16 Truths About the Rise of the Religious Right in America

16 Truths About the Rise of the Religious Right in America

Trista - December 18, 2018

The “religious right” is a term used to describe right-wing voters who make their political decisions primarily on the grounds of their religious beliefs. The movement exploded in America’s political life during the 1980s and led to things like George W. Bush’s theological justifications for the War on Terror and staunch evangelical support for Donald Trump as president. The movement was unexpected but has its origins in the decades leading up to the 1980s.

Today, the religious right is a fact of life for much of political life in America. Politicians know that they must make concessions to this influential voting bloc by espousing policies such as support for Israel and, among Republicans, opposition to abortion. Its influence can also be seen in the rise of far-right movements like the Tea Party Movement and the rise of religious, populist leaders, such as Sarah Palin and Donald Trump. These leaders did not rise to prominence in a vacuum but rather were and are upheld by decades of history that is frequently underwritten with religious values, whether they actually existed or not. In all likelihood, the religious right will remain a powerful, influential force in American politics for another generation.

Read on to learn about why the religious right rose to power, what it claims to stand for (and against), why it supports certain politicians but not others, and, most importantly, why its adherents are such strong supporters of Donald Trump.

16 Truths About the Rise of the Religious Right in America
John Scopes. Blogspot.

16. The Scopes Trial Pushed Fundamentalists Into Exile

In Tennessee during the 1920s, laws prohibited the teaching of evolution in public schools. However, one avant-garde educator, John Scopes, taught evolution in his high school biology class. He was charged and put on trial for violating the anti-evolutionary laws, and the ensuing trial became a national frenzy. At stake was not this one teacher’s professional credentials but the evolution versus creation debate. Fundamentalists, Christians who insisted on the literal interpretation of the Bible, were pitted against secularists, who wanted evolution and other progressive ideals to be taught in schools. For those involved, the outcome would determine the status of the nation’s soul.

Clarence Darrow served as the lawyer for Scopes, and he argued against the skillful orator, William Jennings Bryan. Bryan won the case, something that should have been a victory for the fundamentalists. However, Darrow had so badly demolished all of the arguments that Bryan made that he and his fellow fundamentalists were humiliated on a national scale. Bryan died a few days later, possibly from suicide. Fundamentalist Christians went into a self-imposed exile, where they mostly no longer participated in public life but instead created their own culture. They built their own private schools that operated independently of government interference, where they could teach creationism without a national media frenzy.

16 Truths About the Rise of the Religious Right in America
Seal of Liberty University. Wikipedia.

15. Fundamentalists Quietly Grew

Sociologists like Max Weber had previously theorized that society was on a historical progression from being dominated by religion to being governed by science and reason. This school of thought was known as the secularization thesis. The idea was that before the European Enlightenment, the Roman Catholic Church dominated both public and private life. Following the Protestant Reformation and the Enlightenment, governments came to assert their authority independently of the church. Society became progressively more secular and, in all likelihood, would continue its progression towards a nonreligious organization. America seemed to be the last stronghold of religion, but with the Scopes trial, this bastion came crashing down.

Outside of the purview of what they viewed as the liberal state, fundamentalists in exile quietly grew their numbers through evangelism or getting other people to convert. They trained people in the fundamentalist worldview at their schools, which came to include not only elementary and secondary schools but also universities, such as Bob Jones University and later Liberty College (later Liberty University). Graduates of these schools emerged with worldviews profoundly shaped by rhetoric that they viewed as being entirely at odds with the broader culture. With the movement’s growth through evangelistic conversion, these schools grew, producing an educated class of fundamentalists who would not be able to accept the status quo of the liberal state.

16 Truths About the Rise of the Religious Right in America
Billy Graham preaching at a crusade. Christianpost.

14. Billy Graham Brought Evangelicals Into the Public Consciousness

The damage leveled by the Scopes Trial was mainly against fundamentalists, but evangelicals also need to be taken into consideration. Though there is much overlap between the two monikers, evangelicals and fundamentalists are not necessarily the same thing. Fundamentalists are Christians who, first and foremost, insist on a literal interpretation of the Bible; anything against a strict literalism is viewed as an assault on the Bible’s inerrancy. Evangelicals are Christians who take a slightly less conservative stance; they are often content to see the Bible as inerrant but not necessarily entirely literal. The distinction may seem small, but its implications are far-reaching.

