Alaskan Baptist preacher Howard Bess, who has locked horns with Sarah Palin right in the Wasilla community, calls her "Jerry Falwell with a pretty face." I'll add in the now-famous lipstick. Palin is so far to the right of some Baptist preachers that they're actually out to get her. Interviewed in a recent Salon article, Bess describes Palin's establishment of official Christianity in the Wasilla Valley, from taking over the local school board to barring abortion (her abortion policy was knocked down by the Alaska Supreme Court).
Unfortunately a lot of younger voters today don't get taught any history, so they have no idea how Jerry Falwell was used to launch the religious right. As with Falwell, we have to be asking ourselves what far-right organizations are bankrolling Palin. It takes a couple of tons of money to put a national candidate in orbit, and Sarah -- unlike Hillary -- isn't independently wealthy. If Palin is elected Vice President, it will be these organizations speaking through her lipstick. According to the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee, one organization, the so-called Freedom's Watch, has pledged $200 million dollars on attack ads to defeat Democrats. People need to start asking where this toxic flood of money is coming from.
Here is some updated material about Falwell and his ugly history as a puppet for a shadowy but super-powerful extreme-right organization. I published it a few years ago in Salem Press's GLBT online History Series - after the jump.
Jerry Falwell and his best-known church-lobby organization, the Moral Majority, didn't appear out of nowhere in 1979. Ever since World War II and the Roosevelt administration, conservative Americans with religious beliefs had chafed at Democrat dominance and what they viewed as the "godless humanism and socialism" taking over America. But it still wasn't socially acceptable to discuss homosexuality in public life -- and church conservatives had kept themselves out of politics.
That all changed in 1949-1950, during the trial of Alger Hiss as a Soviet spy, when Hiss's associate Whittaker Chambers was outed as a gay man. Through 1950-54, the Hiss affair sparked witch hunts by Senator Joseph McCarthy, who had strong Catholic ties and aimed to expose what he alleged to be hundreds more Communists and homosexuals in government positions. (Ironically, McCarthy's own prosecutor, Roy Cohn, was a closeted gay man). Eventually Congress slapped McCarthy down, but the harm was done. Re-surging right-wing religion could now talk openly about "homosexual immorality" and link it with political "subversion."
Launching a Movement
In 1956, an obscure 33-year-old evangelical minister started a segregated church in Lynchburg, VA. Jerry Falwell had only 35 parishioners, but he also had the charisma that makes money and followers multiply. By 1967 he had 16,000 followers and his own radio show, the "Old Time Gospel Hour." With his church compelled to desegregate in 1968, he was soon preaching nationwide through radio affiliates and TV. Finally he attracted the attention of powerful organizers in what was becoming a hard-right movement to recapture the American political process. Though a fundamentalist, Falwell became known for his alliances with other religions, notably Catholics, Jews, Charismatics and Moonies.
The movement grew into an ever-branching labyrinth of action groups, nonprofits, think tanks and lobby groups, many of them sharing leaders, membership, strategies and -- of course -- money. Lots and lots of money. Money came from churches being tax-exempt, even the conservative ones. More money came from extreme conservatives, some of them being members of powerful old families, who were super-wealthy businessmen and corporate figures. The architects of this movement turned out to be very good at grassroots organizing and long-term strategy -- better than liberals, unfortunately. Falwell and his colleagues also learned to manipulate the traditional duty of tithing (donating 10 percent of your income to your church) so they could squeeze constituents for additional millions to be used for political purposes. They also organized at colleges and universities, where their Campus Crusade for Christ tried to turn the tide of student questioning of authority.
During the 1964 Presidential election, Falwell and the New Right hoped to unseat Democratic incumbent Lyndon Johnson by supporting Republican candidate Barry Goldwater. But Goldwater lost by a landslide. By now the United States was exploding with issues and unprecedented questioning of traditional authority. On a parallel track with emerging religion, the feminist movement, the reproductive choice movement, and the gay-rights movement had also been emerging with its own infant media and fundraising. After the Stonewall Riot in 1969, gay liberation roared into high gear.
The New Right were aghast. At first their reaction was a little ad hoc, with individual characters like Anita Bryant leaping into the fray. In 1976 former Miss America Bryant led a successful attack against a gay-rights ordinance in Florida, then an unsuccessful (despite support from Falwell) anti-gay ballot initiative in California. In the late 1970s, leaders of the New Right -- young guns like Pat Robertson and others -- started saying openly that they had declared war on feminism, abortion and gay rights.
After Goldwater's Defeat
Falwell is commonly credited with founding the Moral Majority in 1979. Actually the MM idea, even the name, originated with a group of far-right planners, and Falwell was merely dragged in to head it. Here's what happened. In the wake of Goldwater's defeat, plus the Nixon/Watergate scandal (1974) that put Democrats back in the White House 1977-1981, the New Right had been desperately re-grouping, looking for another way to open the door to power. Three men who'd worked on the Goldwater campaign - Richard Viguerie, Howard Phillips and Paul Weyrich - met with former White House liaison Robert Billings and Ed McAteer, wealthy sales head of Colgate-Palmolive. This group considered forming a third party, but rejected the idea. Instead, they decided to take over the Republican Party. They'd do this by capitalizing on all the fears and resentments that stirred up in right-wing Americans of various religions since the 50s. These Americans would hopefully join the GOP and vote for Reagan.
