Some Americans drew a religious message from America’s economic and foreign policy troubles in the late 1970s. Religious conservatives believed that the various recent social revolutions, such as feminism, gay rights, the experimentation with drug use and open sexuality, and the legalization of abortion, had brought the wrath of God upon the nation. A majority of people who called themselves born-again Christians had voted for Jimmy Carter in 1976, but they were disillusioned with him by 1979.
On April 26, the Rev. Jerry Falwell of Virginia held his first “I Love America!” rally that featured the flag, gospel songs and political preaching. Falwell had opposed ministers getting involved in politics when Martin Luther King, Jr. and other ministers had led the African American civil rights movement. At that time, the pro-segregationist Falwell claimed that the word of God would be corrupted if it were mixed with a political agenda. But since then, Falwell had been angered by the Supreme Court’s 1973 "Roe v. Wade" decision that legalized abortion in the first two trimesters. He fiercely opposed the ongoing campaign for the Equal Rights Amendment (ERA) to the United States Constitution, which would have federally outlawed gender discrimination.
Falwell formed a group called the Moral Majority, dedicated to electing candidates who supported what Falwell and other Christian Right activists called “family values.” The Moral Majority registered conservative Christian voters, bought ads attacking the positions taken by liberal candidates on issues like school prayer and abortion, and issued “report cards” for members of Congress and presidential candidates on “moral” issues, including their support for weapons systems like the B-1 bomber. It delivered votes almost exclusively for the Republican Party. The hostage crisis, inflation and other American problems, Falwell and his allies like the Rev. Pat Robertson argued, stemmed from a lack of moral leadership by Carter and what they saw as a liberal-dominated Congress.
During the 1970s, Christians built an alternative media, with the Rev. Pat Robertson, son of a former segregationist senator, building the Christian Broadcasting Network, carried across the nation, that mixed the gospel with a segment in which the TV minister offered news commentary. Falwell talked about Jesus, current events, and his own take on issues during his sermons on his TV show, The Old-Time Gospel Hour, which was also syndicated nationwide.
Ronald Reagan, opposed to abortion and gay rights and sharing the TV preacher’s enthusiasm for a big defense budget, openly sought the support of Christian conservatives after he won the Republican nomination in the summer of 1980. Reagan appeared at the Religious Roundtable National Affairs Briefing in Dallas, Texas, in August 1980, and at a press conference expressed doubt concerning the theory of evolution. In a speech to the large assembly, which included Falwell, Robertson, and anti-ERA activist Phyllis Schlafly, Reagan said, "I know you can't endorse me, but I endorse you."
Falwell, Robertson and other Christian Right figures sought to expand their influence even further by forming alliances with conservative Catholics and Jews, even though some in this coalition harbored anti-Semitic and anti-Catholic prejudice. In spite of winning conservative Jewish allies, Falwell was clear what he thought was America’s proper religious identity. “America is a Christian nation,” he said. “Our Founding Fathers had that in mind when they carved this nation out of the wilderness.” The 1980 election would mark the marriage of the Religious Right with the Republican Party.
It helped the Republican Party and candidates like Reagan that most of the Christian Right was not just culturally conservative but economically conservative as well. White voters had increasingly opposed welfare programs and, slammed by high oil prices and growing tabs at the grocery store, they also became increasingly impatient with high taxes. In November 1978, voters placed anti-tax referenda on the ballot in sixteen states, and 12 of these measures passed.
The most notable such measure was Proposition 13 in California, tirelessly supported by businessman Howard Jarvis. Proposition 13 limited property taxes in California to 1 percent of the property’s value. Property taxes in California had escalated dramatically during the 1970s. Anti-tax sentiment was a powerful force going into the 1980 elections. The Republican nominee, Reagan, was able to unite both fiscal and religious conservatives that year, and reshaped his party for decades to come. The GOP remained in favor of low taxes and against government regulations, but opposition to abortion, the ERA, and gay rights, and support for legalizing directed school prayer and tax support for church schools increasingly became litmus tests for hopeful Republican candidates.
Michael Phillips has authored the following:
White Metropolis: Race, Ethnicity and Religion in Dallas, Texas, 1841-2001 (Austin: University of Texas Press, 2006)
(with Patrick L. Cox) The House Will Come to Order: How the Texas Speaker Became a Power in State and National Politics. (Austin: University of Texas Press, 2010)
“Why Is Big Tex Still a White Cowboy? Race, Gender, and the ‘Other Texans’” in Walter Buenger and Arnoldo de León, eds., Beyond Texas Through Time: Breaking Away From Past Interpretations (College Station: Texas A&M Press, 2011)
“The Current is Stronger’: Images of Racial Oppression and Resistance in North Texas Black Art During the 1920s and 1930s ” in Bruce A. Glasrud and Cary D. Wintz, eds., The Harlem Renaissance in the West: The New Negroes’ Western Experience (New York: Routledge, Taylor and Francis Group, 2011)
“Dallas, 1989-2011,” in Richardson Dilworth, ed. Cities in American Political History (Washington, D.C.: CQ Press, 2011)
(With John Anthony Moretta, Keith J. Volonto, Austin Allen, Doug Cantrell and Norwood Andrews), Keith J. Volonto and Michael Phillips. eds., The American Challenge: A New History of the United States, Volume I. (Wheaton, Il.: Abigail Press, 2012).
(With John Anthony Moretta and Keith J. Volanto), Keith J. Volonto and Michael Phillips, eds., The American Challenge: A New History of the United States, Volume II. (Wheaton, Il.: Abigail Press, 2012).
(With John Anthony Moretta and Carl J. Luna), Imperial Presidents: The Rise of Executive Power from Roosevelt to Obama (Wheaton, Il.: Abigail Press, 2013).
“Texan by Color: The Racialization of the Lone Star State,” in David Cullen and Kyle Wilkison, eds., The Radical Origins of the Texas Right (College Station: University of Texas Press, 2013).
He is currently collaborating, with longtime journalist Betsy Friauf, on a history of African American culture, politics and black intellectuals in the Lone Star State called God Carved in Night: Black Intellectuals in Texas and the World They Made.