 6, 1988). "From Beatnik to Religious Right Figure : New Moral Majority Leader Took His Own Path". Los Angeles Times.
- Carroll, Jerry (November 5, 1987). "Falwell's Successor Recalls Fondly HIs Bay Area Roots Nims' dad was controversial preacher in the city". San Francisco Chronicle.
- Wilcox, Clyde (1996). Onward Christian Soldiers?, p. 38. Boulder: Westview Press. ISBN 0-8133-2696-6
- Wilcox, Clyde (1992). God's Warriors, p. 14. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press. ISBN 0-8018-4263-8
- Allitt, Patrick (2003). Religion in America Since 1945: A History, p. 198. New York: Columbia University Press. ISBN 0-231-12154-7
- Robert Wuthnow (1988). The Restructuring of American Religion, p. 205. Princeton: Princeton University Press. ISBN 0-691-07759-2
- Liebman, Robert and Robert Wuthnow (1983) The New Christian Right, pp. 55–57. New York: Aldine Publishing Company. ISBN 0-202-30307-1
- "Moral Majority". Columbia Encyclopedia. 6th ed. Columbia University Press. 2004. Retrieved 2007-08-11.
- Falwell: An Autobiography, The Inside Story, Liberty House Publishers, Lynchburg, 1997 p. 395
- Liebman, Robert and Robert Wuthnow (1983) The New Christian Right, p. 54. New York: Aldine Publishing Company. ISBN 0-202-30307-1
- Liebman, Robert and Robert Wuthnow (1983) The New Christian Right, p. 70. New York: Aldine Publishing Company. ISBN 0-202-30307-1
- Liebman, Robert and Robert Wuthnow (1983) The New Christian Right, p. 71. New York: Aldine Publishing Company. ISBN 0-202-30307-1
- Wilcox, Clyde (1996). Onward Christian Soldiers?, p. 86. Boulder: Westview Press. ISBN 0-8133-2696-6
- Liebman, Robert and Robert Wuthnow (1983) The New Christian Right, p. 34. New York: Aldine Publishing Company. ISBN 0-202-30307-1
- Rozell, Mark J. and Clyde Wilcox (2003). "Virginia: Birthplace of the Christian Right," The Christian Right in American Politics, ed. John C. Green, et al., p. 43. Washington, D.C.: Georgetown University Press. ISBN 0-87840-393-0
- Liebman, Robert and Robert Wuthnow (1983) The New Christian Right, p. 37. New York: Aldine Publishing Company. ISBN 0-202-30307-1
- Liebman, Robert and Robert Wuthnow (1983) The New Christian Right, p. 36. New York: Aldine Publishing Company. ISBN 0-202-30307-1
- Carter, Jimmy (2010). White House Diary. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux. p. 469.
- Wilcox, Clyde (1992). God's Warriors, p. 117. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press. ISBN 0-8018-4263-8
- Wilcox, Clyde (1992). God's Warriors, p. 96. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press. ISBN 0-8018-4263-8
- Wilcox, Clyde (1992). God's Warriors, pp. 115-17. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press. ISBN 0-8018-4263-8
- Liebman, Robert and Robert Wuthnow (1983) The New Christian Right, p. 60. New York: Aldine Publishing Company. ISBN 0-202-30307-1
- Wald, Kenneth (1997). Religion and Politics in the United States, p. 137. Washington, D.C.: Congressional Quarterly Press. ISBN 1-56802-157-7
- Johnson, Stephen D. and Joseph B. Tamney (1985). The Christian Right and the 1984 Presidential Election. p. 125. "Review of Religious Research". 27: 124–33. JSTOR 3511667.
- Johnson, Stephen D. and Joseph B. Tamney (1985). The Christian Right and the 1984 Presidential Election. p. 124. "Review of Religious Research". 27: 124–33. JSTOR 3511667.
- Wilcox, Clyde (1992). God's Warriors, p. xv. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press. ISBN 0-8018-4263-8
- Utter, G., True, J.: Conservative Christians and Political Participation – A Reference Handbook.. ABC Clio, Santa Barbara, California, 2004. p. 68. ISBN 1-85109-513-6
- Vinson, C. Danielle and James L. Guth (2003). "Advance and Retreat in the Palmetto State: Assessing the Christian Right in South Carolina," The Christian Right in American Politics, ed. John C. Green, et al., p. 23. Washington, D.C.: Georgetown University Press. ISBN 0-87840-393-0
- Williams, Peter W. (1988). America's Religions, p. 482. Princeton: Princeton University Press. ISBN 0-252-02663-2
- Moral Majority Timeline
- "Moral Majority founder Falwell dies", MSNBC, 15 May 2007