April 29, 1980 was clear and chilly. A high school friend, Scott, and I were on the Metro Red Line to attend “Washington for Jesus”. W4J was a gathering of the newly empowered “religious right” movement that aimed to “take America back” from the evil forces of secular humanism; you know, the Democrats.
The religion was supplied by TV preachers Pat Robertson and Jerry Falwell; both Virginians who also started their own universities. Pat, a Pentecostal from Virginia Beach had a TV show called The 700 Club, which sounds like a good name for a titty bar: “Appearing tonight at The 700 Club, Haley Storm! Remember, friends, two-for-one lap dances every week day from 3 – 6.” Jerry, on the other hand, was a dyed in the wool good ol’ boy hell fire and brimstone Baptist preacher from Lynchburg, pastor of Thomas Road Baptist Church and host of the Old Time Gospel Hour. Both reverends used their TV ministries to rake in millions of tax free donations and espoused a brand of theology that at least vaguely resembled the teachings of Jesus; if Jesus of Nazareth wore makeup, Armani suits, and asked people to send money to God but at his address.
The “Right” in religious right came in the form of socially conservative politics. Pat and Jerry, et al., fused the religion and the politics into a movement largely composed of white fundamentalists and evangelicals who were ready to make America great again by electing politicians who agreed with them on exactly how to do it. Never mind that they already had a Southern Baptist Sunday school teacher as president. They wanted a divorced movie actor who rarely went to church…. Ronald Reagan.
I wanted Reagan, too, and still revere him as a leader, but I have always seen the deep irony in how so many Christians turned on Carter. That irony has only recently been eclipsed by how many have turned to support Donald Trump. Carter was perhaps one of the godliest men ever to live in the White House. He was aloof in person and in over his head as president, but a truly decent man and one would have thought others who shared his faith would have been a little more supportive. Carter famously gave Playboy magazine an interview. Now religious conservatives have thrown their heft behind one who has been on its cover.
Falwell, in particular, was rabidly Right in his political proclivities; founding the Moral Majority, an oxymoron if there ever was one. His school, Liberty University, is now lead by his son Jerry Falwell, Jr. and is a bastion of conservative ideology protecting young minds from the liberal agenda. I will give them credit for inviting Bernie Sanders to speak there this past spring, as well as to Sanders for giving an excellent address with which he knew most in his audience would disagree. In truth, I think they found him a rather harmless sort of character, more Colonel Sanders than Senator Sanders, and giving him a chance to speak would make them at least appear open minded. I rather suspect there will be no such invitations for Hillary.
I don’t remember much about the speakers that day in 1980. Organizers claimed a half million people filled the Washington Mall. National Park Service estimates were somewhat lower, closer to 125,000.
The event was lily White, as Black Christians were generally dubious about the religious right, whose leaders, particularly Falwell, came from a faith stream whose source went back to those fighting the War Against Northern Aggression and, more recently, had opposed the civil rights movement. In retrospect, it was really WASPs for Jesus and Jesus was defined and pigeonholed as a blue eyed republican. Max von Sydow with a slight southern drawl.
Religious and political leadership require many of the same qualities; such as industry, communication skills, and a clear message. It’s no wonder the lines between the two are so blurred. At its best, politics channels the best moral teachings in religious thought into policies that uplift society as a whole. Care for the poor is an obvious example, but so too is the Judeo-Christian emphasis on personal responsibility as a basis for free enterprise and ownership of personal property. At its worst, religious influence can drive politics to an evangelical frenzy that insists there is only one way and it’s theirs. Politics requires the art of the compromise and the deal. Religion generally frowns on both, even if both are inevitable.
For better or worse, Christian conservatives became a powerful and (so it was thought) indispensable force in 1980. White Christians could identify with wanting America back to what it was like in the 50’s. Opposition to abortion and “the homosexual agenda” became the clarion calls for the movement. Social conservatism found its voice in Francis Schafer and C. Everett Koop. Schafer was a philosopher and Koop a pediatric surgeon at Philadelphia’s Children’s Hospital and the two collaborated on the film Whatever Happened to the Human Race? The movie was shown in conservative churches across the country and is celebrated from the imagery of dolls strewn across a beach to represent aborted babies. The culture war was on.
We know Reagan won the election and if you want to know how politics used to work, read Chris Matthews’ excellent book Tip and the Gipper, which is an inside look at the two men’s political rivalry and personal friendship. Reagan and O’Neal had a policy: no politics after 6 and both men knew how to use their charm on the other. Both could be hardnosed and ruthless, but also knew it was not personal. When they knew they didn’t have the votes to win, they compromised and got as much as they could.
