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The Moral Majority was a prominent American political organization associated with the Christian right. It was founded in 1979 and dissolved in the late 1980s. It played a key role in the mobilization of Christians as a political force and in Republican presidential victories throughout the 1980s.
The origins of the Moral Majority can be traced to 1976, when Jerry Falwell embarked on a series of “I Love America” rallies across the country to raise awareness of social issues important to Falwell. These rallies were an extension of Falwell’s decision to go against the traditional Baptist principle of separating religion and politics, a change of heart Falwell says he had when he perceived the decay of the nation’s morality. Through hosting these rallies, Falwell was able to gauge national support for a formal organization and also raise his profile as a leader. Having already been a part of a well-established network of ministers and ministries, within a few years Falwell was favorably positioned to launch the Moral Majority.
The Moral Majority was formally initiated as a result of a struggle for control of an American conservative Christian advocacy group known as Christian Voice during 1978. Robert Grant, Christian Voice's acting President, stated in a news conference that the Religious Right was a "sham... controlled by three Catholics and a Jew." Paul Weyrich, Terry Dolan, Richard Viguerie (the Catholics) and Howard Phillips (the Jew) left Christian Voice. During a 1979 meeting, they urged televangelist Jerry Falwell to found Moral Majority (a phrase coined by Weyrich). This was also the beginning of the New Christian Right.
Falwell and Weyrich founded the Moral Majority in June 1979. The Moral Majority was a southern-oriented organization of the Christian Right, although the Moral Majority’s state chapters and political activity extended beyond the South. After the Moral Majority’s establishment, the state chapters grew quickly, with organizations in eighteen states by 1980. The variety of resources available to the Moral Majority at its founding facilitated this rapid expansion, which included Falwell’s “Old Time Gospel Hour” mailing list. In addition, the Moral Majority took control of the “Old Time Gospel Hour’s” publication, Journal Champion, which had been distributed to the show’s donors. Falwell was the organization's best known spokesperson throughout the 1980s. By 1982, Moral Majority surpassed Christian Voice in size and influence.
The Moral Majority’s headquarters were in Lynchburg, Virginia, the same city where Falwell was the presiding minister of the nation’s largest independent Baptist church, Thomas Road Baptist Church. Virginia has been a seat of Christian Right politics, being the state where the Christian Coalition’s first headquarters were established. Falwell was at the head of the Moral Majority and maintained an advisory board, constituting the organization’s primary leadership. This leadership was drawn heavily from Falwell’s fellow members of the Baptist Bible Fellowship. Falwell insisted the Moral Majority leadership also include Catholics and Jews, although not all members of the leadership approved of this inclusion.
The Moral Majority was an organization made up of conservative Christian political action committees which campaigned on issues its personnel believed were important to maintaining its Christian conception of moral law, a conception they believed represented the opinions of the majority of Americans (hence the movement's name). With a membership of millions, the Moral Majority was one of the largest conservative lobby groups in the United States and at its height, the Moral Majority claimed over four million members and over two million donors. These members were spread out over about twenty state organizations, of which Washington State was the largest. The Moral Majority was incorporated into the Liberty Federation in 1985, remaining a distinct entity but falling under the Liberty Federation’s larger jurisdiction. By 1987, Falwell retired as the formal head of the Moral Majority, although he maintained an active and visible role within the organization.
By the end of Ronald Reagan's presidential administration, Christian Right organizations were generally in a phase of decline. After Reagan’s two terms in office, donations were decreasing, possibly because after eight years of Christian Right-supported leadership, the nation did not appear to donors to be in the same state of moral peril as they perceived it to be when Reagan first took office. The Moral Majority’s financial base seriously eroded when it became part of the Liberty Federation and financial difficulties ultimately were a major factor in the decision to disband the organization. Falwell, though, gave a more optimistic public opinion about the Moral Majority’s dissolution. Announcing the disbandment of the Moral Majority in 1989 in Las Vegas, Falwell declared, “Our goal has been achieved…The religious right is solidly in place and…religious conservatives in America are now in for the duration.”
The Moral Majority sought to mobilize conservative Americans to become politically active on issues they thought were important. A variety of tactics were used to garner support. These tactics included direct-mail campaigns, telephone hot lines, rallies, and religious television broadcasts. Although the Moral Majority existed for only a decade, it became a visible political force very shortly after its founding and was relatively effective in its mobilization goals. According to Robert Liebman and Robert Wuthnow, common explanations for this success include:
Some issues for which the Moral Majority campaigned included:
The Moral Majority comprised four distinct organizations:
The state chapters of the Moral Majority were financially independent from the national organization and relied on local resources to conduct their activities. Consequently, the national organization encouraged local chapters to cooperate with their policies but had little control over local chapters’ activities. Political activity of the Moral Majority divided accordingly, with the national Moral Majority office usually focused on addressing multiple issues through Congress while local branches tended to work on a single issue within their respective states.
The Moral Majority engaged in political activity in a variety of ways, including national media campaigns and grassroots organization aimed at supporting particular candidates in elections and using mail and phone calls to reach office-holders. The Moral Majority’s initial political actions were aimed at supporting Jesse Helms’ proposed legislation on school prayer. Before long, the Moral Majority became heavily invested in presidential elections and national politics; although at the state level branches of the Moral Majority continued to pursue specific issues at lower levels of government. As far as elections, state Moral Majority chapters tended to deliberately focus their efforts towards particular candidates. For example, state chapters participated in campaigns to oust liberal members of Congress during the 1980 election. Also, in 1981, the Moral Majority mobilized delegates to the Virginia Republican state nominating convention in order to support Guy Farley, an evangelical candidate for lieutenant governor.
