Dylan Rosenfield –
The 1970s and 1980s brought about a new era of political climate in the United States. Concerned about the direction of their country, Americans found themselves disenchanted with their government, which they feared was responsible for years of social turmoil at home and military frustration abroad. Eager to provide answers to disillusioned groups of people in return for public support were business-minded conservatives, and Evangelicals. Both of these groups placed the blame on the over-expanded Federal government for creating a climate of moral perverseness, which they claimed was responsible for almost every major problem of the era, ranging from abortion rates to the war in Vietnam. While pro-business conservatives could be counted on by the early 1970s to vote Republican, Evangelicals had not yet been united and organized in such a manner that would give the Evangelical Church power behind its numbers. Following their massive expansion, mobilization, and organization under charismatic leaders such as Billy Graham and Jerry Falwell, Evangelists united with pro-business Conservatives to push back against their common enemy: the Federal government.
Shifting social dynamics at home combined with frustration abroad created the perfect conditions for the unification of business-minded conservatives with Southern Evangelicals during the 1970s and 1980s. While the South had previously been a stronghold for the Democratic Party, which promised help in the form of Federal aid to poor whites and mistreated blacks, the suburbanization of the South caused by the thriving of American defense industries during the Cold War weakened the region’s commitment to supporting the Democratic Party. Since the passage of the New Deal decades before, Americans had witnessed dramatic expansion of the Federal Government, increasingly interfering with daily life for Americans. Southern Evangelicals, such as Bob Jones Jr., saw New Deal Liberalism as a close step to Communism, which they claimed was the antithesis of Christianity, and thus they wanted a pushback of Federal government. They wanted to be represented by politicians who would not compromise with Anti-Christian ideals, and who would not infringe on their right to practice and spread their religion and beliefs. And though ever mindful of the explicit separation of church and state in the Constitution, it was easy to legitimize politicizing religion during the 1970s and 1980s, since on the other side of the political spectrum, Liberals had used the Federal Government to expand rights of African Americans with the Civil Rights Movement, and of women through the Supreme Court ruling in Roe Vs. Wade.These, among other politicized movements, convinced Evangelicals that the Federal Government was their enemy more than their ally.Thus, the line between politics and morality was blurred, as Christian activists felt justified and even obligated to take control of their government and undo the wrongs of the immoral Left.
The new generation of Americans saw social turmoil on the home front, as suddenly the Civil Rights Movement, alarming rates of crime and abortion, and overall dissatisfaction with the status of mass media and pop culture worried many as to whether or not the United States was truly the better country in their international conflict with the Soviet Union and Communism. Christians and Conservatives found a common culprit for failures at home and abroad: the overreaching Federal Government. Conservatives convinced their followers that the fault in the Federal Government was its Liberal leaders, while Evangelical leaders pinned the blame on its apparent opposition to their free practice of Christianity. Despite having different priorities, these two groups had the opportunity to work together and achieve both of their sides’ goals by rolling back the Federal government. And thus the conditions were perfect for the two groups to form a massive political coalition under the umbrella of the Republican Party, which could both restore morality amidst the social turmoil of the era, and assert the United States’ dominance in its international conflict.
In an era of unprecedented uncertainty about the status and direction of the United States as a whole, Americans were easily persuaded by Evangelical leaders that the Republican Party could provide hope and calmness for a society in such disarray. The emergence of the new Evangelical Right and its endorsement of the Republican Party provided reassurance for the American people that their country was indeed the leader of the free world, and that God was on their side. Thus, Republicans sought to tie God and country together in their platform, appealing to a wide array of voters disillusioned by the perceived failures of the era, such as the United States’ involvement in Vietnam. Evangelicals described the international conflict with Communist nations as not one between Communism and Capitalism, but rather between good and evil, and between Christianity and its opponents. John Rice, editor of The Sword of the Lord, which was the South’s leading Fundamentalist periodical, saw, “class hatred so carefully cultivated by Communists [as] wicked, un-Christian and un-American.” With word like this being spread increasingly easy through the powerful media, Christians began to adopt the positions already taken by anti-Communist Conservatives. Thus, Conservatives found a great method for converting Southern Christians to their cause: equating victory against Communism abroad with restoring moral order at home through election of Republicans to office.
As Evangelical churches grew in size and influence and their leaders became household names, the increasingly close interactions with, and endorsements of politicians helped cement the alliance between Christians and conservatives under the wing of the Republican Party. Christian organizations were becoming massive, numerous, and increasingly powerful, as new media and strong networks allowed for mass mobilization around what pastors and organization leaders called “discontents with a secularized, hedonistic, and permissive society.” Evangelists became increasingly active within their communities, and “became more likely to vote and be politically active and supportive of church politics.” Charismatic pastors such as Jerry Falwell cooperated with Republican politicians who were looking to expand their political base to include the growing Evangelical population. Evangelical pastors broke precedent and openly endorsed politicians, such as when Billy Graham endorsed Richard Nixon for his candidacy for president. Republican politicians gave voice in turn to the issues that Evangelists saw as pressing and deserving of attention on the national stage. And pastors gave political advice on recruiting Evangelical votes and support. Politicians such as Nixon saw an untapped and remarkably well-mobilized group of Christians eager to find allies in Washington, and Evangelicals saw direct methods of influencing American politics and restoring the moral order among American society. Thus leaders from both sides eagerly embraced the support from the other side, and formed a remarkably enduring political coalition. While President Roosevelt had made the American south a stronghold for decades for the Democratic Party through his promises of economic relief and aid, Southerners had since gained socioeconomic status and saw the social catastrophes as more politically pertinent than their past commitments to the Democratic Party, and thus they were very receptive to Republican claims to restore moral order among American society. Just like President Roosevelt formed a diverse political alliance centered around distributing wealth and aid from the Federal Government, Republicans in the 1970s and 1980s created an equally diverse and arguably more unlikely alliance around the idea of pushing back the Federal Government.
The rise of the new Evangelical Right gave a wide new platform of issues that was up for grabs to whichever political party could best cement an alliance. Jimmy Carter had the opportunity to cement this alliance as a born again Christian during his presidency, as he “stressed the need to return morality to government,” leading to talk of imminent religious revival in the United States. Once in office, however, President Carter failed to give evangelical issues high priority, thus he legitimized the politicalization of Evangelicals by strengthening the ties between religion and Washington, without siding with them. This, and then President Reagan’s forged relationships with, and firm endorsements of religious freedom, made the choice easy for Evangelicals to throw their support to the Republican Party. This new alliance gave Reagan and the Republican Party the opportunity to take firm stances on the rising social issues of the era – namely rights of abortion, school prayer, and pornography – and expand the Conservative Coalition even further beyond the Church to include various groups of Americans who felt that the government was responsible for promoting such social disorder. Thus the new Evangelical Right set the stage for the emergence of social issues, allowing them to have an impact on American politics.
Cold War politics had given the Republican Party the opportunity to rally Americans in the 1970s and 1980s the same way the Democrats had in the 1930s. Under careful leadership and coordination, Evangelicals found themselves more open to mobilization than ever before, and Republicans capitalized on their opportunity to gain votes and thus political power. The New Right was not entirely composed of pro-business Evangelical Christians; rather, it had many business-minded Conservatives, many Evangelicals, and many people who were both. It didn’t matter how much business conservatives and Evangelical Christians had in common beyond a mutual distrust for the Federal Government and its Liberal-esque policies. This was all the two groups needed to form a strong enduring political coalition.
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