In the mid-twentieth century, when Cold War realities began to seep in and the communist threat inspired fear across America, Billy Graham emerged as an evangelical preacher who promoted Christianity as the antidote to communism. He viewed the Soviet Union as an evil, heartless, godless empire, and communism as completely anathema to anything that the Bible teaches. His answer for communism was the same as his answer for individual sin: repent and trust Jesus. Religious devotion now had a political as well as personal implication, as religion was broadly purveyed to the American people as the cure for political threats.

16 Truths About the Rise of the Religious Right in America
The Christian flag, adopted in 1942. Gotquestions.org.

13. Still, Religion and Politics Didn’t Mix

To sociologists who paid attention to the Billy Graham movement, the return of Protestant Christianity to public life – what came to be termed the “religious right” – might not have come as such a surprise. However, sociologists admit that they did not pay attention to the forces that were brewing. The prevailing modicum of sociological thought was still the secularization thesis. They viewed America as continuing to become more and more secular, following the path that Europe had already taken. That attitude was not carried only by sociologists but also by many religious leaders, including Jerry Falwell, who would later become a leader of the religious right.

Billy Graham’s movement brought to the fore the age-old idea that evangelicals did not need to involve themselves with political action. If Christians focused more on evangelizing, bringing people into the Kingdom of God and under the allegiance of the Christian flag, then social evils would solve themselves. The broader system of the liberal state didn’t need to be fixed; the people who ran the state needed to be converted. Moreover, fundamentalists, as well as evangelicals, were very good at converting: the movement was continuing to grow, though not so quietly, given the national prominence of Billy Graham and his crusades.

16 Truths About the Rise of the Religious Right in America
Newspaper announcing the Brown v Board of Education decision. uiowa.edu.

12. New Laws Threatened Private Christian Schools

Brown v Board of Education was a 1954 Supreme Court case that changed the direction of the United States. Segregation had long been a legal institution, as long as the premise of “separate but equal” was upheld. Schools could be segregated as long as those that catered to African-American students had equal funding and could provide equal opportunities as those that catered to white students. In Brown v Board of Education, the Supreme Court ruled that separate could not be equal, given that the state of the African-American schools was deplorable. Schools had to integrate or risk losing funding.

In the American South, a stronghold of segregationist ideology, many white parents rushed to put their children into the private Christian schools that the fundamentalists had established following the Scopes Trial. Doing so would keep their white children from having to attend school with African-American children. The IRS recognized the segregated nature of the private Christian schools. Because they were not federally funded, they didn’t risk losing public funds. However, the IRS threatened to take away their tax-exempt status unless they could show that they were desegregating. For fundamentalists in exile, the liberal state was encroaching on their sacred, religious ground.

16 Truths About the Rise of the Religious Right in America
Children praying at school. callisto.ggsrv.com.

11. Engel v Vitale Banned Prayer in Public Schools

In 1962, another landmark Supreme Court decision proved to be incredibly consequential for fundamentalist Christians living in self-imposed exile. The state of New York approved a law stating that, alongside the Pledge of Allegiance, students should begin the day by reciting the following prayer: “Almighty God, we acknowledge our dependence upon Thee, and we beg Thy blessings upon us, our parents, our teachers and our country. Amen.” Steven Engel was a Jewish father who argued that the prayer imposed upon his First Amendment rights because he did not agree with the phrase “Almighty God.”

The Supreme Court agreed with Engel’s attorneys and ruled that government-written prayers in public schools were unconstitutional as they violated the Establishment Clause (Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion.). Fundamentalists and their evangelical counterparts were outraged. They saw this decision as banning prayer outright, something that, at best, was the government once again flexing its muscles on their holy ground. At worst, the decision was tantamount to persecuting children for having religious convictions. Still, there was no leadership to be a galvanizing point for these discontent Protestants and to guide them to enter public life. By and large, they remained outside of public life.

