Although Jerry Falwell’s legacy will remain a contentious issue for some time to come, partisans on all sides agree that he helped launch the Reagan revolution by mobilizing disaffected evangelicals. As the New York Times put it after his death in May, the Moral Majority was the "organization [that] mobilized the Christian right into a political force that eventually helped elect Ronald Reagan." Meanwhile, the Weekly Standard even credited Falwell and the Moral Majority with "the biggest realignment in modern history." Such claims are so uncontroversial that they could have been lifted from the boiler plate in history textbooks.
Yet Falwell and the Moral Majority did nothing of the kind¯their militant fundamentalism never really appealed to evangelicals. Indeed, Falwell’s militancy arguably pushed evangelicals into an even deeper embrace of a moderate, deliberative politics.
One of the most consistent survey findings is that evangelicals disliked Falwell for many of the same reasons unflagging atheists do. Stuart Rothenberg and Frank Newport’s 1983 survey, The Evangelical Voter , for example, found that slightly more than half of evangelicals did not even have an opinion of Jerry Falwell, and a majority of those who did reported an unfavorable one. That same year, James Hunter’s interviews with evangelical college and seminary students revealed even greater alienation. In Hunter’s account, these students believed that the Moral Majority had "exceed[ed] the limits of political decorum by attempting to impose [its] will on an unwilling majority." Despite a wide diversity of opinion on other topics, Hunter concluded that their low opinion of the Moral Majority was "ubiquitous."
Another study, by James Guth, found that a plurality of Southern Baptist ministers, who would later be critical to the Christian Coalition’s mobilization efforts, described themselves as opponents of the Moral Majority. Furthermore, many of the Baptist ministers who regarded themselves as sympathetic to the Moral Majority also expressed reservations about the group’s tactics and goals, and only 3.3 percent were actual members. More recently, Christian Smith found that evangelicals are still quick to register their disapproval of the Moral Majority after all these years.
The Moral Majority never managed to build a grassroots organization partly because it could not even command the respect of a majority of evangelicals. Most of its support came from a diffuse group of members whose donations were solicited through direct mail. As Jeffrey Haden and his colleagues noted, the Moral Majority "was primarily an organization for grabbing media attention." It did so exceedingly well, as countless liberal exposés chronicled the organization with hyperbolic alarm.
To the extent that there were state chapters in the Moral Majority, they were led by fiercely independent Bible Fellowship ministers who were far more invested in building and maintaining their churches than political organizing. James Ault’s remarkable three-year ethnographic odyssey into one such pastor’s church in Massachusetts, Spirit and Flesh: Life in a Fundamentalist Baptist Church , corroborates much of the survey-based research. Ault decided to investigate this particular church because its pastor was the vice president of the Massachusetts Moral Majority, and he was eager to study New Right politics. He quickly discovered, however, that politics was rather marginal to the fundamentalist subculture. Even many "core members" of this church had simply never heard of the Moral Majority. Such findings led Ault to realize that "the Moral Majority itself, rather than being a powerful machine . . . represented little more than a loose network of like-minded pastors who kept one another abreast of relevant issues."
As late as 1983, other serious observers even doubted that the Republican party could make significant inroads into the evangelical vote. Rothenberg and Newport’s survey research led them to wonder in The Evangelical Voter whether "evangelicals or fundamentalists could be mobilized to vote for specific candidates or positions." Much like Hispanics today, evangelicals were regarded as an undermobilized group that was up for grabs, and so all candidates campaigned for their votes in 1980. And, to the extent that evangelicals had real party allegiances, they swung decidedly in favor of Democrats rather than Republicans. Rothenberg and Newport found that a plurality of evangelicals claimed that they usually voted for the Democrats, and even self-identified fundamentalists were a mere 3 percent more likely to have registered as Republicans than non-fundamentalists. Rothenberg and Newport concluded that evangelicals would remain a "solidly Democratic" voting bloc unless the Republican party "provide[d] them with a reason to crossover and vote Republican."
