In 1964 Barry Goldwater’s presidential bid was soundly defeated. Goldwater was a deeply conservative republican (who later would express concern about the rise of the religious right, as we saw in the first piece) and the election was not even close, Johnson won in a landslide. Republican strategists were understandably unhappy, and a group of them who had worked on Goldwater’s campaign fretted that the base of the GOP, mostly southern segregationists and the rich in those days, was too narrow and set about expanding it by calling themselves the New Right. Goldwater was not included.
A member of that group, Paul Weyrich, founded the Heritage Foundation in 1973 to further the ideas of this New Right. He also founded the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC) that same year to coordinate state legislators.
ALEC gives businesses direct involvement in assembling bills that are considered in state assemblies nationwide, and is funded mostly by large corporations and industry groups including RJ Reynolds, Koch Industries and the American Petroleum Institute. You can read about how ALEC creates boilerplate legislation, supplies them to state legislators who virtually never have independent research capacity, and the success they have in getting many of them passed into law here in a piece by Karen Olsen in Mother Jones.
Weyrich also coined the term Moral Majority in 1979, with a goal of politicizing fundamentalist, pentecostal and charismatic churches, which had been mostly apolitical up to that time. These developments were not without problems – not all churches supported this “new right” now morphed into a “religious right”, but the churches were the target of the organizational efforts even as some Christian leaders strongly opposed the agenda.
In 1980 Weyrich, speaking in Dallas, was forthright about the group’s aims;
“We are talking about Christianizing America. We are talking about simply spreading the gospel in a political context.”
Enter Jerry Falwell, who became the leader of the Moral Majority and who said; “get them saved, get them Baptized, and get them registered.”
The MM conducted political training seminars that year with thousands of preachers participating, and by June more than two million voters had been registered, with a goal of five million by the time of the November elections. Republicans of course.
In the 1980 elections this newly politicized religious right succeeded in unseating five of the most liberal democrat Senate incumbents and provided a margin that helped Reagan defeat Jimmy Carter.
The game had changed, the GOP base had expanded and was now a force in US politics in an entirely new way.
The eighties were a busy decade and many other groups now quite well-known were formed in those years. The Reverend Timothy LaHaye (of the “Left behind” series of novels fame) founded the American Coalition for Traditional Values – a network of 110,00 churches committed to getting Christian candidates elected to office. Lahaye was present at the birth of the Moral Majority and served on the first board of directors under Falwell.
Lahaye was co-founder and first president of the Council for National Policy, a secretive group of far right leaders who meet to plan strategy for advancing a theocratic agenda.
Lahaye and his wife Beverly founded Concerned Women for America (CWA) a coalition of conservative women which promotes Biblical values and family traditions, and which was hugely responsible for defeating the Equal Rights Amendment.
James Dobson, radio host, founded the Family Research Council in 1983 as a lobbying arm of his radio show Focus on the Family, and with four million listeners it remains a powerful lobbying force.
At the end of the decade in 1988, Pat Robertson ran for President in the Republican primaries and was beaten by George Bush Sr., and the following year the Moral Majority was disbanded. Perhaps the movement had peaked and was now shrinking? Perhaps not – for although Bush did beat Robertson for the nomination, Robertson beat Bush in the Iowa caucus, and he did so because Robertson’s campaign workers took over party leadership at the local level, precinct by precinct, until they eventually controlled the state party apparatus. This would prove to be a valuable lesson, and a template for future operations in other states throughout the next decade in the 90′s.
Pat Robertson articulated his organizing principle in his book “The Millenium”;
“With the apathy that exists today, a well-organized minority can influence the selection of candidates to an astonishing degree.”
and in a statement to the Denver Post in 1992;
“We want…as soon as possible to see a majority of the Republican Party in the hands of pro-family Christians…”
Robertson hired Ralph Reed as the Christian Coalition’s political mastermind. To get their candidates elected Reed and Robertson taught them to use stealth: avoid publicity, stay out of debates, and work below the radar screen. And then Christian Coalition campaigned on their behalf exclusively in fundamentalist, Pentecostal and Charismatic churches.
While candidates avoided the limelight, Christian Coalition Family Values Voter Guides were distributed to participating churches. Church telephone directories were used for “get-out-the-vote” telephone banks.
By the time of the elections in 1994 the Christian Coalition had distributed 40 million copies of the “Family values Voter’s Guide” in more that 100,000 churches nationwide. That was the year that republicans took control of Congress for the first time in 40 years, and also made huge gains in State Legislatures. Time magazine in May 1995 had Ralph Reed on the cover, calling him “The Right Hand of God” and crediting him with the victories. The strategy was getting serious traction.
In 1996, 45 million guides were sent out, and in 2000 75 million were sent out to support George Bush.
The dynamics of electoral politics had changed course; for the first time intensely organized religious based grass-roots organizing, operating out of the spotlight of media attention, had colonized precinct level GOP party apparatus, and was now in a position to support candidacies of which they approved, and sabotage those which they opposed.
Although the Christian Coalition lost its tax exempt status in 1999, and both Robertson and Reed had resigned by 2001 after which the organization faded from prominence, it had done its work and changed the face of GOP politics permanently.
Any candidate seeking nomination in primaries, for national or state offices, would increasingly have to pass the smell test of the religious right. Candidates for school boards, sheriffs, state legislatures, district attorneys, judgeships, anyone at all wanting nomination as a republican now had to navigate, and appease, this new organizational element in the party structure.
Next we’ll look at the Bush-Cheney campaign, and some of the legal strategies implemented by the ACLJ, the group formed by Pat Robertson in 1990.
It just gets better and better.
(Acknowledgement; I am indebted to the website Theocracy Watch for much of the historical detail in this piece.)