The New Right came to my church in 1976. A visiting pastor took to the pulpit in front of the largely affluent, white congregation to decry the election of Jimmy Carter, a man he claimed would preside over the moral decline of the nation.
I stood up and walked out, never to return. The New Right never left.
For decades, fringe conservative groups had found a receptive audience among poor, white, rural Christians suspicious of socialism and angry at government “intrusion” in their lives. In the earliest skirmishes of the culture wars, conservative Christians chafed at government efforts to desegregate schools, end compulsory school prayers and deny tax-exempt status to religious schools that discriminated based on race.
The Right’s New Brand
As its name implies, the New Right taking shape in the 1970s had a new message, new tactics and new audiences, including the well-educated professionals who attended my suburban nondenominational church.
The New Right also had new voices, tailored to the times.
One of the most effective leaders of the New Right was Jerry Falwell, a baptist minister turned religious broadcaster turned political operative who founded the era’s most visible right-wing lobbying group: the Moral Majority.
In her 1981 post-election critique of the New Right in the journal Feminist Studies, Rosalind Pollack Petchesky noted that the movement was attempting a historically unprecedented feat: an alliance between conservative Catholics and Protestants.
“New Right leaders believe that the politics of ‘morality’—that is, conservative family and sexual politics—is the key to forging such an alliance, and thus to uniting a potential ‘100 million Americans’ into right-wing political identity and votes,” she wrote.
Messages about states’ rights were replaced with reasonable sounding appeals to protect the civil rights of the unborn, stop homosexuals from gaining “special rights” and return the nation to its Christian roots.
Falwell’s Big Tent
In the 1980s, Falwell, always a big thinker, took the idea of a Christian alliance even further, sketching out the framework for a Judeo-Christian alliance that would unite Christians and Jews under the banner of pro-family policies. He reasoned that the same issues that animated conservative Catholics and Protestants would resonate with conservative Jews: homosexuality, abortion, government intrusion in religious schools, pornography and the Equal Rights Amendment.
Of course, Falwell had something to sweeten the deal for America’s Jewish community. He offered unwavering support for the State of Israel and the conservative government of Menachem Begin. That support, given quickly and enthusiastically after the Israeli Air Force destroyed an Iraqi nuclear reactor in June 1981, would be welcome again in the summer of 1982 when Israeli Defense Forces invaded neighboring Lebanon.
But to gain the support of American Jews, Falwell had to win their trust—a challenging task in light of his many controversial statements calling for Christian control of schools and other public institutions.
In March 1982 Falwell agreed to answer questions at a Jewish community event at the Scottish Rite Auditorium in Los Angeles. Rabbi Joseph Telushkin and conservative author Dennis Prager moderated the event, politely challenging Falwell to explain his positions on a wide range of topics, including his support for Israel. Members of the audience also asked questions.
I covered the event for the LGBT program at radio station KPFK in Los Angeles, speaking with people protesting outside the auditorium as well as people waiting to go inside.
Although the audio quality is poor, the following is about a half-hour of the Q&A with Falwell, which captures the mood of the event. Falwell’s candid responses got a fairly warm reception from the audience, although he stopped short of moderating his core positions on abortion and homosexuality.
I also spoke with people leaving the auditorium after the event, including a few who found Falwell more reasonable than they had expected.
Those who thought they heard a kinder, gentler Falwell may have been engaging in wishful thinking. In the coming years, Falwell would continue to stoke the culture wars, blaming gays, liberals and feminists for the 9/11 attacks and asserting that the antichrist would be Jewish. He called AIDS God’s punishment for gays, and for a society that would tolerate gays and lesbians.
More troubling, as Petchesky wrote in 1981, the New Right’s agenda didn’t stop at so-called family issues. “The goal of their electoral strategy is to get rid of legislators considered liberal on any of the Right’s favorite issues, including environmental regulation, welfare, defense spending, and civil rights,” she explained.
Surveying the political landscape today, it’s clear that Falwell’s agenda still has plenty of appeal.
The rare audio clips presented here have been digitally preserved thanks to the ONE National Gay and Lesbian Archives at the University of Southern California.