A Brief History of the Religious Right: Timeline

For those of us who were born in the 1970s or later, it’s difficult to imagine American politics without the looming presence of the religious right, particularly the influence of fundamentalist or evangelical Christianity. When Jerry Falwell founded the Moral Majority, a group determined to take the moral future of America into their own hands, a new attitude toward religion and politics was born: one determined to instill moral and religious beliefs in other people. Thirty years later, the religious right is still going strong.

Here are a few key dates in the growth of the religious right in America:

1979: Jerry Fallwell forms the Moral Majority, which is often said to be the beginning of the New Christian Right.

1982: President Ronald Reagan introduces a proposed School Prayer Amendment to the United States Constitution.

1988: George H.W. Bush is elected president with the support of most conservative Christian voters.

1992: The Christian Coalition produces voter guides and distributes them to conservative Christian churches.

1996: The Defense of Marriage Act, which defines marriage as a union between one man and one woman, is enacted.

2000: In Boy Scouts of America v. Dale, the United States Supreme Court holds that the First Amendment allows the Boy Scouts to exclude openly homosexual males from membership in its organization.

2001: George W. Bush becomes president with the overwhelming support of white conservative evangelical voters.

2007: President George W. Bush vetoes the Stem Cell Research Enactment Act of 2007.


And with the Sarah Palin and Michelle Bachmann figures of the present day, it’s clear the the presence of the extreme religious right in our political landscape is not going to go away.

The religious right is not only bad for politics because of the polarization it causes between the two major parties. It is also bad for religion itself.

In an article in The Atlantic on the power of the religious right, Jonathan Merritt writes:

The American church is declining by nearly every data point. Christians are exerting less influence over the culture than even a few years ago, organized religion no longer garners the respect of the masses, and two in three young non-Christians claim they perceive the church as “too political.” Church attendance is declining, and the percentage of Americans claiming no religious affiliation is rising.

I thought it was interesting that Merritt pointed out Christians’ lack of influence on mainstream culture. With their anti-abortion protests, laws to block gay marriage, and insistence on citing God, the Bible, and morals as a reason to enact policy, it seems that the Christian right is trying pretty hard to influence our culture. But they’re failing.

I used to go to church, but stopped when my parents stopped going. It’s probably fair to say that part of the reason I haven’t picked it up again in my adult life is because I’m a little suspicious of people who regularly go to church. If I do start to attend, will I be forced to join a conservative Bible study group? How should I respond when someone asks me how I plan to vote in the upcoming presidential election? Will I be judged for not sharing 100% of the values espoused by my church? I don’t know, and I don’t plan to find out.

Merritt sums up my feelings at the end of his article:

If American Christians continue to see that the culture wars as the primary way of shaping culture, they should expect to see their numbers decline and their influence wane. But if they wake up to our current reality and return to the foundations of their faith — love, compassion, and a rigorous commitment to the “Gospel” story that drives them to faith in the first place — the faith’s best days may yet lie ahead.

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Richard Zane Smith

Barbara D,
though i have friends who are Christian and really do care about the environment and their impact on earth, the presence of the underlying theology that the earth is cursed and we are simply "pilgrims passing through" is persuasive.
The theological teaching that earth will be destroyed because of human wickedness prevails to the point of inevitability. This is unfortunate but does motivate people to "get whatcha can while ya can" attitude. The ones, so convinced of a very soon "Rapture"(a celestial rescue) will look at environmental issues that reflect that view. a shrug, "its all gonna burn"

Barbara D.
Barbara U.3 years ago

However, I do respect others rights to believe, I just don't want it imposed on me, especially through our government. I know religeon/church has it's place, it gives people comfort and a sense of community. When you die, you afforded an afterlife in heaven if you do good, damnation in hell if your bad. However, the RR does not have a monopoly on morality. In fact, the Left has made more progress in terms of morality in the form of human/civil rights, being kind to animals, and preserving the environment. The RR condemns those who are different from them, they were resistant to the civil rights movement, women's rights, today they can't admit that gays "were born that way" and that it's not a choice. They also never seem to side with environmental issues and tend to be climate-change deniers - which to me is ironic. I would think that if you believed in a God that worked hard for 6 days to create the universe 7,000 years ago, you'd be hard-pressed to preserve it, not waste or polute the life-giving resources that God provided us out of fear of being "smited."

