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Precursors Of The Moral Majority

July 2024
6min read

“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.

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.

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