The New Right and the Christian Right

by Jonathan Mozzochi, Gillian Leichtling & Steven Gardiner of the Coalition for Human Dignity
In order to appreciate the scope and assess the threat of the current right wing insurgence, one must consider something of its history and the social context out of which it grew. The importance of understanding this history is apparent when the great gulf between the way the "New Right" represents itself and the reality of its history is considered. The so-called New Right has managed to sell itself as the populist, democratic, alternative to an entrenched liberal elite that enforces an "alien" ideology on the American people. The roots of the New Right are not in democratic process, however, but in mass mobilization against the civil rights of blacks women, and gays and lesbians. With the example of George Wallace's independent presidential bid, the leadership of what became the New Right realized that a broad sector of white, Christian America could be won over with populist rhetoric and more or less open race-baiting. With this realization the New Right had its winning formula: mobilize "democratically" to attack the rights of others.


In 1964 when Lyndon Johnson soundly defeated conservative Republican presidential nominee Barry Goldwater, it looked as if the American right was dead. The Civil Rights movement, the mass protests against the Vietnam War, the women's movement and the Nixon administration scandals in the early 1970s only seemed to confirm that verdict. But according to William A. Rusher, co-founder of the conservative National Review, "the most important event of 1964...was not Johnson's landslide victory...Rather it was the fact that the Goldwater campaign introduced the conservatives of America to one another."

In practical terms the Goldwater campaign was a watershed for the right. The outspoken conservative candidate received a greater number of small donations than any presidential candidate up to that time, and the mailing lists built up in the process became a priceless asset to conservative organizations that subsequently acquired them. In fact, Richard Viguerie, the man who was to become the right wing guru of direct mail solicitation in the '70s and '80s, began his career as a fundraiser with a list of so me 12,500 contributors who had given fifty dollars or more to the campaign.

Ironically enough it was the decade of the 1960s, hardly thought of as the heyday of conservatives, which marked not only a huge growth in the number of right wing journals and organizations, but the point during which the post-war right first started to flex its political muscle. The Goldwater campaign of 1964 was significant as the moment when the Right first attempted to organize independently, behind their own candidate. It was not until 1968, however, that anyone at the national level was able to mobi lize the mass of socially conservative Southern whites, who had traditionally voted democratic, behind a reactionary agenda. Significantly it was not Republican Richard Nixon, but the insurgent third party candidacy of Alabama Governor George Wallace that moved this constituency.

Wallace, who laced his rhetoric with populism and ran against the Civil Rights movement, managed to get on the ballot in all 50 states, receiving nearly 10 million votes, heavily drawn from the ranks of blue-collar workers, farm labor, and Southern whites. His combination of racism and anti-elite "populism" was electric, mobilizing and politicizing thousands of new activists and sending a powerful signal to more traditional right-wing organizers. The lesson was clear: the way to move the white electorate to the Right was through direct appeals to racism and attacks on the Civil Rights movement; as prominent African-American scholar Manning Marable explained, "Wallace used vulgar race-baiting as a technique to win the allegiance of poor and working-class whites behind a reactionary political program" (The Crisis of Color and Democracy, Essays on Race, Class and Power. Monroe, Maine: Common Courage Press, 1992, p. 138)

The leadership of what became the New Right was quick to capitalize on Wallace's tactics, both to expand their coffers and to bring Wallace's constituency into the Republican Party. By 1972, in the aftermath of the Wallace campaign and Richard Nixon's landslide re-election victory over liberal opponent George McGovern, it was reasonably clear that there was a large reactionary constituency in search of someone to lead it. The only thing standing between the right wing and state power was an autonomous political structure with a comprehensive set of institutions - think tanks, PACs, single-issue organizations, and umbrella groups - that could take advantage of this constituency. Following the Watergate scandal and President Nixon's resignation there was a proliferation of just such institutions.

Using the mailing lists Richard Viguerie had developed as a base, the key institutions of what was to become the New Right were founded in the mid-1970s. In 1973 Viguerie helped reactionary Senator Jesse Helms establish the Congressional Club. In the next two years Paul Weyrich (with the backing of beer mogul and John Birch Society member Joseph Coors) founded the Heritage Foundation and the Committee for the Survival of a Free Congress; Howard Phillips created the Conservative Caucus; and John T. Dolan started the National Conservative Political Action Committee (NCPAC). By the early 1980s these organizations would be the wealthiest and most influential political action committees and think tanks in the country.

The Christian Right

It was the same men, particularly Howard Phillips and Paul Weyrich, who played a major role in the creation of the major Christian Right organizations. The televangelists and pastors of the superchurches, men like Jerry Falwell, Pat Robertson, and Tim LaHaye were recruited to lead the new organizations, but it was the New Right organizers who pushed the religious leaders to form the national groups. But the mobilization of the Religious Right was not simply an adjunct to secular conservative politics. In retrospect it was a movement on the verge of emergence at the time the New Right leaders came along and helped get it started. The women's movement, the movement for gay and lesbian liberation, and sex education in the schools gave the Religious Right an agenda. The advent of "superchurches," some with congregations of twenty thousand or more, along with the electronic ministry, provided the means with which to mobilize the fundamentalist/evangelical community.

In the early years of the Reagan Administration these New Christian Right organizations found themselves thrust into the spotlight, with groups like the Moral Majority becoming widely known. But in spite of their high visibility, the Reagan Administration managed to deliver on very little of the Christian Right's agenda. Contrary to appearances, the Christian Right did not really even begin to come into its own until 1988.

