Photo: President George H.W. Bush with Jerry Falwell. Credit: Liberty University - Photo: 2020

America’s Christian Right, Republicans and Donald Trump – 5

Viewpoint by John Newsinger*

This is the fifth of a six-part article originally published in International Socialism under the title The Christian right, the Republican Party and Donald Trump. Click here for part four of the series. Any views or opinions expressed are solely those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of IDN-InDepth News.  

LONDON (IDN) – Pat Robertson, whose Christian Broadcasting Network in many ways led the field and who was to establish the Christian Coalition, found faith healing an extremely useful way to generate donations (all tax free). He regularly cured disabilities, both health and financial, on the TV, as noted by James Randi in ‘The Faith Healers’:

There is a woman in Kansas City who has sinus. The Lord is drying that up right now. Thank you, Jesus! There is a man with a financial need – I think a hundred thousand dollars. That need is being met right now, and within three days, the money will be supplied through the miraculous power of the Holy Spirit. Thank you, Jesus! There is a woman in Cincinnati with cancer of the lymph nodes, I don’t know whether it’s been diagnosed yet, but you haven’t been feeling well, and the Lord is dissolving the cancer right now.

Robertson successfully turned himself into a very wealthy businessman on the back of donations to his ministry from “small donors … most of whom were elderly”, eventually going into partnership with the Bank of Scotland and with Laura Ashley, although both these relationships were ended after protests against his homophobia.

More successful was his deal with Rupert Murdoch (“Robertson’s and Murdoch’s politics were similar”) whereby Robertson sold his Family Channel to Fox for 1.9 billion dollars in 1997. It became the Fox Family Channel with Robertson and Murdoch as co-chairmen and still carried Robertson’s daily 700 Club show.

In 2001 Disney bought the channel for two billion dollars once again agreeing to keep the 700 Club programme as part of the deal. This was despite Robertson once having warned on the programme that Disney’s Orlando resort was in danger of the wrath of God, in the form of “terrorist bombs, earthquakes, tornadoes and possibly a meteor”, for allowing “Gay Days”.

Robertson also courted the Mobutu regime in Zaire, securing diamond mines from the dictator. He then used planes supposedly carrying relief supplies to ship diamond mining equipment. One pilot later went public to reveal that of the forty flights he made over a six month period, only one was humanitarian, while the remainder were carrying mining equipment.

This appalling multi-millionaire charlatan and conman, who claimed to have cured children of leukaemia, to have deflected hurricanes through prayer, and who routinely blamed floods and earthquakes on the toleration of homosexuality, was to become a major force within the Republican Party.

And more recently there is John Hagee, the founder of the influential Christians United for Israel, the largest pro-Zionist organisation in the US with a claimed membership of over four million. His weekly sermons were broadcast by

the hundreds of stations owned by the mega-network, Salem Communications … Hagee routinely assures members of his flock that their terminal diseases, credit card debts and interpersonal troubles will all be wiped away if only they lavish generous cash donations upon him, donations that he calls “love gifts” … making him one of the world’s wealthiest preachers.

From Reagan to Bush

Ronald Reagan was not an evangelical Christian. He was not religious in any meaningful sense of the word, was never a churchgoer, had liberal opinions on issues such as abortion, and was not a homophobe. He was to be America’s first divorced president. Moreover, Nancy, his second wife, a believer in astrology, was a pagan as far as evangelicals were concerned. And he was running in 1980 against Jimmy Carter, who was an evangelical, born again Christian who had actually taught Sunday school while in the White House. But Carter was a liberal who made clear he did not endorse the culture wars agenda of the Christian right.

Reagan, however, went out of his way to win their support. In July 1980, Reagan’s platform committee met with Jerry Falwell and the Moral Majority leadership to ensure that “the platform included endorsements of constitutional amendments to restore prayer in schools and prohibit abortion, as well as a denunciation of the Equal Rights Amendment”.

Moreover, as Kenneth Woodward puts it, “the former actor could mimic the choked-up hush of the truly pious and deliver evangelistic chestnuts like ‘America’s hunger for spiritual renewal’”. With his skilful blending of “apocalyptic rhetoric with criticism of the New Deal state”, Reagan was the Christian right’s “dream candidate”.

The Moral Majority played a crucial part in mobilising evangelicals behind Reagan’s campaign, giving him a religious credibility he would otherwise have lacked. In return, they were promised that his presidency would take their side in the culture wars, and, of course, they were wholly committed to both his right-wing economic policies and his hard-line Cold War stance.

