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  • Jerry Falwell's Sunbelt Politics:The Regional Origins of the Moral Majority
  • Daniel K. Williams (bio)

One month before Election Day in 1980, Republican presidential candidate Ronald Reagan traveled to Lynchburg, Virginia, to speak at Jerry Falwell's Liberty Baptist College, where he advocated the restoration of classroom prayer in public schools. While it was not the first time that Reagan had spoken at a fundamentalist Christian college, many analysts were still skeptical about the genuineness of Reagan's commitment to the newly formed Christian Right. Some predicted that Reagan's newfound alliance with Falwell and his Moral Majority would likely dissipate as soon as evangelicals discovered how little they had in common with the Republican Party. "Evangelicals as a whole are likely to find their relationship with the secular Right to be rather frustrating," political scientist Corwin Smidt wrote at the beginning of the 1980s. "Evangelicals are primarily concerned with certain social issues. As secular conservatives focus on economic issues and ignore social issues, Evangelicals are likely to become somewhat impatient with such conservatives, and new alignments and political strategies may become evident."1

But a quarter century later, white evangelicals remained firmly committed to the Republican Party, despite Smidt's prediction to the contrary. After voting Republican in every presidential election from 1980 through 2004, they continued the trend in 2008 by supporting John McCain over Barack Obama by a 3-1 margin, providing nearly 40 percent of McCain's total popular vote.2 Far from balking at the Republican Party's focus on economic issues, as Smidt had predicted, the Christian Right became an ardent defender of the GOP's proposals for tax cuts and increased defense spending. Political analysts who had predicted the collapse of the evangelical alliance with the [End Page 125] GOP were puzzled. They understood why evangelicals embraced the GOP's stance on abortion, but why had the Christian Right become a reliable proponent of the Republican Party's entire platform? What did tax cuts and defense spending have to do with evangelical theology?

Jerry Falwell's career as a Baptist pastor and founder of the Moral Majority, the leading national Religious Right organization of the early 1980s, offers a case study of the amalgamation of social and economic conservatism, and helps to explain why white evangelicals became full-fledged converts to the GOP not only on "moral" issues but also on matters of economics and national defense.3 As an entrepreneurially minded megachurch pastor and nationally syndicated televangelist, Falwell fused an advocacy of moral regulation with a pro-business, antiregulatory approach to economics. Having come of age at a time when private industry and Cold War military spending were the principal sources of economic uplift for his previously impoverished community, he developed a strong faith in the private sector and became an enthusiastic advocate of a strong defense policy. Envisioning a society in which business-oriented pastors and their large evangelical congregations would offer the social and educational services that had, since the New Deal, primarily been the purview of local, state, and federal governments, he entered politics in order to protect the nation's churches and families from the perceived intrusion of the federal bureaucracy. His ideology was forged in the political climate of the rapidly growing suburban Sunbelt, a region whose corporate leaders and megachurch pastors shared a deep suspicion of federal regulation, believing that the national government was a threat to the sanctity of the home and the health of the economy.

Interpreting the Christian Right as a religious version of Sunbelt conservatism allows one to make sense of the lasting alliance between economic and social conservatives, a phenomenon that has puzzled many political scientists, journalists, and historians. Corwin Smidt was hardly alone in noting the apparent incongruities in the alliance between evangelicals and secular, pro-business conservatives. Several political analysts, including Thomas Frank, Stanley Greenberg, and E. J. Dionne Jr., have argued that business conservatives hoodwinked religious traditionalists into supporting economic programs that were against their own self-interest.4 Other scholars, noting that the alliance between free-market advocates and social conservatives has proved to be more enduring than Smidt and Dionne predicted, have portrayed the Christian...


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