Of course, the Republican party began to provide such reasons in the 1980s, especially by embracing a pro-life position on abortion. National Election Survey data show that white pro-life evangelicals were increasingly likely to identify as Republicans, with approximately half doing so by 1988. Ronald Reagan also enjoyed their support. But evangelical support for Republican presidents was not such a dramatic development. After all, Richard Nixon carried every Southern state in 1972, as well as North Carolina, South Carolina, Tennessee, and Falwell’s home state of Virginia in 1968. Less appreciated is the fact that evangelical turnout did not improve throughout the 1980s and continued to lag far behind other groups. In fact, the turnout gap between white pro-life evangelicals and white non-evangelicals continued to increase throughout the decade, rising from 10 percent in 1980 to 15 percent in 1988. Other indicators show that white pro-life evangelicals were relatively estranged from politics. For instance, they were significantly less likely than white non-evangelicals and pro-choice evangelicals to contribute to campaigns and to display campaign signs, buttons, or stickers. They also tended to know less about politics than other groups. Only African Americans, who are largely evangelicals themselves, rivaled their disaffection from politics.
During the Reagan revolution, conservative evangelicals simply remained what they had been throughout the twentieth century¯one of the most alienated constituencies in American politics. And their putative leaders were only contributing to their disaffection.
Evangelical turnout only increased¯and did so dramatically¯when a more ecumenical and deliberative Christian Coalition built a genuinely grassroots organization in the 1990s. Between the 1988 and 1996 presidential elections, turnout among white pro-life evangelicals rose some 19 percentage points. Consequently, the decades-long participation gap between white pro-life evangelicals and white non-evangelicals all but disappeared, despite turnout gains among non-evangelicals. Rising evangelical turnout, however, was only part of this participatory revival. In addition to turning out at higher rates, evangelicals were also far more likely to try and convince others to vote, follow public affairs, know important facts about politics, and discuss politics with other citizens.
That Ralph Reed and not Jerry Falwell ultimately mobilized evangelical voters by the millions should highlight just how unattractive militant fundamentalism is to the vast majority of evangelicals. This fact is obscured by the tendency of critics to elevate Falwell as an important representative of evangelical conservatives.
It was, in fact, this very caricature of the right that dogged evangelicals into the next century and fueled their moderation even further. As other scholars have emphasized, the Christian Coalition itself was designed with the failures of the Moral Majority very much in mind. To this end, it trained thousands of activists to embrace civility and public reason aggressively. Even the name of the organization itself emphasized ecumenicalism and tolerance toward different denominations.
Yet critics believed that the Coalition’s operations were not really a significant break with the tactics of the Moral Majority. Ralph Reed was widely criticized in 1991 when he described the Coalition’s various grassroots strategies as "guerilla warfare." As Reed put it, "It’s better to move quickly, with stealth, under the cover of night." Lost in all the hysteria surrounding Christian right mobilization, however, was just how much Reed’s comments signaled a radical departure from the tactics of both the Moral Majority and liberal public interest groups. In advocating "stealth," Reed rejected the mass-media strategies that are so critical to the maintenance of traditional public interest groups. The quiet activism of the Christian Coalition in churches and neighborhoods could not have been more different.
My own research has found that leaders inside a wide variety of Christian-right organizations continue to diligently push deliberative norms on their rank-and-file partly because they are trying to escape the long shadow of fundamentalists such as Falwell and Randall Terry (of Operation Rescue fame). Although these leaders emphasize that civil and reasonable behavior in the public square is the mark of authentically Christian activism, they also stress the importance of changing the Christian right’s negative public image.
The burden of this image is never far from the minds of Christian-right elites. This is especially so in the pro-life movement, where elites also labor under the incalculable damage done by clinic bombers. For example, Human Life of Washington stresses to its rank-and-file activists that they must "dispel the slur of ‘fanatic’" by "sticking to rational discourse." Likewise, Ohio Right to Life believes that effectively challenging the public perception that Christian activists are "religious bigots" means that its rank and file must "communicate the love that [they] have for [all] life." And, finally, the president of New York State Right to Life, explained to me that a major part of her work is simply trying to convince journalists that Christian activists are "normal." It is hard to imagine a pro-choice leader describing her work this way.
But precisely because activists on the left do not have to convince the mainstream media that they are something other than bigoted fanatics, they are less concerned with directing and moderating the public radicalism of their rank-and-file activists. As I have argued elsewhere, there is even evidence that evangelical elites are more invested in creating civic spaces for public deliberation than opponents to their left.
Observers of the Moral Majority, then, may be said to have their analysis backwards. The Moral Majority did not mobilize evangelicals, nor did it ultimately compromise deliberative democracy. In fact, Falwell’s unwitting legacy has been to advance a deliberative politics rather than the militant fundamentalism he worked so hard to popularize.
Jon A. Shields will join the department of political science at the University of Colorado¯Colorado Springs in the fall. He has published articles on Christian conservatives, the politics of bioethics, and the New Left.