16 Truths About the Rise of the Religious Right in America
Barry Goldwater. spydersden.

10. Barry Goldwater Provided a Political Refuge

By this time, though, there were hints of a return of fundamentalists to public life. Billy Graham had empowered evangelicals and was outspoken against the Engel v Vitale decision. However, the political system as a whole was profoundly liberal; were the Protestants to re-enter public life, they would need to be able to align themselves with a particular candidate or at least an ideology that they could agree. At this time, a political movement known as conservativism was beginning, and it purported to advocate traditional, family values. Conservativism became the politics of choice for many fundamentalist and evangelical Christians.

In 1964, Barry Goldwater ran as a conservative Republican against Lyndon B. Johnson, a progressive Democrat, for the presidency. Goldwater spoke out against the banning of prayer in public schools, particularly in a time of moral and social crisis, when the threat of nuclear war was on the horizon and earned the vote of many fundamentalist and evangelical Christians. However, Johnson took the election in a landslide victory. It would seem that though the conservative Protestants were incensed at the encroaching government, they were not incensed enough. A new Supreme Court decision would be necessary to wake the sleeping giant.

16 Truths About the Rise of the Religious Right in America
Protest against abortion. theperspective.com.

9. Roe v Wade Legalized Abortion

The final straw, though, was the 1973 Supreme Court decision in the landmark Roe v Wade case, which ruled that states could not prevent a woman from getting an abortion. Abortion was now effectively legalized. Catholics had long been opposed to abortion, as it devalued the sanctity of life. In the decade before the Supreme Court decision, Billy Graham had begun taking action aimed at opposing abortion. Yet when the Roe v Wade decision was made, the Protestants who would come to make up the religious right less than a decade later were largely ambivalent.

However, there was a fundamentalist pastor in Lynchburg, Virginia who had been building a large church and was testing out the waters of political engagement. His name was Jerry Falwell, and for him, Roe v Wade was the final straw. It became a catalyst for him to begin organizing his church and those who listened to his weekly radio program, “The Old Time Gospel Hour,” to re-enter public life. He began launching his own crusades, styled somewhat after Billy Graham’s anti-communist movements but focused on bringing America back to God. His focus was not only on personal salvation, believing that a redeemed individual would redeem the culture, but on large-scale political engagement.

Ironically, Falwell did not preach a sermon on abortion until 1978, five years after the Roe v Wade decision. Some commentators have argued that his decision to start preaching against abortion and galvanizing Christian voters around the abortion issue was the result of his interactions with a conservative activist named Paul Weyrich. Some have even doubted the Christian nature and sincerity of his motives, given that his opposition to abortion may stem from political rather than religious convictions. However, given the force of the movement that he dedicated the rest of his life to, one has to conclude that at some point, he decided that he really did believe that opposing abortion on a political level was a religious duty.

16 Truths About the Rise of the Religious Right in America
A painting at the Capitol shows that Washington was not a Christian. williamhenry.net.

8. America’s History Was Reimagined

Remember the secularization thesis? Weber theorized that post-Enlightenment, society would become more secularized as people increasingly gave up religious values in favor of science and reason. What was beginning to happen in America, though, was a reversal of this trend. Consider that the founding of America was primarily a product of the Enlightenment. The Founding Fathers had been schooled in Enlightenment ideas and wrote them into documents like the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution, and the Federalist Papers. Political life, especially the political life of the new state they were creating, had no room for religion.

Around the time of the bicentennial, 1976, just as the issue of abortion was beginning to galvanize Christian voters, there was a shift in how Americans, particularly fundamentalist and evangelical Christians, told the history of the country. The Founding Fathers were purported to be devoted Christians who wanted to establish a new state on religious ideals when they were known to be Deists who had little concern for Christianity. The Christian public came to view them as champions of religion who had purposely written Christian values into Enlightenment-inspired documents (such as the Constitution). Not coincidentally, political action became seen as a religious value, in the present age as it had (supposedly) been at the time of the founding.

16 Truths About the Rise of the Religious Right in America
Christian apologist Francis Schaeffer. haltingarkansasliberalswithtruth.