To do this, a new national lobby was needed -- one that could pressure the GOP. Falwell was evidently tapped for his ability to schmooze other religions. According to conservative commentator Barbara Aho, "Weyrich proposed that if the Republican Party would take a strong stand against abortion, the large Catholic voting bloc within the Democratic Party would be split... The term "Moral Majority" was coined to represent the ecumenical bloc of voters that would be led by the Rev. Falwell."
The Coors family helped bankroll the Moral Majority. Viguerie, the New Right's direct-mail genius, used the old Goldwater mailing list to launch a massive fundraising effort. Soap salesman McAteer became the MM's press guy.
The Moral Majority played a prominent role in Reagan's election and his ensuring 1981-1989 administration. By 1986 Falwell was claiming that the MM had 500,000 active contributors, 30 percent of them Catholic, and a mailing list of 6 million people. According to WorldNetDaily.com, "The organization quickly became a household name and Falwell became a lightning rod on a wide array of moral and social issues. The group mobilized tens of thousands of churches, registered millions of voters, and established a foundation for what became known as the "religious right" or "Christian right." The MM's big issues were abortion, feminism, homosexuality, decline of the family and the liberal media. Most important, by attacking these "enemies of America," the MM positioned itself as a patriotic organization.
The Council on National Policy
Despite its high visibility, however, the Moral Majority was just a store-front - a member of a shadowy nonprofit lobby group with a blue-chip membership and a deeper pocket. This was the Council on National Policy, founded in 1981. The innocuous name was chosen deliberately to make it sound like some sort of government body.
The CNP kept a low profile -- no published membership list, no public meetings or positionings. But its membership, when sleuthed out by political researchers, proved to be a complete roster of hard right individuals and organizations, from billionaire Howard Ahmanson to orgs like the Heritage Foundation and American Center for Law and Justice. The original men who created the Moral Majority also belonged. Falwell served on the CNP board of governors for a time. Despite some differences in ideologies -- Protestant fundamentalist vs. conservative Jewish, Catholic, Mormon and Moonie -- members had concluded that there was strength in numbers, so they worked for consensus on issues of importance. Stopping gay rights was one of those issues. The "marriage protection" strategy, through both a U.S. constitutional amendment and state laws banning same-sex marriage, appears to have originated with the CNP.
But as the Reagan era ended amid Iran Contra and other scandals, Falwell had run the Moral Majority into debt. Membership was plummeting -- its rank and file were rejecting the hard-right approach. In 1987 Falwell announced that he was stepping down as head of the Moral Majority. Finally its strident political involvement woke up the IRS, who revoked its tax-exempt status. Falwell closed it down in 1989. Its modus operandi was borrowed for a newer nonprofit organization, the Christian Coalition.
When the Democrats' Bill Clinton recaptured the White House for 8 more years, Falwell mailed fund-raising letters to his old list asking people to vote on whether he should reactivate the Moral Majority. The response was evidently negative.
As Clinton fell and the Republicans recouped their national power, Falwell kept himself in the public eye through his Jerry Falwell Ministries and Liberty University. But some church people were starting to gag at Falwell's poisonous statements about LGBT people. In 1999 gay clergyman Mel White tried the ecumenical approach with Falwell. In his closet days, White had worked with Falwell. Now White led 400 demonstrators to Falwell's church in Lynchburg, asking that his old colleague stop preaching anti-gay hatred. At first, Falwell agreed to work with White's group. But after 9/11 this promise was conveniently forgotten - as similar ecumenical promises to Jews had been forgotten. Falwell publicly accused gays and lesbians of helping cause the terrorist attacks by "throwing God out." The old link between "gay" and "subversive" was still useful.
By 2004, Falwell was still acting as if he was heading the Moral Majority. He styled himself a "national spokesman for morality," and put his ministry at the service of George Bush's 2004 election campaign, risking further IRS action. By the time he died in 2007, Falwell had become an enduring figurehead of the religious right - but we have to remember that he was a "figurehead." You had to look behind him to see the real power players. Falwell could be compared to one of those hundreds of sculptured figures flanking a Gothic cathedral door. Each figure has some meaning in itself, but you have to stand back and look at the whole colossal structure of which all those figures form a part.
Palin in Falwell's Footsteps
Today Sarah Palin is rapidly becoming another Jerry Falwell. Overnight she is one of those many icons of unquestioning belief, being quickly plastered into place around the doorway of the vast structure that the religious right is building. What took decades to do with Falwell can be done today in a few weeks, with a country that is more wired. During this 2008 Presidential Campaign, the Council for National Policy has been mentioned by the major media only a few times in passing. But you can bet your bottom dollar that they are behind the drive to make Palin look like the girl next door. You can bet that the CNP had a major hand in all the smears of Obama's family religious background.
Interestingly enough -- while the IRS cancelled the tax-exempt status of Falwell's Moral Majority, the agency "decided" not to de-fang the Christian Coalition. In 2005, after a long battle in court, the IRS granted the precious letter of exemption to the Coalition, in spite of the Coalition's open statement that it would distribute voter guides in churches. And they are doing just that -- millions of guides. Even more serious, the IRS never had the balls to take away the nonprofit status of the CNP, granddaddy of all politically active church organizations.
Anybody who wonders how separation of church and state started vanishing -- anybody who wonders how the religious right took over the Republican Party, and how a puppet like Palin can get as far as she already has -- hasn't been paying attention to what's going on.