In 1988 George Bush was the Republican candidate for president. From the point of view of the Religious Right, Bush's lukewarm stance on conservative social issues represented everything that was wrong with the Republican Party. Televangelist Pat Robertson was ready to take advantage of that fact. As early as March of 1985, Paul Weyrich was quoted in the Saturday Evening Post as supporting a "Robertson for President" campaign in 1988. He told the Post that he would lead a "Draft Robertson" movement. Robertson countered by staging a formal announcement on September 17, 1986, but instead of confirming his candidacy-which would have required him to leave his post as host of the "700 Club" he told his supporters that, "If by September 17, 1987, one year from today, three million registered voters have signed petitions telling me that they will pray, that they will work, that they will give toward my election, then I will run as a candidate for the office of President of the United States." (Spiritual Warfare, Sara Diamond, Boston: South End Press, 1989, p.73).

The more than 3 million signatures collected by Robertson's supporters over the next year became the base mailing list for his campaign. Moreover, since those who signed the Robertson for President petition were asked to indicate their party affiliation and voter registration status, the Robertson campaign was able to mail registration materials to unregistered supporters and Democrats.

Meanwhile Robertson already had the skeleton of a political machine on the ground in the form of his Freedom Council, an organization founded back in 1981. The Freedom Council was formed to mobilize activists to write letters, make phone calls and otherwise work on "Christian" legislative issues, on a precinct by precinct basis. Though the Council was officially dissolved in October of 1986 in the face of a tax audit, the same activists who had been involved in the Council became the foundation of the Robe rtson campaign organization.

Robertson, like Goldwater in 1964 and Wallace in 1968, failed to capture either the nomination or the Presidency, but the impact of his campaign should not be underestimated. Placing second to Robert Dole and ahead of George Bush in the Iowa caucus and winning 10-15% of the Republican vote in the South, Robertson vowed to continue to build for the future. Moving away from the spotlight of national politics, his Christian Coalition has emerged from the shadow of his campaign to be a major force on the Chris tian Right. The campaign marked a turning point when the Religious Right recognized that it had gone as far as it would likely go through a frontal assault on the national political level. A new strategy was needed. As it turns out the content of that new strategy was presaged in a memo which was circulated during the buildup for the Iowa caucuses, instructing Robertson's supporters to infiltrate local Republican parties. Included in the memo, which later became something of an embarrassment, were the bibl ical prescriptions to "rule the world for God" and to "be wise as serpents and innocent as doves." At the same time it advised activists to hide their strength and not to flaunt their Christianity.

In the wake of Robertson's campaign, the Religious Right has learned to adopt new tactics, concentrating on local and state politics and coalition building. It has learned to moderate its rhetoric, self-consciously appealing to "common sense" values instead of quoting scripture. In November of 1990, in fact, a symposium of Christian Right leaders was held under the auspices of the Heritage Foundation in Washington, D.C. to develop this new strategy. The symposium was organized around an article written by former Robertson staff member Thomas C. Atwood for Policy Review, the Heritage Foundation house organ. Atwood accused the Christian Right of ignoring the basic rules of politics, suggesting that its leaders "often came across as authoritarian, intolerant and boastful, even to natural constituents." His message suggested that the Religious Right concentrate on appeals to "common sense" values and avoid "messianic rhetoric." Summing up he stated, "the best thing that could happen to the movement is for it to be less identifiable as a movement and have its people and its ideas percolate through the system" (The Freedom Writer, May/June 1991, p.1).

The Christian Right Reaction

During the 1960's when strong movements for women's rights, gay liberation, and civil rights were ongoing, the Right was forced to define its agenda in reaction to desegregation, the struggle for sexual equality, and opposition to the Vietnam War. Before the rise of the New Right, the reaction was incoherent; to many who would later become involved in the Christian Right it seemed as if society was under attack by a militant minority and that the Powers That Be were not making any serious effort to oppose those attacks. Hence the initial organizing of the New Right was framed as opposition to these ongoing movements. From the Wallace campaign to the Moral Majority, the rhetoric was of patriotic, Christian, white Americans retaking their country from the decadent blacks, feminists and homosexuals who were ruining it.

In the early 1980s the first of two strategic shifts began. The New Right attempted to re-frame debate and take control over the language of civil rights, to become a pro-active movement instead of a reactive one. The rhetoric was reformed: resistance to reproductive rights became "pro-life," opposition to sexual freedom became "pro-abstinence." After years of defining itself as anti-feminist, the movement began to refer to itself as "pro-family." The new clarion call for the New Right and the Religious R ight when dealing with gay and lesbian liberation or affirmative action is "special rights for none...equal rights for all."

Then in the mid-1980s a second shift took place. After redefining their movement as pro-active rather than reactive, the New Right redefined itself. It was no longer the Moral Majority, but the new oppressed minority. The political figures who rode the crest of this reactionary wave perceived themselves as social outcasts rather than guardians of the status quo. They began to stop presenting themselves as defenders of the moral order, and to recast themselves as revolutionaries seeking to recreate the world they imagined existed before feminism and the civil rights movement. The effect of this has been a reinterpretation of social reality. White Christians are now "true minorities," defending themselves against "special interest groups" that have won "special rights" through gerrymandered elections, a judicial system dominated by liberals, a powerful, morally corrupt school system, and a Congress that promotes the destruction of the family.

For more information or to request a complete Fight the Right Action Kit, call NGLTF at 202-332-6483, TTY 202-332-6219.