7. A Film Series by Francis Schaeffer Spread the Word About Abortion

In 1978, Schaeffer and his son, along with Dr. Koop, the surgeon-in-chief at Children’s Hospital in Philadelphia, produced the film series “Whatever Happened to the Human Race?” The film series directly attributed abortion to the replacement of Christian values with humanistic ones, which created a disregard for human life. In the first episode, Schaeffer pointed out that behind the legitimization of abortion and humanism was the pervasive idea that humanity is no more than a machine; without Judeo-Christian values, the dignity of human life has been severely depleted. Dr. Koop graphically detailed how abortions are performed and cited examples of when a baby who is born live is left to die.

According to the producers, these examples of infanticide are allowed to happen only because of society’s embrace of humanistic values rather than Christian ones. The production was intended to shock viewers into the realization that the Christian moral basis and human dignity that once upheld Western civilization have eroded, and the visible effect of that erosion is the murderous legalization of abortion. The production and distribution of the film series and book of the same title were perhaps the most significant events in turning conservative Christian opinion unequivocally against abortion and launching fundamentalist Protestants into the public sphere and political discourse.

16 Truths About the Rise of the Religious Right in America
Paul Weyrich. thelondoneveningpost.com.

6. Paul Weyrich Led the Way

Jerry Falwell, by his own admission, was not a political leader. He was a religious leader who was very concerned about the moral decline of America and believed that it could be reversed through political conservativism. He also had a considerable audience, largely thanks to “The Old Time Gospel Hour,” and they were foaming at the mouth wanting to do something about the crisis of legalized abortion. Falwell frequently engaged a man named Paul Weyrich, a conservative activist who is considered by many to be the father of the religious right.

Weyrich had long been on the conservative end of the Republican party, making him an outlier in his own party. He had proven key in getting evangelicals and fundamentalists to vote for Barry Goldwater in the 1964 campaign, mainly on the grounds of school prayer and the tax-exempt status of private Christian schools. However, those issues were not strong enough in the conservative Christian conscience to merit a large-scale turnout at the polls. The problem that incensed them enough to political action proved to be abortion. Weyrich recognized that galvanizing this massive voting bloc around the issue of abortion could shift the Republican party to a right-wing ideology that more closely resembled his own political views.

16 Truths About the Rise of the Religious Right in America
President Jimmy Carter. famousbirthsdeaths.

5. Jimmy Carter Supported Roe v Wade

Conservative Christian voters had made some pretty public failures as they began their foray into national politics. First was the support of Barry Goldwater, who was a hard-liner regarding the Cold War. Billy Graham had long supported the president as a religious advisor, but with Richard Nixon, he threw his political support behind him and did all that he could to ensure Nixon’s election. The two had a public friendship, and Nixon appeared at some of Graham’s crusades. Christians rallied behind Nixon so fiercely that when the Watergate crisis unfolded, the future of Christian political engagement was called into question.

Jimmy Carter, though, seemed to be a specific choice. Though a Democrat, he was one of them, an evangelical Sunday school teacher from Georgia. However, his death-blow from his fellow evangelicals came when he announced his support of Roe v Wade, not because he personally approved of abortion, but because he supported the institution of the Supreme Court and its right to make decisions. Fundamentalist leaders, such as Tim LaHaye (author of the Left Behind series) and Jerry Falwell convened to try to figure out how to get Carter out of office. Despite his religion, they could not support a president who did not oppose abortion.

16 Truths About the Rise of the Religious Right in America
The Moral Majority was staunchly Republican. pinimg.com.

4. In 1979, the Moral Majority Was Formed

To help coalesce the growing movement of conservative Protestants and guide them into political action, in 1979, Jerry Falwell, along with others such as Tim LaHaye and Paul Weyrich, formed the Moral Majority. The Moral Majority was a political action committee that advocated political engagement among not only conservative Protestants but any conservatives who were concerned about the moral degradation of America. Its primary concern was ending abortion, but it also advocated legislation against homosexuality, pornography, and drugs. The Moral Majority proved to be remarkably successful; within just a few months of its inception, chapters could be found in all 50 states.

Despite criticisms of the movement, the Moral Majority proved to be influential in not only reshaping the Republican party but in reshaping national politics. For example, in Alaska, within six months of the Moral Majority’s establishment there, candidates supported by the Moral Majority overwhelmed the state’s Republican party. The movement’s state chapters espoused policies that Falwell himself disavowed, such as punishing homosexuals and openly discriminating against them for things like jobs and housing. They also tried to advocate for explicitly religious policies in public institutions, such as public schools and courthouses. However, Falwell tried to maintain that the Moral Majority was not a religious organization.

