The Moral Majority was founded in 1979 by Baptist televangelist Jerry Falwell and conservative political activist Paul Weyrich. Falwell moved against the traditional Baptist separation of religion and politics, because he said he was concerned about the moral decay of America. Eventually the organization was incorporated into a larger conservative Christian group, the Liberty Foundation, and officially disbanded in 1989. Falwell proclaimed, “Our goal has been achieved…The religious right is solidly in place and … religious conservatives in America are now in for the duration.”
Falwell was hardly a model for modern American politics. He blamed the 9-11 attacks on domestic political opponents. "I really believe that the pagans, and the abortionists, and the feminists, and the gays and the lesbians who are actively trying to make that an alternative lifestyle, the ACLU, People For the American Way, all of them who have tried to secularize America. I point the finger in their face and say 'you helped this happen.'" Pat Robertson said he completely agreed with Falwell. Falwell said that the AIDS epidemic was “God's punishment for homosexuals”, one of this major themes. In 1977, he asserted, “so-called gay folks would just as soon kill you as look at you.” He predicted in 1999 that the Antichrist would arrive within ten years and “of course he'll be Jewish”.
The so-called Moral Majority themselves were never what they claimed to be. Conservative Protestants are more likely to divorce than other Americans. Evangelical teenagers are more likely to have premarital sex than other Christians or Jews. Women are more likely to be killed by men in the conservative South than anywhere else. Like Falwell himself, the so-called moral majority were less concerned with morality than with promoting conservative politics by attacking liberals.
Now the moralists of the right are confronted by a conservative candidate who is anything but moral. Trump had an extramarital affair with Marla Maples before his divorce from Ivana Trump. He had little to do with his daughter with Maples. Trump’s public life in business and politics models the opposite of the Golden Rule – do unto others only that which benefits me.
Yet Trump has been treated as a hero by Falwell’s Liberty University, and Falwell’s son compared Trump to his father. Trump defeated his Republican rivals by winning among evangelical voters.
There is little new here. Newt Gingrich was popular with Christian conservatives in the 2012 campaign. Yet he had multiple affairs. After cheating on his first wife, he brought up divorce proceedings to her while she was in the hospital recovering from cancer surgery. He cheated on his second wife while he was trying to get Bill Clinton impeached for his behavior with Monica Lewinsky and proclaiming the importance of “family values”.
Leaders of the Christian right are divided about Trump. A number have pointed out his moral failings in the starkest terms. The Christian Post, which had never taken a position on a political candidate, editorialized in February that Trump is “a misogynist and philanderer”, who prefers “insults, obscenities and untruths”, whose “questionable business practices” have defrauded working Americans, and who is “unfit to be president.”
Russell Moore, public policy spokesman for the Southern Baptist Convention, wrote in February about Trump’s “spewing of profanities in campaign speeches, race-baiting and courting white supremacists, boasting of adulterous affairs, debauching public morality and justice through the casino and pornography industries.”
In May, the two warring wings of Republican religious conservatism wrote conflicting messages to their national constituencies. A long list of Christian church leaders used an open letter to detail Trump’s offenses against morality, and said, “Donald Trump directly promotes racial and religious bigotry, disrespects the dignity of women, harms civil public discourse, offends moral decency, and seeks to manipulate religion.”
David Lane, the leader of the American Renewal organization, wrote an email to 100,000 pastors supporting Trump. Lane’s message was not about morality, but politics, focusing on “political correctness” and the danger of progressives on the Supreme Court. Lane’s email showed the confusion of the religious right. He prophesied that “Donald Trump can be one of the top four presidents in American history”, but admitted that “I don't have a clue” about what Trump will actually do.
Religion and politics don’t mix well. The claim that conservatism was inherently more moral than liberalism was always merely another political argument. Now that Donald Trump has forced conservatives to choose between moral behavior and political convenience, most Republicans, voters and political leaders, have shelved their moral consciences in favor of their politics. The Moral Majority is dead because it never really existed.
Published in the Jacksonville Journal-Courier, July 12, 2016