by Paul Taylor, Executive Vice President, Pew Research Center
When the late Rev. Jerry Falwell disbanded the Moral Majority in 1989, a decade after he had founded the grass-roots evangelical Christian lobbying and political action movement, he declared that “our mission is accomplished.”
Plainly, that epitaph wasn’t intended as a claim that every single item on the group’s lobbying agenda had been achieved. But if Falwell meant that evangelical Christians had come to accept the idea that organized religion and religious leaders should play an activist role in the political process, his epitaph for the Moral Majority is well-supported by public opinion surveys.
By a margin of nearly 2-1, white evangelical Christians — the core constituency of the Moral Majority — say that churches and other houses of worship should express their views on day-to-day social and political questions, according to a July 2006 survey by the Pew Research Center for the People & the Press.
By contrast, Catholics and white mainline Protestants are decidedly ambivalent about the mixing of religion and politics. In fact, slight majorities of both groups say that churches should keep out of political matters. However, for the public as a whole, about half (51%) now say churches should express their views on political and social issues, while 46% say they should keep out. These percentages have barely budged in the past decade.
Back in the 1960s, however, public opinion tilted in the other direction. Toward the end of a decade when America’s first Catholic president, John F. Kennedy, had made a strong public stand in support of the separation of church and state, a 1968 Gallup survey found 53% of Americans saying that churches should keep out of politics. (Surveys in that era did not ask respondents if they were evangelical Christians, so it is not possible to know how that group felt at the time).
Today, black Protestants make up the only other major religious group besides white evangelical Christians to strongly embrace the idea of an activist role for religion in politics. By a margin of more than 2-1, they, too, say that churches should express their views on political matters.
The difference is that political activism has had a long history within the black church, stretching back to the era of the civil rights movement and beyond. White evangelical Christians, on the other hand, tended to hold their religion apart from their politics for much of the 20th Century.
That position began to change with the backlash against the social and cultural upheavals of the 1960s, and, much more pointedly, with evangelicals’ staunch opposition to the 1973 U.S. Supreme Court ruling that legalized abortion.
A generation later, abortion remains a galvanizing issue in evangelical churches. Nearly two-thirds (63%) of all churchgoing white evangelical Christians say that, on occasion, their minister speaks out about abortion from the pulpit, compared with just over a third (37%) of white mainline Protestants who say the same about their preacher.
A majority of white evangelicals also say that they hear from their ministers from time to time about hunger and poverty (91%); the war in Iraq (54%); and laws regarding homosexuality (54%).
As for more explicit involvement in political campaigns, some four-in-ten white evangelical Christians (39%) say they think it is appropriate for clergy to discuss political candidates or issues from the pulpit. Among the population at large, just three-in-ten adults (31%) agree.
White evangelical Christians are also more likely than other church-going adults to have had information on political parties or candidates made available in their place of worship. Three-in-ten (29%) say this, compared with 22% of all churchgoing adults. However, this practice is much more common in black churches than in white evangelical churches; nearly half (49%) of black Protestants say information on parties and candidates was made available in their place of worship.
The impact of the heightened political activism among evangelicals was clear in the 2004 presidential campaign. White evangelicals accounted for some 23% of the overall electorate on Election Day that year and, according to the exit polls, they gave a whopping 78% of their votes to President Bush — making white evangelicals by far the single most potent religious-based voting bloc in that election.
Finally, when it comes to their views about the appropriate level of religious expression by political leaders, white evangelical Protestants are once again distinctive. Six in ten (61%) say there has been too little expression of religious faith by political leaders, while a quarter (25%) say there has been the right amount and just 7% say there has been too much. The public at large is more evenly divided on this question, with 39% saying too little, 27% saying the right amount and 26% saying too much.
As many of his obituaries noted this past week, Rev. Falwell had been a more high-profile figure on the political scene a generation ago than he was in more recent times. But if the key goal of his movement was to encourage a formerly apolitical group to become politically engaged — and to do so in part through the guidance of organized religion — then he leaves behind a powerful legacy.
For further discussion of the Falwell legacy see, A Christian Right Without Falwell, a discussion with John Green, Senior Fellow in Religion and American Politics, Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life.