16 Truths About the Rise of the Religious Right in America
President Ronald Reagan. reaganfoundation.org.

3. The Candidate of Choice was Ronald Reagan

Surprisingly, the candidate that Falwell and others in the Moral Majority chose to support was Ronald Reagan, a conservative Republican from California. What made their support so surprising is that as governor of California, Reagan had signed into law a bill that made the process of obtaining abortions easier! However, he used religious language in his speeches, especially when speaking at rallies hosted by Falwell, and claimed that he believed that life begins at conception. On the campaign trail, he spoke at one gathering of the Moral Majority in Dallas that had over 10,000 people present.

Reagan won the presidential election in a landslide against his Democratic rival, Michael Dukakis. Many have suggested that he would not have succeeded without the support of the Moral Majority; without its members voting for him, he would have lost by 1%. When Reagan entered the White House, Jerry Falwell became a close friend and confidante. However, Reagan only paid lip service to Falwell to ensure the ongoing support of the Moral Majority. He did not support any legislation aimed at ending abortion and frequently nominated people to government positions, such as Sandra Day O’Connor to the Supreme Court, knowing that Falwell would oppose them but still asking him for support.

16 Truths About the Rise of the Religious Right in America
President George W. Bush. pictures.gi.zimbio.

2. George W. Bush Used Openly Religious Language

On the campaign trail and later while in office, George W. Bush frequently employed religious language in his speeches. In speeches about the War on Terror, he spoke of the American people as a force for good that will overwhelm the evil that exists in the world. Bush even referred to the War on Terror as a crusade, and not in a blithe manner as in Billy Graham’s use of the term to apply to large religious gatherings. He was speaking of engaging in a war with an enemy – a Muslim enemy – on religious grounds because God had blessed America and given it a holy job to carry out.

The evangelical and fundamentalist voting bloc overwhelmingly supported Bush and his War on Terror, including his detainment of prisoners at Guantanamo Bay. Perhaps their support was not so much about the long-term implications of a perpetual state of war but rather because of his evangelical background and continual use of religious rhetoric. He regularly commented on his prayer life and asserted that he was doing what he believed God wanted him to do. He also opposed abortion and, unlike Reagan, did make legislative steps in the attempt to overturn the Roe v Wade decision.

16 Truths About the Rise of the Religious Right in America
White conservative Christians overwhelmingly supported Donald Trump. pejmanyousefzadeh.

1. Donald Trump Drew on This Heritage

Today, conservative Christian voters support President Donald Trump with an almost religious fervor. Over 80% of white evangelicals voted for Trump, and despite practices that don’t exactly resemble the traditional family values for which they advocate, continue to support him as if he is God’s man to lead the United States of America. This support is not accidental and draws on the whole of the history behind America’s religious right. Like Reagan and Bush, Trump uses religious language and is, therefore, able to win the hearts of religious voters. He claims to oppose abortion, still issue number one on their political agenda.

The most outspoken leaders of the religious right who support Donald Trump are directly connected to the rise of the religious right and the Moral Majority. One such leader is Franklin Graham, the son of Billy Graham and the founder of the charity Samaritan’s Purse. Another is Jerry Falwell, Junior, the son of Jerry Falwell and now pastor of his church in Lynchburg, Virginia. Today, the worlds of religion and politics have so closely re-merged that in movements like that of Donald Trump, one has a hard time deciphering whether it is inherently religious or political. What can be said is that he probably would not have risen to power without the history of religious right.


Where did we get this stuff? Here are our sources:

“With God On Our Side: George W. Bush and the Rise of the Religious Right in America.” Variety.com

“Scopes Monkey Trial (1925),” by Professor Douglas O. Linder. Famous Trials.

“Evangelicals in the Public Square,” by J. Budziszewski. Baker Academic. 2006.

“Engel v Vitale.” Wikipedia.

“Politics for Evangelicals,” by Paul Henry. Judson Press. 1974.

“The Man Who Mobiled The Evangelical Vote.” AJ+.