Reagan cultivated their support by means of symbolic gestures, but gestures never backed by action that risked alienating those Americans who were not evangelicals. Of his 31 cabinet appointments, only four were members of the Christian right. He gave the Christian right “photo opportunities, kind words and little else”. When it came to abortion for example, the administration paid lip service to supporting the evangelical position, but never actually threw its weight behind it, aware that a majority of Americans did not want abortion banned.

As early as 1982, there were evangelicals who thought they were being treated like “the savages of the new world”, bought off with “beads and mirrors” because while they might “gripe and bellyache … they have no choice but to support the Reagan administration”. Their hopes were briefly raised during the 1984 presidential election but by the end of his two terms, the Christian right had not really achieved any of its objectives.

The United States had certainly been transformed by a massive historic aggrandisement of corporate America and of the rich, all supported by the Christian right, but Reagan never delivered on his culture wars promises. Nevertheless, one important consequence of his electoral reliance on the Christian right was their increasing involvement in the Republican Party at a state and local level, starting to take it over in many parts of the South and Midwest.

One area of policy that the Christian right did get heavily involved in, however, was the administration’s covert wars in Central America. Reagan was not prepared to deploy US troops to the region for fear of another Vietnam, and instead resorted to proxy wars, illegally attempting to overthrow the Sandinistas in Nicaragua and assisting brutal murderous regimes in El Salvador and Guatemala.

Reagan, it has been argued, “offered enough symbolic gestures to keep the movement hopeful” regarding the culture wars, but it was “the Christian right’s enlistment in the administration’s foreign policy operations [that] kept the movement in the Reagan camp”.

Pat Robertson toured Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador in 1983, praising the Contras, who were waging a brutal war of terror and massacre in Nicaragua, as “God’s Army” and describing the leader of the right-wing death squads in El Salvador, Roberto D’Aubuisson, as a “very nice fellow”. Robertson actually held a telethon on his Christian Broadcasting Network to raise money for the Nicaraguan Contras, eventually donating seven million dollars to their cause. Other evangelical organisations also contributed millions of dollars to the Contras.

When the Reagan administration’s illegality was eventually exposed in the Iran-Contra scandal, the Christian right rallied around the fall-guy Colonel Oliver North, himself a born again Christian, with Falwell actually comparing him to Jesus Christ and helping to raise the funds for his legal defence.

By the end of his two terms there was considerable dismay on the Christian right, both at the failure of the Reagan administration to deliver on their culture wars concerns and by the politics of his likely successor, the vice president, George H. W. Bush. The Moral Majority had collapsed, formally disbanding in 1989.

In these circumstances, Pat Robertson determined to run for the Republican nomination himself in 1988 (inevitably God told him to!), combining the culture wars issues of the Christian right with a fierce small state fiscal conservatism, but the result was a disaster. The media revealed that his first child had been conceived out of wedlock (for years he had lied about the date of his marriage to conceal the fact) and that far from Robertson being a Korean War combat veteran, his father, a Democratic senator, had used his influence to ensure he was actually stationed in Japan during the conflict.

Robertson only won four states and nine percent of the popular vote, but there were two important successes. First, Bush was forced to make at least some effort to placate the Christian right and his campaign for the nomination bought together the evangelicals inside the Republican Party under his leadership, something he was to build on in the course of the 1990s. Bush had to court the Christian right, even making a generally derided claim to have been “born again” himself.

More important, in September 1989, Robertson established his Christian Coalition as the new torch bearer for the Christian right. It began with some 2,000 members and 82,000 dollars in the bank, rising by 1997 to a claimed membership of 1.9 million with a budget of 27 million dollars. It was solidly rooted in the evangelical middle class. By this time, its strength was such that, according to Jean Hardy in ‘Mobilising Resentment’, “it exercised virtual veto power over mainstream Republicans”.

The Christian right built up its power at state and local level while George H. W. Bush was president. As far as Robertson was concerned, Bush was quite possibly, “unknowingly and unwittingly carrying out the mission and mouthing the phrases of a tightly knit cabal whose goal is nothing more than a new world order for the human race under the domination of Lucifer”.

And if that was not bad enough, he completely ignored the culture wars concerns of the Christian right, even inviting gay couples to the White House. The Christian Coalition still supported him against Bill Clinton in 1992, however, but without any enthusiasm. [IDN-InDepthNews – 24 February 2020]

* John Newsinger is a member of Brighton Socialist Workers Party (SWP). His most recent book is Hope Lies in the Proles: George Orwell and the Left (Pluto, 2018).

Photo: President George H.W. Bush with Jerry Falwell. Credit: Liberty University

IDN is flagship agency of the International Press Syndicate. –

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