Daily Planet, 6/2016

My mother wasn’t known for surprises.   She lived on a straight line that went back to her South Georgia roots. But, oh my, did she spring one on us in the fall of 1980.

That year iIt was Carter versus Reagan, and we were all Carter people. My father was an old-time Roosevelt Democrat, and Jimmy is a distant cousin.

So Mom’s bomb at Sunday dinner shook things up.

“John says Ronald Reagan is God’s man,” she blurted into a pause in the conversation. “In his sermon he said this election is spiritual warfare.”

John was her pastor. We all knew him. My father called him a hustler, and maybe he was. He sure hustled Mom.

Looking back, we had no idea, sitting around that Sunday dinner table, that we were witnessing the beginning of something totally new in American politics. Millions of Christian soldiers were marching as to war on the side of the Republican Party.

This new phenomenon didn’t just happen by chance, though. Right-wing Republicans had coveted conservative evangelicals for years – their huge numbers, their zeal, their fundraising and direct mail capability.

Then in the spring of 1979, in a famous meeting in the coffee shop of the Lynchburg Holiday Inn, Jerry Falwell met with Paul Weyrich, founder of the pro-business, anti-tax, anti-regulation Heritage Foundation – and conservative evangelicals became Republicans. Falwell had originally said his flock wouldn’t accept religion mixed with politics, but Weyrich presented him with a poll that showed his flock definitely WOULD buy in.

That meeting marks the beginning of the “Christian Right” and the Moral Majority (Weyrich suggested the name) – and also marks the enlistment of Jerry Falwell as an activist in the Republican Party.   Falwell worked coast to coast for Ronald Reagan in 1980.

It was a marriage made in heaven, so to speak. The Weyrich right-wing faction was a clear minority in the Republican Party at the time.   Richard Nixon had been an economic moderate and accepted much of the New Deal and Great Society.

In Falwell, Weyrich found a partner already prepared. Falwell had been influenced by theologian Francis Schaeffer, who taught about America returning to its Christian roots, back to the way we were, as he saw it, back before “pluralistic secularism” (Schaeffer’s expression).  Falwell had held a series of “I Love America” rallies in 1976, mixing patriotism and “social concerns,” especially speaking against abortion and women’s liberation. Weyrich’s proposal gave him just the vehicle he wanted.

In reality, right-wing Republicans had no interest in evangelical issues. But in the Moral Majority, they had the foot soldiers to take over the Republican Party. And very soon, from precinct caucuses to state conventions, they did.

It goes without saying that the social changes that evangelicals want will never happen. The real power elites in the Republican Party – the super-rich and corporations and now Donald Trump – only give lip service. But the anti-tax, anti-regulation changes these elites want CAN happen. They just need the NUMBERS that evangelicals bring, voters ready to march.

So today we see ordinary working people out campaigning for Republican policies that are totally against their own personal well-being.

Rip Van Winkle would listen to a political discussion between conservative evangelicals in a restaurant, and he’d join them and say: “Let me get this straight. Y’all believe socialism is ‘godless’? My friends, it’s the capitalists who are paying y’all the minimum and not offering healthcare – so they can make more profit! And y’all are on the side of these greedy jerks?   Excuse me, folks, but that’s dopey.”

Why would working people back a party that favors big business and cuts budgets for education, that can help their children get ahead?

Why? To be blunt, they’ve been had, duped and hoodwinked. And worse, the scam is brought to them by people they trust.

A friend once said to me: “If I don’t follow what my pastor says, I’ll have to follow somebody else, won’t I?” To which I responded: “I guess so, Tom – unless of course you want to be responsible for your own beliefs and actions.”