the rise of the moral majority -- 2/16/16

Today's selection -- from These United States: A Nation in the Making 1890 to Present by Glenda Elizabeth Gilmore and Thomas J. Sugrue. The rise of the religious right in American politics, especially organizations such as Jerry Falwell's "Moral Majority," dates to a 1971 Supreme Court case regarding the tax-exempt status of certain Christian schools:

"Over the course of the 1970s and 1980s, many on the religious right began to step up their political involvement. Their rhetoric reprised themes from the postwar years -- the dangers of godless Communism, juvenile delinquency, and homosexuality. But these themes took on a new urgency in the shadow of the struggle for civil rights, the rise of the counterculture, the feminist insurgency, and sexual liberation movements.

"The new phase in the politicization of conservative churchgoers dated to court challenges to religiously affiliated segregated academies in the 1970s. In Green v. Connally (1971), the Supreme Court ruled that religious institutions that discriminated on racial grounds could not claim tax-exempt status under the Internal Revenue Code. For much of the 1970s, the ruling was only loosely enforced, leading to a proliferation of all-white Christian schools in the South. By the mid-1970s, however, civil rights groups demanded that the IRS enforce Green. When the IRS revoked the tax­ exempt status of Bob Jones University, a fundamentalist institution in South Carolina that forbade racial mixing, conservative critics howled that the government was infringing on religious freedom. In 1978 the IRS tightened its rules and began to hold hearings to determine whether segregated Chris­tian academies should be eligible for tax exemption.

"Paul Weyrich, a conservative political activist, had been trying to, mobilize evangelicals since 1964 with limited success. Weyrich, a Catholic, began his career as a congressional staffer, supported Goldwater, and worked closely with anti-New Deal business groups. In 1974, joining with Colo­rado brewing magnate Joseph Coors, Weyrich founded the Heritage Foun­dation, a conservative think tank. Heritage promoted free enterprise and rallied against the minimum wage, welfare programs, and labor unions. Still, it was difficult to rouse working- and middle-class Americans around a pro-business agenda. Weyrich had a hunch that he could do better by stirring up popular discontent around religious and cultural concerns.

"At first, mobilizing evangelical Christians was an uphill battle. 'I utterly failed,' he recalled of his early efforts co create a conservative Chris­tian political movement. But much to his surprise, the new IRS rules sparked a mass mobilization. 'What changed their mind,' recalled Weyrich, was 'Jimmy Carter's intervention against the Christian schools, trying to deny them tax exemption on the basis of so-called de facto segregation.'

"Religious and racial resentment proved a potent combination. Minis­ters denounced the IRS for enforcing 'racial quotas.' They argued that the IRS directive was proof that secularists were using government power to silence religious expression. In 1979, Weyrich met with the televangelist Jerry Falwell and launched the Moral Majority, which raised nearly $100 million in its first two years and claimed to have registered nearly ten mil­lion conservative voters. 'If you would like to know where I am politically,' stated Falwell, 'I am to the right of wherever you are. I thought Goldwater was too liberal.'

"The Reagan administration rewarded the Moral Majority. In 1982 it intervened in the Bob Jones University controversy, reversing the IRS deci­sion to deny the school tax-exempt status. The Bob Jones battle ended up in the Supreme Court, which issued an 8-1 decision upholding the IRS. Bob Jones would not get a tax exemption. The ruling was a blow to Reagan, who faced charges that his administration endorsed racism."



Glenda Elizabeth Gilmore and Thomas J. Sugrue


These United States: A Nation in the Making, 1890 to the Present


W. W. Norton & Company


Copyright 2015 by Glenda Elizabeth Gilmore and Thomas J. Sugrue


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