Scrapping The Moral Majority

After ten years of bashing liberals, Falwell folds his tent

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It was not prophesied in Scripture, but the end has come. Ten years after the $ Rev. Jerry Falwell zoomed into the right lane of national politics, the Moral Majority is being shut down. Come August, the organization, whose gospel blended Fundamentalist theology and ultra-conservative politics, will close its Washington office. Falwell will devote himself to two Lynchburg, Va., enterprises, the Thomas Road Baptist Church and Liberty University. Ironically, Falwell made the announcement in a city that symbolizes the sins the Moral Majority inveighed against: Las Vegas.

"The purpose of the Moral Majority was to activate the religious right," said Falwell. "Our mission is accomplished." His claim has some surface plausibility. As Moral Majority chairman, Falwell contributed loudly, if not decisively, to three consecutive conservative victories in presidential elections and nurtured the antiliberal atmosphere in which courts are tilting to the right. The 1980 election of Ronald Reagan, he once declared, was "my finest hour."

Skeptics were obliged to note that the conspicuously misnamed organization had long since begun to run out of gas. Moreover, thanks to the gaudy peccadilloes of televangelists like Jimmy Swaggart, TV preachers today provoke almost as much disfavor as liberals do.

Falwell admits that when he temporarily took over the Praise the Lord organization after Jim Bakker was forced out by a rancid sexual scandal in 1987, donations to his Old Time Gospel Hour fell $5.3 million. By 1987, the Moral Majority had so dwindled that Falwell resigned as president. Atlanta businessman Jerry Nims says he took over the assignment with a mandate to phase out the organization. This year contributions were expected to be no more than $3.5 million.

One student of the religious right, sociology professor Jeffrey Hadden of the University of Virginia, characterized the impending shutdown as "totally anticlimactic." Though it raised a lot of fuss, the Moral Majority never developed into much of a grass-roots organization. More important, the nation's broader conservative tide, which lifted Ronald Reagan and then George Bush into the White House, left Falwell with nobody much to oppose. Says Hadden: "It's hard to sustain political activity when you don't have an enemy."