Jimmy Swaggert confessing his sins, February 21, 1988
A religious revivial occurred in the Eighties, unlike anything America had seen since the Fundamentalist uprising led by the likes of Billy Sunday against a perceived loosening of morals during the Roaring Twenties. Sixty years later, enthusiastic crowds sang "Give me that old time religion," and celebrity evangelists like Jerry Falwell and Pat Robertson delivered the goods. As they had in the 1920s, fundamentalists in the Eighties launched a full-scale assault on the evils of society. Once upon a time Christians had been exhorted to isolate themselves from the corruptive influences of worldly things. Now, though, they were summoned to wage a holy war to save society from moral breakdown. Born-again Christians of the 1980s had the money, the organization, and the visibility to wage that war. In 1984, 13 million Americans were regular viewers of religious television programs, and one out of every ten radio stations in the U.S. had religious formats. So did an estimated 200 local TV stations in 1986, double the number in existence only the year before. Evangelists spent over $1 billion to buy radio and TV time in 1986. Jerry Falwell Live reached 34 million homes on TBS cable, while Pat Robertson's The 700 Club was broadcast four times daily on the Christian Broadcasting Network. CBN viewership tripled between 1981 and 1987, reaching over 30 million American homes. Whether you called it the Moral Majority or the Christian Right, this was a major social reform movement.
The Christian Right had different branches. Billy Graham dominated the Evangelicals, who were considered moderates; somewhere to the right of them were Pat Robertson's 7 million Pentecostals and Jerry Falwell's Fundamentalists. (According to historian George Marsden, "a Fundamentalist is an Evangelical who is angry about something.") And while some Evangelical leaders deplored the politicizing of religion, there were more similarities than differences between the branches. A mobilized Religious Right demonstrated its political clout in the 1980 elections that sent conservative Ronald Reagan to the White House and gave Republicans control of the Senate. The lobbying group Christian Voice targeted 38 congressmen who failed "moral issue report cards" and saw 23 of them go down in defeat. "I regard them as a menace to the American political process," said Senator George McGovern (D-South Dakota), one of those who lost his seat in Congress thanks in no small measure to the efforts of conservative Christian activists. The Moral Majority movement claimed it registered 8 million new voters in 1980 and 1984.
The Christian Right was on the move at all levels -- national, state and local. For example, it played a crucial role in winning a fight in Congress against federal funding for abortion. In places like San Jose, California it backed laws forcing retailers to put X-rated magazines out of the sight and reach of minors. Chief targets included abortion, gay rights, pornography, the Equal Rights Amendment, and sex education in public schools. It backed a restoration of school prayer and a hard line against the Soviet Union. Thousands of private Christian schools were established as alternatives to public education in the 1980s. The movement flourished, says journalist Haynes Johnson, because it "combined all the elements that most characterized the Reagan era: money, morality, conservatism, entertainment, and religious and patriotic symbolism."
Televangelists produced a flood of books, audiocassettes and videos to generate cash contributions that allowed them to branch out into enterprises such as Falwell's Liberty University, which educated 6,500 students on its campus near Lynchburg, Virginia, as well as 261 Save-A-Baby clinics that supported unwed mothers. Falwell could even afford to pursue a lawsuit against publisher Larry Flynt (whom Falwell described as a "sleaze merchant") for libeling him with a parody interview in Hustler magazine. A Roanoke, Virginia jury awarded Falwell $200,000 in damages, and Flynt lost the second round in the U.S. appeals court in Richmond, which judged the Hustler piece to be a deliberate and malicious falsehood. But the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in Flynt v. Falwell (1987) that the First Amendment guarantee of free speech permitted the press to indulge in outrageous satire.
Oklahoma's Oral Roberts, the "Prairie Tornado," also had a university with nearly 5,000 students, as well as the impressive 200-foot Tulsa Prayer Tower and the City of Faith Hospital, where important cancer research was carried out. Jimmy Swaggert's Child Care International sent food, clothing and medicine to needy Third World youngsters. His World Ministry Center in Baton Rouge, Louisiana took in an estimated $500,000 a day in pledges. Pentecostal Jim Bakker's PTL (Praise The Lord) network ranked second only to Robertson's CBN, garnering over $100 million a year, much of which was invested in the 2300-acre Heritage USA theme park. Heritage USA opened in 1978 and by 1986 was the third largest such enterprise in the country, trailing only Walt Disney World and Disneyland.
