Give Me That Prime Time Religion
A telephone conversation very much like this did take place in 1981. After the Israelis bombed the Iraqi nuclear power station at Osirak on the 8th of June, they contacted their friends around the world, urging them to defend the raid. The first person whom Begin phoned in the US was a small-town fundamentalist minister by the name of Jerry Falwell. But what was a hard-bitten politician doing talking to a hell-fire preacher during such a crisis’?
The phone call was a carefully’ calculated move: because the Rev. Jerry Falwell is also the host of a TV programme which reaches millions of Americans and the founder of Moral Majority, a right-wing pressure group which had shot to prominence during the 1980 presidential election. Begin knew that Falwell could be relied on to rally a great deal of support for Israel. By contacting him he was acknowledging what many political commentators already knew to be true: the Christian Right was a formidable force in American politics. But what is the Christian Right’? Is it a continuing force in 1984, and is it possible that a similar movement will gather strength elsewhere’?
Moral Majority is only one of a number of groups which have come into being over the last five or six years proudly proclaiming themselves to be ‘pro-America, pro-Family, pro-God’. Their aim is to mobilise the 20 per cent of US citizens who are born-again Christians to crusade against what they see as the moral decline of their nation, as evidenced by the break-up of the family, pornography, violence on TV, abortion and homosexuality. These problems are particularly acute in the melting pot which is America, where there is no common heritage or tradition on which the people can draw. So Moral Majority confronts a serious question: how can a society survive without shared values and a basic moral framework’?
What is really disturbing about their approach, however, is the easy way in which they identify Christianity and their moral outlook with right-wing politics.
Like Reagan and Thatcher, they believe that the welfare state undermines individual initiative and morality: it rewards the slothful and destroys the work ethic. ‘We’ve got a bunch of burns out there that wouldn’t take a job in a pie-making factory’ eating the holes out of doughnuts’, remarked Falwell in one of his less compassionate moments. Welfare politics, he claims, has raised a generation of people living on handouts. He favours massive cuts in government spending for supposedly moral reasons.
Along with the anti-communism goes an intense patriotism. This, of course, is not restricted to the fundamentalists. Americans of all political persuasions have seen their country in something approaching messianic terms and accepted its ‘manifest destiny’. But the combination of Christianity and ultra-nationalism, always dangerous, is particularly frightening in a nuclear age.
How is it that Moral Majority and groups like it have been able to gain so much influence in the States’? Two factors are important.
The first of these is technological. ‘The electronic church’ is a huge industry in the States. Out of America’s 8,000 radio stations, 1,400 are religious and the annual revenue of the Christian TV stations is around half a billion dollars. The big name preachers each raise about twice as much money every year as the Republicans and Democrats spend on their presidential campaigns.
Falwell’s own programme, the folksy ‘Old Time Gospel Hour’ (worth a cool 60 million dollars a year), is broadcast on 350 stations across the nation and he would not have been in a position to have built up Moral Majority without it. For apart from the public visibility it has also provided him with a mailing list of people who are likely to be sympathetic to his political vision. Through mass-mailings the Christian Right has been able to raise finances and orchestrate protests. Media power has led to political power.
The second factor is social. Ronald Reagan won the 1980 presidential election because of a profoundly conservative mood that swept the country. After the chaotic 1960s, when everything seemed to be called into question, and the traumatic 1970s, when America lost faith in itself, there was a widespread longing for strong leadership and the reassertion of traditional American values. Flag-burning and breast-beating gave way to national assertiveness and apple-pie. Reagan was the man for the moment.
Religion, too, felt the effects of this swing. As in many periods of rapid chance and social disruption, religious cults sprang up in response to the need for authority and structure. There was a rebound from anarchy and moral laxity to totalitarianism and puritanism. Nowhere was this mitre clearly seen than in the seemingly mindless community founded by Jim Jones in Guyana.
In November 1978 912 members of his ‘Peoples’ Temple’ committed suicide by drinking a lethal cocktail of fruit juice and cyanide. Jones, whose teachings comprised a weird blend of leftist politics and fundamentalist religion gave the order to begin this horrific ceremony - something they had practised many times after a critical team of investigators had been ambushed by the community’s security men.
But Jonestown was not altogether a deranged exception. Originally a California sect with lower middle class and working - class adherants, it simply took to a logical extreme of blind obedience to a higher authority what the whole decade showed in milder way’s. The Christian Right was both a contributor to and a product of this rebound.
Geese and ganders
But away from the name-calling, how much support does the Christian Right really have? At the time of the last election it was claimed that more than 20 million people watched Falwell’s programme, but according to later independent audits, only a small fraction of that number do so. Opinion polls show’ that less than 10 per cent of the electorate consider themselves to be members of his so-called majority. And perhaps the most significant statistic is that the majority of evangelicals themselves vote Democrat.
The Christian Right is to a large extent the product of media hype, not all of its own making. Secular TV and newspapers suddenly became aware of the movement in election year, ease it saturation coverage, and made ridiculous claims regarding its aims and influence. They then felt it necessary to savage the beast which they themselves had created. In 1980 the Christian Right took everyone by surprise and the success that they enjoyed has a lot tot do with that. But in 1984 their opponents will be waiting for them and it’s doubtful that they will make the same impact again.
The New Right in Britain has not had the same kind of religious backing as its American equivalent. Churches there are not as strong as they are in the States and dot not have anything like the same access to the media. There have been one or two attempts to give monetarism a Christian underpinning, such as the sermon preached by Margaret Thatcher in 1981 in which she claimed that her view of politics was the Christian one. The welfare state, she said, ‘takes the blessing out of giving’, and so makes man (sic ‘a moral cripple’. But if Mrs ‘Thatcher was trying to rally social Christian support for her policies, she was not conspicuously successful.
Tory party at prayer
It’s ironic, however, that at a time when British society on the whole has shifted to the right, many church leaders and Christian organisations have shifted to the left, adopting radical positions tin disarmament and unemployment, for example. It’s not longer true that the Anglican Church is the Tory party at prayer. Most clergymen read the Guardian and vote SDP. There’s a genuine and renewed affirmation that Christian concern must express itself in concrete political action and a definite ‘bias to the poor’.
What of the future of the Christian Right’? In America it owes its success in large measure to ‘Prime Time Religion’ and the sociological pressures of a society seeking certainties in a bewildering world. It remains to be seen whether the mood of an America buoyed up by economic recovery and demonstrations of military muscle will be amenable to further growth in its political influence. Returning confidence in the merits of America must well breed a smug self-satisfaction that is less responsive to the messianic rhetoric of the TV crusaders.
But whatever their comparative success or failure the question that must be asked of the Christian right-wingers is simple: which is more important to them - Christianity or the American Way?