Reagan didn’t consider social issues to be at the top of his agenda, but he also knew he owed the religious right something so he nominated C. Everett Koop to be Surgeon General. Heretofore, the position was simply bureaucratic and somewhat ceremonial. Whereas most Americans only knew of the surgeon general as the nameless and faceless originator of those warnings on cigarette packages, Dr. Koop was already well known and all hell broke loose with the nomination. The patrician pediatrician was vilified but Reagan stuck to his guns and ultimately Koop was confirmed.
Koop was a bit of a larger than life character. He liked to wear his uniform as head of the Public Health Service and looked a bit like Captain Obvious. He was mocked and ridiculed. Then AIDS happened. Actually AIDS had been happening. And few cared, none of them, of course, republicans. At that time, it was a gay disease. Many Americans and a plurality, maybe a majority, of self-proclaimed Christians saw it as “God’s judgment on homosexuality.” I heard that repeated many times in the circles in which I moved in those days. I didn’t buy it, because even then there were other groups of people who got AIDS. I wondered what God had against hemophiliacs. Or gay people, for that matter, even if back then I still considered gayness a choice and a sin. Followers of Jesus, whose only enemies were Satan and hypocritical religious leaders, seem to hate rather well and better than many.
Dr. Koop surprised everyone, none more so than his biggest supporters and detractors, by speaking out on this issue. A lot. And in downright plain language. Long before the nation at large had ever even heard of Bill Clinton, Koop was testifying before congress, with his Mennonite looking beard, his dress white sharply pressed uniform, and thick glasses, he used words like “condom” and “anal sex” over and over. In a Yankee accent, he cajoled squirmy members of congress, suddenly turned into prepubescent children, into funding AIDS research and spoke bluntly about safe sex. He did everything but use a banana as a prop during the hearing. Most republicans were aghast, as none had ever used the word “condom” outside the locker room. Democrats were perplexed. Who was this guy? Eventually, even solidly leftist democrats like Henry Waxman had to admit Koop had not only surprised them, but won the day and probably was the only who could get the Reagan administration to support the funding. Like him or not, Koop was principled. He was surgeon general of the United States. Not just for people of whom he personally approved.
On the other hand, Reagan also nominated James Watt to be Secretary of the Interior. With his bald head and bespectacled gaze, Watt was a cartoonist’s dream, who, in an orgasmic frenzy, attempted to sell off as much public land as possible to oil and gas interests. This is literally decades before Halliburton made billions in Iraq.
Fast forward 30+ years. We still have abortion and Roe is largely intact. Republicans steadfastly remain prolife, so long as that requires only allegiance from the moment of conception to when the baby is born. Then not so much. Pro-life in the womb doesn’t cost anything and the baby is someone else’s problem. Black babies in utero are not a threat until they grow up to be Black men in hoodies.
Where are all our principled leaders? Especially Christians? If one is truly pro-life then doesn’t that life matter after it is born? If, as Tony Compolo has written, most abortions are out of economic necessity then should not pro-life Christians support funding so no woman has to choose abortion? Dr. Koop, always a steadfast opponent to abortion, came to believe that the only way to prevent abortion was to prevent unplanned and unwanted pregnancies. And should not Christians be the ones speaking out on immigration reform, rather than blindly signing onto an amorphous idea (certainly not a plan) to deport 11,000,000 people?
The Moral Majority is now defunct. Pat is still selling indulgences on The 700 Club, but the religious right seems to have lost some “oomph”. Maybe it’s just tired, or maybe it’s been replaced by the tea party, a loose confederacy that may include religious groups and adhere to some socially conservative views, but is not at all driven by anything like the Moral Majority’s religious fervor.
What’s more, White Christian progressives have now begun to join their African American counterparts in a more politically liberal movement that encompasses evangelical, mainline protestant and Catholic traditions. While the “Christian Left” has nowhere near the influence the Right still does, its influence is growing. Even Evangelicals – itself a group of somewhat amorphous definition – now may embrace a fairly conservative theology and a progressive politics. This is still the exception rather than the rule and I observe that most Christians tend to have political and theological views very much in alignment. I often wonder which influences which more.
Religion continues to have a salutary effect on American life, but I do fear the unholy alliances sometimes bred. Not much has changed in 36 years. The nation’s founders were not fearful about too much religion, but rather of the cooptation of religion by the State. We don’t need to worry about that formally happening, but we most certainly do in an informal sense. This election cycle especially seems to be driven by a fear that has bred hatred and a thirst for power supposedly justified by the vilification of opponents. Followers of Jesus have allowed themselves to be duped by a political system that always over promises and under delivers. This is really true on both the left and right. All Christians need to vote and be engaged while remembering that no matter what government may do, Christ’s followers are never absolved from doing the work he gave us. And hatred is not a Judeo-Christian virtue.