Nationally, the Moral Majority encouraged electoral participation among its members and used registration drives to register church-goers to vote, with the logic that Moral Majority members would be likely to vote for Moral Majority-endorsed candidates, thus strengthening the organization’s electoral efficacy and strengthening its endorsements. Leaders within the Moral Majority asked ministers give their congregants political direction, reminding congregants when to vote, who to vote for, and why the Moral Majority held particular positions on issues. The Moral Majority, however, is probably best known for its involvement in presidential elections, specifically those of Ronald Reagan.
The 1976 election of Jimmy Carter as President of the United States marked a milestone for evangelical Christians. For the first time, a self-professed evangelical Christian had been elected to the nation’s highest office, bringing the national awareness of evangelical Christianity to a new level. Despite commonality in religious identification, however, evangelical Christians in general and eventually the newly formed Moral Majority in particular would come to be disappointed with Carter’s policies. Carter did not share the Moral Majority’s political imperative to unify personal and political positions and would instead support the positions of his own party, the Democratic Party. In particular, Carter did not actively oppose his party’s general pro-choice platform on abortion, nor did Carter work to bridge the church-state divide, both factors in the Moral Majority’s decision to support Ronald Reagan’s candidacy in 1980.
The Moral Majority was a relatively early supporter of Reagan, with Falwell announcing the organization’s endorsement of Reagan before the Republican convention. According to Jimmy Carter, "that autumn  a group headed by Jerry Falwell purchased $10 million in commercials on southern radio and TV to brand me as a traitor to the South and no longer a Christian." Naturally, the Moral Majority continued working on behalf of Reagan after he gained the Republican nomination. Following the organization’s heed, more than one-fifth of Moral Majority supporters voted for Reagan in 1980 that had supported Carter in 1976. After Reagan’s victory, Falwell announced Reagan’s success was directly due to the Moral Majority and others registering and encouraging church-goers to vote who had never before been politically active. Empirical evidence suggests that Falwell’s claim about the role of Christian Right organizations in Reagan’s victory has some truth, though difficult to determine definitively.
Reagan sought the input from the Moral Majority leadership during his campaign and appointed the Rev. Robert Billings, the Moral Majority’s first executive director, to be a religious advisor to the campaign. Later, Reagan appointed Billings to a position the Department of Education. This appointment was particularly significant for the Moral Majority, which had lobbied on education policy issues, especially those regarding private schools.
The Moral Majority maintained their support for Reagan’s 1984 reelection campaign and, alongside other Christian Right organizations, influenced the Republican platform for the election, shaping the party’s campaign stances on school prayer and abortion. The nation’s political climate, however, had changed since Reagan’s first campaign. Although Reagan won reelection, the role of the Moral Majority in the victory had changed since 1980. A study of voters in the 1984 election showed that more anti-Moral Majority voters voted for Walter Mondale than pro-Moral Majority voters voted for Reagan, suggesting the Moral Majority may have actually had a negative effect on Reagan’s campaign.
1988 was the last presidential election for which the Moral Majority was an active organization. With Reagan having reached his two-term limit, the Republican nomination was open to a variety of primary contenders. The evangelical minister and televangelist Rev. Pat Robertson sought the Republican nomination and would have been, at first glance, a natural choice for the Moral Majority’s support. Although Robertson’s political platforms were extremely similar to the ones the Moral Majority supported, Falwell gave his organization’s endorsement to contender George H. W. Bush instead. Falwell’s decision highlighted the rivalry between Falwell and Robertson as televangelists but also revealed the deep-seated tension that still persisted between competing evangelical traditions – Falwell’s fundamentalist tradition was at odds with Robertson’s charismatic tradition.
By the late 1980s the views of the Moral Majority were challenged widely and the organization started to crumble. With its waning support, critics started to call the organization "neither moral nor a majority". By 1988 there were serious cash flow problems and Falwell dismantled the organization in 1989.
During its existence the Moral Majority experienced friction with other evangelical leaders and organizations as well as liberal leaders and organizations. For example, Bob Jones particularly sought to challenge the public position of the Moral Majority and was known to make public statements that the Moral Majority was an instrument of Satan. Such rivalries affected the Moral Majority’s grassroots efforts. In South Carolina, the Moral Majority had no presence because Bob Jones University’s religious network had already organized the state’s independent Baptists. The tension between Falwell and Pat Robertson also affected the Moral Majority, as noted in the presidential elections section of this article. On the ideologically opposed side, Norman Lear’s liberal organization People for the American Way was formed with the specific intention of opposing the platforms of the Moral Majority and other Christian Right organizations.
In November 2004, Falwell revived the Moral Majority name for a new organization, the Moral Majority Coalition. The intent of the organization is to continue the "evangelical revolution" to help conservative politicians get elected. Referring to the Coalition as a "21st century resurrection of the Moral Majority," Falwell, a father of the modern "religious right" political movement, committed to leading the organization for four years, but died on May 15, 2007.