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  • Fighting Liberalism's Excesses:Moral Crusades During the Reagan Revolution
  • Jon A. Shields (bio)

If one man symbolized the resurgence of social conservatism in the 1980s, it was the late Jerry Falwell. A fiery fundamentalist, Falwell founded the Moral Majority in 1979 to reassert moral traditionalism in the wake of the sexual revolution. When the New York Times reflected on Falwell's legacy after his death in 2007, it emphasized his popularity and power.1 The right-wing Weekly Standard went even further, crediting the Moral Majority with "the biggest realignment in modern history."2 Such claims have become so uncontroversial that they could have been lifted from the boilerplate in textbooks of American history. The Falwell insurgency, however, turned out to be a myth that persists despite a number of careful studies that have exposed the Moral Majority for what it was: a small network of independent Baptist ministers.

Like other powerful myths, however, the legendary story of Falwell's influence tells a deeper truth about our past. The 1980s were, in fact, a decade shaped by genuine grassroots movements that fought liberalism's perceived degeneration into libertinism. Falwell and his tribe of Baptist fundamentalists simply were not its central actors. Instead, the "backlash" against liberalism was broadly popular in the 1980s, appealing to Americans from across the religious and political spectrum. During that disgruntled decade, millions of Americans decided to join campaigns against drunk driving, pornography, abortion, and animal cruelty.

The varied political ambitions of these movements have long obscured what they shared in common. All of these grassroots campaigns were driven by a similar critique of American liberalism. From the perspective of their activists, American liberalism had been corrupted by a debased libertinism. [End Page 103] In this egoistic understanding of liberalism, the expression of important freedoms and pleasures required suffering, domination, and even death. Dead motorists, degraded women, tortured animals, and crushed fetuses, said the Eighties' movements, were an unacceptable price of liberty. Our restless pursuit of happiness, warned that era's activists, should never depend on the suffering or death of others.

The pervasiveness and timing of these concerns must be understood in a larger historical context. All of these movements exploded after an era in which Americans were throwing off constraints of all kinds. During the 1970s, crime rose dramatically, abortion rates soared, graphic and sometimes violent pornography flooded into American cities, factory farms proliferated, and drinking bouts increased. These trends were encouraged by a legal regime that was lenient, either by historical standards or compared to other democracies (and sometimes both). From the point of view of its critics both then and now, the 1970s represent an era of narcissism.3 It was the "me decade," as Tom Wolfe influentially put it.4 And by the 1980s, millions of Americans began to say "enough."

Mobilization against these libertine currents also fit a historical pattern. In fact, the Eighties' movements had nineteenth-century predecessors. In the wake of social changes that destabilized the moral order, movements against alcohol, prostitution, and animal cruelty thrived after the Civil War. Yet the Eighties' crusades were also distinct from these earlier campaigns because they emerged in a political context remade by legal and cultural changes that weakened and divided moral reformers.

Despite new obstacles, however, many of the social problems that these moral crusades mobilized against are much ameliorated today. Such improvements have tempered Americans' appetite for new or reinvigorated moral campaigns against liberalism, as has a massive terrorist attack on American soil and a prolonged economic recession. And yet the Eighties' campaigns will probably not represent the last sustained and multifaceted revolt against the perceived excesses of our liberal tradition, at least as long as American culture and laws provide a far wider scope for individual liberties than most other democracies.

By the Numbers: Comparing Eighties' Movements

Textbooks of American history unfailingly contend that the Reagan Revolution was driven, in part, by the rise of social and religious conservatism, whipped up by Falwell's Moral Majority.5 This account is often repeated by [End Page 104] more specialized studies of conservatism as well.6 The temptation to place the Moral Majority at the center of that moralistic...


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