- Historic Sites
Precursors Of The Moral Majority
February/march 1982 | Volume 33, Issue 2
When people play “You’re Another!” the New Christian Right also takes its raps for “single-issue politics.” In truth, it does care about multiple issues, from opposing the Panama Canal treaty and the Department of Education to X-rated films and secular public schools. But it also has learned the technique of bypassing political parties, overlooking many positive qualities and records of candidates, and helping elect only those officials who toe the line on the single issue that momentarily engrosses the Protestant militants.
If the New Christian Right is playing Follow the Leader today, the precursors in their line include the Methodist clergy. Today that clergy is chiefly on the liberal side, critical of “single issue” politics. But in the 1920’s, as Temperance-minded historian Robert Moats Miller remembers, “all the great and terrible power of the organized church was brought to bear” against repeal of Prohibition. “Every Methodist was called to be a soldier. Every unit, every agency … of the church was pressed into service.” Methodists were not to vote for any pro-wet candidate. Prohibition was a last hurrah for those who dreamed of a Protestant-run empire.
What leaders do Moral Majoritarians follow today when they support Israeli claims for hegemony over the West Bank? Their obsession on this point puzzles outsiders who had earlier typed all fundamentalists as anti-Semitic. Precursors for the Zionist stand go back to nineteenth-century revivalism. Some pioneer evangelists believed, as most of the New Christian Right does today, that Jesus would return to rule for a thousand years after the destruction of the earth in its present form. Before that time, biblical promises that Israel would be restored as a nation have to be literally fulfilled.
A century ago the Protestant “Zionists before Zionism” began opposing religious liberalism, theological modernism, and secularism. These all were foreboding “signs of the times” before the Lord’s reappearing, and all of them rejected biblical literalism. Chicago evangelist William E. Blackstone in 1891 presented President Benjamin Harrison with a memorial asking for the return of Palestine to the Jews. He garnered signatures of 413 prominent Americans to support him. Seventy-five years later the state of Israel dedicated a forest to Blackstone’s memory. Today leaders of Israel give awards to fundamentalists like evangelist Jerry Falwell, who is merely following the leaders of long ago.
Fundamentalists see the world in extreme dualisms: God versus Satan, Christ versus Antichrist, Christian versus Secular Humanist. The choice of humanists as a bogy has precursors all the way back to the Federalist clergy who opposed Tom Paine and Thomas Jefferson as “infidels.” Organized anti-religion has always been a minuscule force in America. But supporters of the orthodox Protestant empire have always needed crusades against infidels in order to stir up the masses and raise funds. In their days, socialist Robert Owen, platform star Robert Ingersoll, journalist H. L. Mencken, and Scopes trial lawyer Clarence Darrow have all worn the stigmata that signers of the Humanist Manifestoes of 1933 and 1973 wear today in conservative Protestants’ eyes.
Through all these movements toward Protestant supremacy, these efforts to impose the morality of some of the people on all of the people, there runs a vision of an elect and chosen people, God’s new Israel. If the world is so soon to be destroyed, many ask, why should the Protestant Right care so much about earthly morals and values in America? Evangelist Falwell and his colleagues all make clear why. God, they say, chose America as his special nation; it is the last free training ground of evangelists who will at the final moment rescue the chosen in other nations of the world. That twist about converting people before the millennium may be only a century old, but the elect-nation idea itself has precursors in the notions of the first Protestants who set foot in New England in 1620 and 1630. Ever since, Protestant patriarchs and patrons have blessed the cannon that keep the American citadel strong.
What happened to all these Protestant putsches? Most of them occurred when Protestant churches dominated, before America’s wild pluralism was as obvious as it is today. So history will not simply “repeat itself.” But the careers of precursors are informing. Absolutists who enter politics must compromise to get and hold power. The New Christian Right has already begun to do so. It has linked up with Catholics and some Jews on issues like abortion. Its more anti-Semitic flank has found it important to announce that God does, indeed, hear the prayers of Jews. The Moral Majority had to excuse the hard liquor that was back at the White House for the inauguration of a Born Again President. It has had to live with administration appointees who do not meet their rigid tests.
If history has any “lesson” for the American majority, it is this: contending that belligerent Protestants do not have the right to carry religion into politics is unfair and fruitless. Instead, in American politics, those who do not like a movement do best to organize against it. If they choose to do so now, against the New Christian Right, they will find plenty of precursors for such activity. The game, then, is not “You’re Another!” but “Follow the Leaders” who know or can learn the games of politics in American church and state.