From REAGANLAND: America’s Right Turn 1976-1980 by Rick Perlstein. Copyright © 2020 by Eric S. Perlstein. Reprinted by permission of Simon & Schuster, Inc.

 

In the spring of 1979, suddenly evangelical Christians seemed to be everywhere. They pushed a bill through the  Iowa  Senate  mandating  that  “whenever  the  origin  of  human  kind  or the  origin  of  the  earth  is  taught  in  the  education  program  of  the  public schools  of  this  state,  the  concept  of  creation  as  supported  by  scientific research” be taught, too; at Iowa State University, fundamentalist students complained of harassment at the hands of biology professors who refused to respect their religious views.

In California, a rumor circulated—untrue—that Bob Dylan had been baptized in Pat Boone’s backyard swimming pool. It was true, however, that the countercultural icon had accepted Christ as his personal savior, via the ministration of the pastor of Debby Boone’s church, a close friend of Hal Lindsey’s, author of the million-selling prophesy book The Late, Great Planet Earth. At his concerts, he began refusing to play his most fa- mous songs, instead singing lyrics like “There’s a man on a cross, and he been crucified for you / Believe in his power, that’s  about all you’ve got  to do.” Stickers reading “FREEDOM OF SPEECH, THE RIGHT TO PREACH” blossomed on bumpers. Jesse Helms reintroduced legislation to amend the Constitution to restore prayer in schools. Jerry Falwell held an “I Love America” rally on the Capitol steps in Washington on April 27. It was advertised as an effort “to demonstrate to Congress and the Ameri- can people that this country is ready for a moral revolution,” but was not, Falwell hastened to assure journalists, a “political rally.” The nonpolitical preacher then thundered to a claimed ten thousand attendees (the Chris- tian right, it seemed, always claimed ten thousand attendees for its rallies), “We are crusading against abortion on demand, against pornography, against sex and violence on television, and against attempts by the Internal Revenue Service to control religious schools.” He also said, nonpolitically, that the SALT II treaty “may compromise the safety” of the nation, and Senator Helms spoke, nonpolitically, about his new legislation to overturn the Supreme Court ban on school prayer. It started raining. Then it stopped. At that moment, New Right organizer Paul Weyrich wrote to Falwell, “Tears came to my eyes. I believe we are on the righttrack and that together we may work for the Lord’s glory to preserve our great nation.”

On May 4, Weyrich hosted one hundred activists at a Pro-Life Political Action Conference to plant a New Right flag within the anti-abortion movement. The opening speaker was a Catholic priest. A PR expert formerly in New Right godfather Richard Viguerie’s employ gave a media training seminar. Clay Smothers, the black Texas state representative who had been the breakout star of the conservative counterrally to the National Women’s Conference in Houston in 1977, pronounced, “Never thought we’d get to the point in this country where the government would condone the mass slaying of the unborn. It is the press which has made pro-lifers look like radicals.”

On May 11, Weyrich wrote to James Robison, a Texas televangelist kicked off the air by his Fort Worth affiliate WFAA for accusing homosexuals of recruiting young boys in order to murder them, to offer his services to organize a protest rally to restore his program on WFAA. “It  is obvious that we share fundamental values. I look forward to a long and productive relationship. I am confident that the Lord has seen to it that we can work together for His purposes.” On May 14, James Robison wrote back: “I am convinced that we will be of much help to one another, as we join forces and strength together in the battle for the conservation of a free America. . . . I anticipate a very profitable relationship with you, as we work together for a great cause.”

On May 24, for the fourth time, the Florida senate failed to advance the ERA. Anti-feminists had sent their allies bottles of Elmer’s Glue-All with a note to remind them to “please stay glued to your seat” if White House officials tried to lure them off the floor to twist their arms.

On June 2, on the eve of Pentecost, twenty-seven athletic stadiums around the nation hosted “Jesus ’79” rallies. In Washington, the crowd gave a standing ovation to a woman who walked from the stands to home plate, her now useless wheelchair trailing behind her. A former convict told the Washington Post, “I was hooked up with the rackets,” then “found Jesus,” and “gave up my shylocking and all that.” A lady with long braids and an acoustic guitar and a floppy hat, like a 1960s folk singer, sang “The Old Rugged Cross.” Day turned into night. The scoreboard flashed “Tonight’s Score: Jesus 30,157, Devil 0.”

Three days later, the Freedom Rally in support of Pastor Robison  took place at the Dallas Convention Center.  The crowd was counted at ten thousand—though when it had looked like there might not be enough attendees to claim that number, a last-minute call was placed to Paul Weyrich, who managed to rouse the Catholic dioceses to fill out the crowd.

New Right leader Howard Phillips spoke first. He was what was known among evangelicals as a “completed Jew.” His conversion to Christianity had come, he once said, after reading a tract by the Christian Reconstructionist theologian Dr. R.J. Rushdoony opposing socialized medicine from a biblical perspective. He said, “The founders of our great country knew that our rights did not come from government, they came from God.” Falwell spoke, intimating that the order to punish Robison originated in the White House. After Pastor Robison was introduced, he fixed his gaze at the TV cameras—and at the WFAA executives monitoring the proceedings via a direct feed—and preached so passionately, to such frenzied response, that Mike Huckabee worried, “If someone had gotten to that microphone and said, ‘Let’s go four blocks from here and take Channel 8 apart,’ that audience would have taken the last brick off the building.”

At a press conference, Robison proclaimed, “We want to let people hear from the Christians—the moral majority.” It was the first recorded use of the phrase in the media—and also the day of incorporation for a legal trinity: the Moral Majority Foundation, a nonpolitical tax-exempt foundation; Moral Majority, Inc., a legislative lobby; and the Moral Majority Political Action Committee, to raise funds for candidates. Jerry Falwell was named president, Robert Billings, the author of The Guide to the Christian School, as executive director; Billings's Capitol Hill brownstone became the Washington headquarters. The board of di- rectors included Robert Thoburn; Tim LaHaye; former Southern Baptist Convention president Charles Stanley; and Florida televangelist D. James Kennedy, a veteran of the Anita Bryant campaign. Connie Marshner of the Heritage Foundation liked to complain that the pro-family movement resembled a “floating crap game”—no headquarters, no spokesman, no center. Now it had all of these.

And soon it emerged that the Moral Majority just might have a presidential candidate. John Connally called Billings, Falwell, Robison, Pat Robertson, and seventeen other leading evangelicals to his ranch in Au- gust—around when Richard Viguerie announced he was officially going to work for the Connally campaign.

One order of business was abortion; in March, Connally had given an interview to a magazine in which he said he was opposed to the Human Life Amendment. At this meeting, however, he suggested that after a consultation with Ed McAteer on the “biblical basis for the anti-abortion cause,” he had changed his mind; and also implied that he no longer sup- ported the ERA. “At the end of the meeting,” a participant told U.S. News and World Report, “some of those guys were ready to carry Connally out of there on their shoulders.”

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