Critics dismissed the televangelists as Elmer Gantry types -- showmen out to milk their flocks. Others argued that mixing politics and religion challenged the tradition of church-state separation they said was a bulwark of the republic. A sometimes-scornful press was quick to publicize the misadventures of big-name evangelists who strayed from the path of righteousness. Jim Bakker accused rival Jimmy Swaggert of trying to take over PTL by exposing Bakker's sexual encounter with church volunteer Jessica Hahn. Bakker was later convicted on federal charges that he defrauded PTL members of millions of dollars. U.S. District Court Judge Robert Potter sentenced him to an astonishing 45 years in prison. The sentence was later overturned on appeal. (Jessica Hahn, who presented herself as Bakker's virginal victim, later posed nude for Playboy, to whom she sold her story.)
Oral Roberts lost some credibility when he assured his followers that God would "call him home" if they didn't produce the $8 million he needed to rescue his financially-strapped empire. And Swaggert was photographed visiting a prostitute at the Travel Inn Motel in New Orleans. He made a tearful public plea for forgiveness in a worldwide telecast. Later, a prostitute named Devra Murphee claimed she had been meeting Swaggert for a year, but corroborated Swaggert's assertion that no intercourse had occurred. Ironically, the man who blew the whistle on Swaggert was another Assembly of God preacher, Marvin Gorman, who blamed Swaggert for engineering his defrocking after he himself committed adultery.
Some members of the media attempted to discredit leading evangelists by portraying them as holy rollers living high off the donations of the gullible faithful. They pointed out that Swaggert wore $5,000 Rolex wristwatches, that Jim Bakker's pooch enjoyed an air-conditioned doghouse, and that Oral Roberts owned expensive homes in Beverly Hills and Rancho Mirage. But despite an occasional fall from grace among their ranks, most evangelists practiced what they preached and led lives of probity and personal piety. By trumpeting traditional values and attacking "secular humanism" in all its manifestations, they tapped into a wellspring of spiritual hunger suffered by millions of Americans who sought a moral anchor for what they perceived as a nation adrift. The Religious Right survived the scandals and continued to fight the "culture wars" and influence American politics. Pat Robertson made a credible bid for the Republican presidential nomination in 1988, and in 1994 the Christian Coalition played an important role in the election that gave Republicans control of both houses of Congress.
WAS IT LIBEL?
On the inside front cover of a 1983 issue of Hustler, was what appeared to be an advertisement for Campari Liqueur with the headline: "Jerry Falwell Talks About His First Time" followed by an interview, excerpted below...
FALWELL: My first time was in an outhouse outside Lynchburg, Virginia.
INTERVIEWER: I see. You must tell me about it.
FALWELL: I never really expected to make it with Mom, but then after she showed all the other guys in town such a good time, I figured, "What the hell!"
INTERVIEWER: Go on.
FALWELL: Well, we were drunk off our God-fearing asses on Campari, ginger ale and soda -- that's called a Fire and Brimstone -- at the time....
INTERVIEWER: Did you ever try it again?
FALWELL: Sure...lots of times. But not in the outhouse....
INTERVIEWER: We meant the Campari.
FALWELL: Oh, yeah. I always get sloshed before I go out to the pulpit....
The ad, featuring a picture of Falwell and a bottle of Campari ended with the slogan "Campari. You'll never forget the first time." At the very top of the ad an asterick directed the reader to a footnote which read: "Ad Parody -- Not To Be Taken Seriously."
Time, 17 February 1986, 2 September 1985, 3 August 1987, 7 March 1988
U.S. News & World Report, 17 November 1980, 7 March 1988
Jerry Falwell v. Larry Flynt: The First Amendment on Trial
Rodney A. Smolla (New York: St. Martin's Press, 1988)
Revival and Reaction: The Right in Contemporary America
Gillian Peele (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1984)
Sleepwalking Through History: America in the Reagan Years
Haynes Johnson (New York: W.W. Norton, 1991)