Dec. 7, 2004 – If the adjusted exit polls from Election Day 2004 are to be believed, the issue of "moral values" was the most important factor for more than a fifth of American voters. But at least two Christian organizations with distinct aims see the increased focus on morality as a chance to build momentum for future electoral and grassroots successes. While public attention has revolved around the religious right since November 2, progressive Christians are also seeking to gain ground in a changing the political environment.
Upon the re-election of George Bush, the Reverend Dr. Jerry Falwell, a Christian broadcaster in Lynchburg, Virginia, formed an organization seeking to take advantage of the conservative electoral momentum to further what he sees as an "evangelical revolution."
According to its mission statement, Falwellâ€™s group, The Moral Majority Coalition (TMMC) will work for three objectives: the passage of a Family Marriage Amendment; the confirmation of pro-life US Supreme Court justices and other federal judges; and the election of another "socially, fiscally and politically conservative" president in 2008.
On the groupâ€™s website, Falwell writes: "Here I go again. I am launching a campaign to enlist the first one million charter members of The Moral Majority Coalition." Falwell asks readers to make a $25 or better contribution to help the coalition launch a nationwide voter registration campaign designed to bring millions more "faith and values" voters to the polls in 2006 and 2007.
Soon after forming, FaithfulAmerica.org ran a commercial on Arab television stations in which the group apologized for the Iraq prison scandal and earned itself a reported 100,000 new members.
Falwell originally founded an organization called the Moral Majority in April 1979, made up of conservative political action committees, eventually incorporating numerous local chapters and more than 2 million members. In the 1980s, the Moral Majority became one of the countryâ€™s largest conservative lobbying groups. Falwell disbanded the group in 1989.
"I support Dr. Falwellâ€™s [new] coalition because I credit him with a lot of the great work thatâ€™s being done in the evangelical community," said Tony Perkins, president of the Washington-DC based Family Research Council. "Our group will help in whatever capacity it can because we are both working towards the same goal. "
Perkins added, "The American people sent a very strong message last November 2. We are seeing the rise of the â€˜valuesâ€™ voter, and that [trend] has not escaped the attention of those who serve on Capitol Hill." The Family Research Council describes itself as a "nonprofit, nonpartisan educational organization that reaffirms and promotes the traditional family unit and the Judeo-Christian value system."
Liberal Christian leaders, however, are downplaying Falwellâ€™s new initiative. "The religious right has been organizing for 35 years under a variety of different names so they can push their radical conservative agenda," said Robert Edgar, General Secretary of the New York City and Washington, DC based National Council of Churches. "I hope Mr. Falwell spends more time reading the Scriptures and less time pontificating and pushing policies that cause fissures in our society."
Tom Perriello, a fellow at the New York City based Res Publica, said: "My sense is that [Falwellâ€™s] day has come and gone in the conservative Christian community. I donâ€™t think Falwell has his finger on the pulse of the American peopleâ€™s thinking." The New York City-based Res Publica describes itself as "a group of public sector professionals dedicated to promoting good governance, virtuous civic cultures and deliberative public discourse globally."
But Edward J. Murray, president and CEO of Faith and Values Media in New York City, welcomes Falwellâ€™s initiative. "We like to see faith become more active in the public forum," Murray said. "Those folks [Falwellâ€™s organization] are extremely skilled at making that happen. More power to them" Faith and Values Media uses television and the Internet to communicate the value of Jewish and Christian religion in everyday life.
Falwellâ€™s latest effort is another step in the ongoing ideological battle taking shape between liberal and fundamentalist Christian organizations. The conflict intensified after Bushâ€™s November victory, and it promises to dominate politics in America for years to come.
But Murray, for one, sees nothing wrong with the marriage of politics and religion. "Historically, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and other ordained ministers led the civil rights movement in this country, but the liberal progressive community has missed the boat," he explained. "It has decided for whatever reason that religion doesnâ€™t belong in political discussions. Thatâ€™s crazy."
That situation is changing, however, according to Edgar, who revealed that the National Council of Churches and other Christian groups fitting the categories of liberal or progressive have organized a movement called FaithfulAmerica.org. "We will use FaithfulAmeica.org to broaden the moral values agenda," Edgar revealed. "We think itâ€™s immoral to have a prison camp in GuantÃ¡namo. We think itâ€™s immoral to have nine million children in this country without health care."
FaithfulAmerica.org was organized just last spring. "Falwellâ€™s movement is 35 years in the making; ours is just four years in the making," Edgar explained. "We need to build a base."
Soon after forming, FaithfulAmerica.org ran a commercial on Arab television stations in which the group apologized for the Iraq prison scandal. "That commercial alone got us 100,000 new members," Edgar said.
The group also sent a video team to the Darfur region of the Sudan last August 25 to document allegations of genocide. "Our big challenge in building a coalition will be to convince moderate Christians that they must be more passionate about genocide, AIDS, poverty, peace, the environment and the other important issues we face," Edgar explained.
"Liberals have derisively ascribed moral values to the religious right," said Perkins of the Family Research Council. Perkins pointed to a post-election research suggesting, in his interpretation, that "moral values like honesty and integrity are on the minds of a much larger segment of the American public."
Perriello of Res Republica agreed that moral values are on the minds of American voters, but he believes that the conservative Christian right, as exemplified by Falwellâ€™s new coalition, has the "wrong prescription" for what ails America.
"I think many Americans, both liberal and conservative, believe that their country has a big cultural problem," Parriello explained. "They are concerned about the sexualization, violence and greed in our culture. Falwellâ€™s agenda is political and fixated. There is nothing in his coalitionâ€™s mission statement that addresses those issues."
Chip Berlet, senior analyst at the watchdog group, Political Research Associates, agrees that conservatives have no monopoly on the defining of morality. "Both secular and religious progressives can use moral values," he points out. But Berlet added that the left has "a dreadful track record articulating their moral vision. They need to find the language." Berletâ€™s organization keeps tabs on the far right from a progressive vantage point.
Just as there is a gulf of understanding between the Christian right and left, there is tension between religious groups and secular activists, who fear the erosion of church and state separation, the organizational hierarchy of religious institutions, and potential for religious proselytizing.
"Itâ€™s incomprehensible for people of faith that the secularists expect them to leave their religion at the door of secular debate," said Berlet. "But itâ€™s equally outlandish for religious conservatives to say that their beliefs trump secular debate. I believe both sides have to shift their position on the issue."