Barbara D.
Barbara U.3 years ago

The RR has gone to far. I hope this article is correct in that attendence is declining. Our founding fathers delibrately called for the separation of church and state for good reason. Now you have religious leaders, from small evangelical churches to prominet leaders like Pat Robertson, telling people how to vote and influencing elections - they are doing the thinking for their congregations. If we're not careful, we'll be no better than Islamic countries in the Middle East where there is no separation of church and state, women (and men too) are jailed for having premarital sex and subjected to exams of their private parts to see if they're "virgins." - how humiliating. Women have no civil rights and people are treated cruelly if they are different. Henry VIII murdered wives because the Catholic Church would not allow him to get divorced, then changed the Church of England to suit his agenda. It's dangerous to mix church and state. But the RR is so stuck in their conservative thinking, they're slow to evolve and don't know how to change their minds. They tend to be conformists who can not think for themselves and look to their religious leaders for answers instead of coming up with their own ideas. Plus their literal take of the bible is unreasonable, especially with all the scientific advances that have explained so many mysteries that were once thought of as either miracles or "God's wrath."

Religeon does have it's place, and I respect other's beliefs as long as

Jane H.
Jane H.3 years ago

great post

Richard Zane Smith

Good post Susan,
the history in USA of evangelicalism is interesting and many"evangelicals" have no real understanding that their evangelical lens in which they have chosen to define reality, has a very short and specifically American cultural and social mooring.
To a child steeped in an American evangelicalism , it's taught as THE WAY to interpret reality and all of history. Very difficult (and for some, painful)to take those blinders off..and look for a bigger picture,especially when presented with "you really don't want to make God angry (or sad)" as if humans have the capability of somehow altering the "mood" of Omniscience by a few choices.

Susan A.
SusanAWAY Allen3 years ago

This is a good article. I remember when religion started to be mixed in with government and it's been a problem ever since. I was raised southern baptist but am an atheist now and am so happy to have the veil of cultism lifted from my eyes. I don't have a big problem with people and their beliefs as long as they don't force them on me. But that's the problem isn't it. Each religion believes theirs to be the only religion and they make it their business to run around trying to convert everyone they come into contact with. Stop it already.

Lawrence Travers
Lawrence Travers3 years ago

Falwell's Liberty University is not anything about LIBERTY.

Harley Williams
Harley W.3 years ago

Dear Annmari

True Christians have many heritages and differences. Pagans also do with each group having their gods and goddess. On many issues I have very few difference with many Christian groups and I believe that GOD is so big that too often we concentrate on the minor differences instead of all the points we have in common.

Annmari Lundin
Annmari Lundin3 years ago

Roman catholics, Russian orthodox, Greek orthodox, Syrian orthodox, baptist, methodist, protestants, lutherans, salvation army, pentecostal. Have I forgot some? They all say they believe in the same god and bible so why do they have so many different names. For me it's just plain weird and I therefore chose, at a young age, to become a heathen.

Richard Zane Smith

Instead of atheists debating fundamentalists of proselytizing religious
It might be interesting to hear a debate or discussion between an Atheist and a Native American intellectual (ex. the Wendat historian Georges Sioui) We who are considered traditionalists of First Nations people are not in love with materialistic ideologies that spring from an exclusion of any other perspectives other than the physical sciences. I doubt even Darwin would approve.
When one says "all religions are evil" its a kind of broad brush that concerns many of us who experienced times of religious persecution and had to keep our traditional native american ceremonies cloaked in secrecy.