Precursors Of The Moral Majority


“You’re Another!” is one of the favorite games people play with history. Accuse citizens of doing something outrageous, and they point to precedents. When Watergate blighted Richard Nixon, author Victor Lasky came back with the potboiling It Didn’t Start With Watergate . Lasky could easily show that “It,” meaning high-level corruption, marked previous presidential administrations. The biased media, he charged, simply had overlooked “It” back then.

“You’re Another!” is a brief and easy game to play. Today the New Christian Right, which in the media code name is the Moral Majority, says “You’re Another!” to defend its intrusion of religion into politics. “No one criticized the leftist clergy for supporting civil rights or dissenting against the Vietnamese War. ” So goes the defense. Not true. Polls and press clippings show that in the 1960’s as now most Americans rejected clerical “meddling in politics.” Few citizens have challenged the right of fundamentalists to be up front in current politicking. They have, however, been bemused to note that what these fundamentalists condemned as sinful meddling a dozen years ago they now openly admit they are practicing today. The liberal clergy, pointing this out now, gets its half of the inning of “You’re Another!” Game’s over.

“Follow the Leader” is a more worthwhile game. Who led the line that the New Christian Right is now following? Not “What were the mere precedents?” but “What were true precursors?” is the question to ask. To qualify, a movement has to have qualities that all sides observe in the New Christian Right today. It has to have been Protestant, moralist, political, militant, and power-seeking.

At first glance, abolition looks like a candidate for precursorship. Though not many realize it today, that movement was inspired in part by antislavery British evangelicalism. American revivalism then impelled it. Pioneer abolitionist Theodore Dwight Weld, for example, taught revivalist techniques to new recruits. But abolition is not a real precursor of the Moral Majority. Like the civil rights cause of the 1960’s, it was not a move for Protestant supremacy. Many abolitionist leaders quickly moved away in disgust from the foot-dragging churches.

The New Christian Right, on the other hand, does want Protestants to run the show. Its leaders, it is true, can link up with Roman Catholics on the abortion issue. Thanks to a fillip in their millennial teaching, one that insists on the part Israel plays in Jesus’ Second Coming, they can be friendly to Jews in the matter of Zionism. But their new program began as an effort to restore “Christian America.” Believers were called to vote only for “Born Again” candidates. Are there precursors for that drive?

On the Fourth of July in 1827, back when America really was a Protestant empire, Philadelphia Presbyterian Ezra Stiles Ely made news by overreaching. He blurted that “every ruler should be an avowed and sincere friend of Christianity.” As he assessed the prospects for a Moral Majority, he carefully excluded even Catholics from the list of Christians who could “bring electors into the field” against “any species of avowed hostility to the truth of Christianity.” His America would have no room for Secular Humanists—he called them Deists and Socinians—or for “profane swearers, notorious Sabbath-breakers, seducers, slanderers, prodigals” and the like. Maybe, Ely blurted, there should be “a new sort of union … a Christian party in politics .” The public, in response, was creatively apathetic. Clergy who secretly agreed with Ely were embarrassed by his extremism.

Family-based causes have recently been the big crowd-pleasers, the attractive issues for the Moral Majority, and the profit-makers for bumper-sticker manufacturers. Distressed over drastic social change—unmarried couples living together, divorce rates rising, homosexuals demanding rights, pornographers flourishing, abortion legalized, extravagant claims being made for the Equal Rights Amendment—the New Christian Right has tried to return America to the world of the Good Old Days.

A cluster of causes late in the nineteenth century was a precursor for these efforts. It included Prohibition and woman suffrage, both of whose victories waited for the twentieth century. Whatever its later reputation, Prohibition did originate as a progressive social cause. At first it was designed not so much to punish the drinkers as to protect their families. Most of the movement’s fronts were Protestant. The Anti-Saloon League, for instance, was virtually an arm of the Methodist Church and its allies. One of its critics, Peter Odegard, in 1928 smoked out what is more obvious today: the movement masked efforts of those who sought “Protestant political supremacy,” just as the Moral Majority does today.

While some Catholics supported temperance, they did so on their own. The Women’s Christian Temperance Union was an aggressive domain of WASPs, with accent on the “P” for Protestants. Its leadership soon moved into or linked up with leadership of the woman suffrage movement. Feminists today are often puzzled to learn that conservative territories and states like Utah, Idaho, Wyoming, and Colorado first extended the vote to women. Why did they do so? Some Protestant churchmen elsewhere opposed the suffrage laws. But Puritan-minded members in those states saw that they could instantly double the number of the WASP voters, the defenders of “traditional values,” by extending the franchise to women. They thus held off the power of foreign-born, Catholic, and drifting newcomers.