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Give Me That Prime Time Religion

United States

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THE NEW RIGHT [image, unknown] And America's evangelical Christians

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Give me that prime time religion
Reagan’s triumph in the US owes a great deal to the born-again Christians - a formidable lobby group lining up behind the Rev. Jerry Falwell’s Moral Majority and the Clean Up America Crusade. Falwell’s appeal depends loosely on the ‘electronic’ church: a vast radio and TV marketing operation reaching out to an estimated 100 million American homes every week. Iwan Russell-Jones reports.

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HELLO Jerry. This is Menachem. Remember me?’

Of course. Prime Minister, I’m deeply honoured that you should have called.’

‘Now, Jerry, I think you realise that things may be rather difficult for my country over the next few days. Can I count on your support?’

‘You can bet your life on it, sir. We regard it as our privilege to do all we can for you.’

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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.

Pathologically anti-communist
The Christian right-wingers are almost pathologically anti-communist. Falwell has called for the registration of all communists - ‘we should stamp it on their foreheads’ - and sees little value in arms talks with the ‘godless, not-to-be-trusted Russians’. When Reagan recently described Russia as the ‘focus of evil in the modern world’, he was only expressing a view that fundamentalists have held for years. They believe that Armageddon will take place when Russia, the tool of Satan, moves to capture Israel. The US, they claim, has the God-given task of protecting the Jews, so it’s hardly surprising that a close relationship should have sprung up between fundamentalists and top Israeli politicians.

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
Criticism of the Christian Right has come from many quarters. The TV preachers have been likened in the press to ‘mad mullahs’ who are intent on establishing a regime (if ‘holy terror’. Car stickers are being sold which proclaim that ‘The Moral Majority is neither’. The liberal National Council of Churches has condemned them bitterly for cloaking conservative politics in lofty rhetoric about morality and religion. Coining from a group who’ve made it their business to baptise the trendy left, this is rather rich. Sociologist Peter Berger points out that ‘the religio-political extravaganza on the right was preceded by’ that on the left ... One must ask by what criterion one deems good the pronouncements of left-of centre geese, while condemning the preachments of right of centre 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
She clearly does have the ‘quiet’ support of many’ churchgoers. But politically conservative Christians in this country are often more difficult to pin down than they are in the States. Whereas in America they openly state their belief that Christianity is intrinsically right-wing, in Britain they argue that it is spiritual’ and ‘non-political’. This is what Tories like Julian Amery presupposed when they criticised the Archbishop of Canterbury for his non-belligerent, non-jingoistic religious celebration of the Falklands War victory and what the Monday Club claim when they launch their occasional attacks tin the World Council of Churches and Christian Aid.

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?

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New Internationalist issue 133 magazine cover This article is from the March 1984 issue of New Internationalist.
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