False Birth

June 14, 2012

Religion and politics may be taboo topics for polite dinner discussion but the two--especially when mixed--are increasingly being debated in public society. Unfortunately, a lot of misinformation often develops as people jump into the discussion despite not having a solid understanding of the background and context. A good example of this problem is a recent column for The Atlantic by author Jonathan Merritt. Although Merritt offers some really good conclusions in the piece, he starts it with a whopper of a claim that shows a lack of historical understanding:

Many historians say the modern religious right was birthed in June of 1979. That was the month when the Rev. Jerry Falwell founded the Moral Majority, an organization tasked with saving the American public from the threat of moral decline.
Really? The "religious right" did not start until 1979? That is a lot like saying World War II did not start until Pearl Harbor. Sure, the founding of the Moral Majority was a significant moment that showed the accelerating growth and influence of the "religious right," but that was not the birth. Pre-Falwell and the Moral Majority, many others--including Francis Schaeffer, Pat Robertson, TBN, Hal Lindsey, and Phyllis Schlafly--were already actively campaigning and building the religious-political infrastructure of the "religious right" (as I mention in my book on confessional politics). Falwell actually came fairly late to the game after years of preaching Christians should not get involved in politics (because he opposed the efforts of Martin Luther King, Jr.). Since the Moral Majority died a few years after its start, it seems odd to call that short-lived organization the birth, especially since older groups like Schlafly's Eagle Forum are still going. Additionally, the tax fight involving Bob Jones University really did more to spark the "religious right" and its increased political activism than anything the Moral Majority did.

When I asked Merritt to defend his claim, he simply replied that "depends on who's counting." That is a pretty poor response so I pressed him, like a math teacher would, to show his work because his numbers do not add up. He failed to do so. Additionally, I asked him to name some historians who make the claim he asserted in his first sentence, and he again failed to do so. That is not surprising because the generic claim that "[m]any historians" call June of 1979 the birth seems like a like cheap writing trick based on lazy research. Rather than prove his point, he simply threw out a claim and then moved on to the conclusions he wanted to write. Again, he makes some good conclusions so it is unfortunate that he spreads misinformation at the start. To simply blame Falwell and Ronald Reagan for mixing religion and politics--the two people frequently blamed--is to ignore a lot of other key conservative and liberal activists and politicians who played significant roles first. Adding such details about others results in a longer, more complex story, but it also provides a more accurate picture. We will not be able to appropriately respond to the current mixing of religion and politics until we understand how we got here.

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