Before Rev. Jerry Falwell delivered his talk at Harvard Divinity School in 1983, Harvard theologian Harvey Cox explained to the audience: “Please understand that my presence here tonight should in no way be understood as an endorsement of what Jerry Falwell recommends.” Exceptionally bright and quick on his feet, Falwell took the microphone and countered: “Thank you for your kind introduction, Professor Cox. Students, please understand that my speaking here tonight should in no way be construed as an endorsement of the Harvard Divinity School.”
Recounted in Dinesh D’Souza’s biography of Falwell, this is one of many stories revealing how a sense of moral duty caused conservative Christians to rethink their previous apolitical stand in America. As liberalism increasingly challenged traditional Christianity, the time was ripe for conservative Christians to stand up victoriously, even in cold liberal enclaves.
The Christian Right represents a diverse and not always consistent coalition of Bible-believing Protestants (some use the term to include conservative Roman Catholics). Under the umbrella of the Christian Right, one can find fundamentalists, conservative evangelicals, conservative Protestants, Pentecostals, and assorted charismatic Christians, each group sharing common ground on key points. Various scholars in the 1980s used the term fundamentalists interchangeably with the Christian Right because fundamentalists were the most prevalent and powerful supporters of the Christian Right.
One of the most impressive analyses on the motives behind conservative Christian political action and its timing came from a short article written in 1982 by a Jewish intellectual. In the journal This World, Harvard University sociologist Nathan Glazer argued that the resurgence of the religious right (he used the term “fundamentalists”) was a defensive offensive that answered “the great successes of secular and liberal forces.”
With Roe v. Wade (1973) and the Supreme Court setting national standards for state laws, abortion became a national issue as a result of liberals abolishing prohibitions against abortion rather than fundamentalists strengthening them.
Fundamentalists’ objection to the proposed Equal Rights Amendment was not due to any design to further limit women’s rights. Equal rights for women became an issue as a result of liberals promoting legislation that threatened “all traditional distinctions between men’s and women’s roles.”
Pornography became an issue when it was acceptable to display and sell pornographic literature more freely on newsstands and not because fundamentalists were out to ban D.H. Lawrence, James Joyce, or Henry Miller.
It was not fundamentalists desiring the introduction of new prayers that made prayer in school an issue. Instead, prayer in school became a flash point when the Supreme Court ruled against all prayer in public schools.
Fundamentalists had no interest in expanding the scope of religious schools; it was the imposition of regulations by government forces that made freedom for religious schools an issue.
Glazer claimed that the fundamentalists, at worst, desired to return to the climate of the 1950s when ordinary Americans did not face an aggressive liberal agenda to reshape America.
Editor of the liberal Christian Century, James M. Wall was no friend of the Christian Right, but he too acknowledged that liberals’ insensitivity to the importance of bedrock traditional values was key to opening the door for the emergence of politicized conservative Christians.
In the past, liberal clergy were much more politically active than conservative clergy. But many Christians perceived that liberals had lost their way on issues of morality touching people’s daily lives. Conservative Christians woke up from their political slumber and began the serious task of presenting a biblical viewpoint that offered much needed balance.
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