The Religious Right: Introduction
In the last quarter of the twentieth century, the Religious Right emerged as a formidable, and at times, dominant political force in American public life, grabbing headlines, capitalizing on untouched media and print markets, mobilizing previously apolitical Evangelicals, reshaping party platforms, altering the outcome of electionsand in 1994, the entire shape of Congress. Not since the 1920s, when fundamentalists battled modernity on multiple fronts (from prohibition to Darwinism to birth control and flappers) did conservative Christians come to exert such influence in elections and the shaping of the American imagination.
In light of these national developments, it becomes a particularly intriguing question to ask what influence the Religious Right exerted in its own backyard and birthplace, Virginia. Might the lens of central Virginia (and the University) help us better understand the precise nature of the Religious Right’s influence, both locally and nationally? The failure of the Moral Majority to significantly affect Virginia politics and culture in the 1980s helps to expose the shallowness of its national influence. The more effective penetration of central Virginia by the Christian Coalition in the 1990s, however, gives us a glimpse of the authentic influence the Right once exercised, appreciated most fully through the drama of the Wide Awake Supreme Court case in 1994
The story of the Religious Right in Virginia begins in Lynchburg. In 1954, a young Jerry Falwell founded Thomas Road Baptist Church. Over the years, the church grew to a membership of twenty thousand, and by the late 70s, Falwells ministries included The Old Time Gospel Hour, Liberty Baptist College (which became Liberty University in 1984), The Liberty Home Bible Institute, Lynchburg Christian Academy, and numerous other print and video outlets. When conservative New Right leaders sought a spokesman and ringleader for fundamentalist churchgoers in 1978, Falwell was the natural choice. Promised their support, Falwell agreed to target the almost 50 million evangelicals across the county with the aim of mobilizing them for political action to redeem an increasingly decadent culture and return America to its Christian roots.
Falwell’s most effective tools were not scorecards or voter guides, but words, shocking public perception with clever monikers like “moral majority” whose inaccuracy did not take away from their overall effectiveness. Falwell’s influence remained rhetorical, and his loose network of uncompromising fundamentalist pastors was ultimately unable to penetrate the demographic diversity of Virginia’s evangelicals. Although Falwell established phone tree communications, sent seven hundred delegates to the 1981 Republican nominating committee, successfully blocked parimutuel betting and played a part in the election of John Warner in 1978 by endorsing him at Thomas Road, his version of the Religious Right watched three successive statewide elections go to the Democrats.
When the Moral Majority folded in the late 1980s, a remnant of previously apolitical Evangelicals-turned politically-active conservatives lingered as the foundation for a second wave of Religious Right activism. Under Pat Robertson and Ralph Reeds leadership, a much more ambitious grassroots strategy was launched to realize the political promise of Virginias evangelical Christians. Through the establishment of local chapters, the deployment of voter guides and congressional scorecards, direct mailings, conferences, and a less religious, more politically-responsible rhetoric, Robertson and Reeds Christian Coalition influenced central Virginia in a deeper way. The area became a theater of religiously-charged political activity, helping elect George Allen and bring about the improbable Republican nominations of Michael Farris and Oliver North. The presence of the Religious Right at the University of Virginia in particular reached an apex during what has become known around grounds as the Wide Awake case.
In 1991, born-again Christian Ronald Rosenberger decided to start a publication called Wide Awake that would offer a Christian perspective to campus life. He applied for $5,862 from Student Council but was turned down because the magazine was deemed a religious activity. Rosenberger sued the University, lost the case in the early rounds, but thanks to the intervention of Attorney General Jim Gilmore, had his case heard before the Supreme Court in 1995. Pat Robertsons American Center for Law and Justice filed a brief on Rosenbergers behalf, and many other Christian law organizations became involved. Rosenberger won 5-4 and the Board of Visitors changed their funding policies in November of that year. Students were later given the freedom to demand a refund of their activity fee if they objected to a Student Council-funded organization.
The precise nature of the influence of the Religious Right at the University of Virginia and throughout central Virginia remains ambiguous. Indeed, as Republicans swept Congress in 1994, the Right’s Oliver North lost the Senate race to Chuck Robb. The simultaneity of the Religious Right’s Wide Awake/Republican party successes with general election defeats tells us that despite its more intense grassroots efforts elsewhere, the Religious Right could never fully achieve any real grip on politics or culture in central Virginia. In the land of Jefferson, the tension between religion and politics has remained.