A Time of Malaise

58e. The New Right

Pat Robertson
Pat Robertson was among the new breed of "televangelists" that rose to political and cultural prominence in the late 1970s and early '80s. Robertson used his television station "The Christian Broadcast Network" to deliver a conservative message to millions.

Not everyone was happy with the social changes brought forth in America in the 1960s and 1970s. When Roe vs. Wade guaranteed the right to an abortion, a fervent pro-life movement dedicated to protecting the "unborn child" took root.

Antifeminists rallied against the Equal Rights Amendment and the eroding traditional family unit. Many ordinary Americans were shocked by the sexual permissiveness found in films and magazines. Those who believed homosexuality was sinful lambasted the newly vocal gay rights movement. As the divorce and crime rates rose, an increasing number of Americans began to blame the liberal welfare establishment for social maladies. A cultural war unfolded at the end of the 1970s.

Enter the New Right.

The New Right was a combination of Christian religious leaders, conservative business bigwigs who claimed that environmental and labor regulations were undermining the competitiveness of American firms in the global market, and fringe political groups.

There was nothing new about political and economic conservatism. Barry Goldwater based his 1964 Presidential campaign on the premise that the New Deal should be reversed. He declared that big government was the greatest threat to American liberty. Social spending and welfare needed to be cut to reduce the tax burden on individuals and families. Government regulations were inhibiting economic growth and personal freedoms. When foreign competition made inroads against American corporations in the 1970s, many people began to believe Goldwater had been right. Big business wielded its financial resources as a backbone of the New Right Movement.

Religious broadcasters in the late 1970s and '80s took advantage of the boom in cable and satellite television by creating stations and networks that reached more people than ever before.

Another linchpin of the conservative backlash was the Christian Right. Since the 1950s, members of the evangelical Christian denominations increased fivefold. By the mid-1970s, over a quarter of adult Americans identified themselves as born-again Christians.

The Christian Right had many faces. Fundamentalists such as Jerry Falwell believed in a literal interpretation of the Bible. Pentacostalists such as Pat Robertson claimed the Holy Spirit communicated directly with people on a regular basis.

Despite theological divisions, all evangelical leaders agreed that America was experiencing a moral decline. They explained that homosexuality was a crime against God, and that a woman's place was in the home in support of her family. They criticized the "liberal" media for corrupting America's youth. They chided the courts for taking religion out of the public schools and supported private Christian academies and homeschooling as alternatives.

Many Catholic Americans agreed with the sentiments of the New Right. The reforming spirit of the Catholic Church reached its high water mark in the 1960s with a convention called Vatican II. Latin was dropped as a requirement for the mass. Lay people were given a greater role in Church services. Support was given for ecumenical outreach to other Christian denominations and Jewish synagogues.

"If all the fundamentalists knew who to vote for and did it together, we could elect anybody." -Jerry Falwell, 1979

Social politics of the time forged connections between Catholic and Protestant leaders. Abortion and "family rights" were seen as areas of common ground. The appointment of the conservative John Paul II in 1979 marked an end to the reform spirit within the Church.

New Right leaders were highly organized and understood the potential of mass telecommunications. Pat Robertson formed the Christian Broadcasting Network to send his message. The PTL (Praise the Lord) Club led by Jim Bakker transmitted faith healing and raucous religious revival to the largest viewing audience of any daily program in the world. They built massive databases containing the names and addresses of potential financial contributors and regularly solicited funds. In 1979, Jerry Falwell formed the Moral Majority, Inc. This group and hundreds of others raised money to defeat liberal senators, representatives, and governors. They sought to control school boards on the local level to advance their conservative agenda. Ronald Reagan freely accepted contributions from the New Right on his way to the Presidency in 1980.

Like most movements, the New Right contained an extremist element. Racial hatred groups like the Ku Klux Klan and the American Nazi Party joined the outcry against American moral decline. Ultra-libertarian militia groups formed in many states dedicated to attacking the American government they believed had become far too invasive. They steadfastly supported the right to bear arms as a means to defend themselves from tyranny. Some groups began stockpiling arsenals. These organizations interpreted the term "cultural war" in the most literal, ominous sense.

For many, the end of the '70s seemed shrouded in a dark malaise.

But morning in America was about to dawn.

On the Web
Outline of American History
This lengthy one-page chapter of American history at the end of the 20th century locates the New Right within the broader conservative movement that brought Ronald Reagan to power. This chapter follows the movement through the economic shifts of the '80s and the dynamic foreign affairs that marked the period.
Religion, from Vatican II to the Ayatollah Khomeini
A quarter of a century of religious history in Rome, the U.S. and Iran by a history buff and writer. Lots of juicy side stories make this history come alive, such as the description of televangelist Billy Graham regretting his association with President Nixon after hearing Watergate tapes in which Nixon curses. Graham claimed he was surprised Nixon even knew such words.

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