The Appeal of the New Right: Jerry Falwell's High-Tech/Low-Road Approach
The New Right could not exist today without two commonplace items: the mailbox serviced by a public system of mail delivery and the home television set receiving free programming from licensed broadcasters. New Right groups use both with extraordinary skill and in unprecedented magnitude. The outcome is that public opinion is molded, citizens are organized, grassroots lobbying campaigns are mounted, elections are affected — and money is raised to perpetuate each of those achievements — all in a massive, high-tech manner that makes traditional public persuasion, organizing, and campaigning appear almost inept.
Direct Mail + TV = $$$
Consider the numbers: Reverend Jerry Falwell, to pick one noteworthy example, expects to raise $100 million in 1983 through the combined techniques of aggressive direct mail and television fundraising. Along the way, the Lynchburg, Virginia, evangelist will have influenced the opinions of millions of givers and non-givers alike with an astounding barrage of correspondence. Falwell sent out over three and a half million pieces of mail in the late summer of 1983 alone, and not this time to his loyal followers. This was "prospecting" mail, as the direct mail experts call it, mail designed to attract new followers to his cause.
That pace of direct mailing is typical for Falwell and his network of Moral Majority enterprises. In early 1983, he created a new Political Action Committee (PAC), called the I Love America PAC (ILAPAC), to make direct political contributions to candidates. The director of ILAPAC, Granville Graham, promptly announced the PAC's intention to mail four to five million pieces in its first year, before the 1984 elections. Beyond this, Falwell sends massive volumes of direct mail from each of his several entities: Moral Majority, Inc., the Moral Majority Foundation, the Old Time Gospel Hour, Liberty Baptist College, and others.
Falwell's creative use of television for fundraising interlocks with his use of the mails. Beginning just over 20 years ago with a modest locally broadcast radio program, Falwell's television and radio broadcasts of the Old Time Gospel Hour now reach an estimated 18 million Americans every week, resulting in a budget for the Hour of $63.7 million last year. In the course of each one-hour broadcast (and during each of Falwell's frequent prime-time specials on specific political topics) the viewer is hit with multiple pitches for money, along with convenient toll-free 800 numbers and addresses superimposed on the TV screen. Once you give, you're on the direct mail lists — essentially for good. And that guarantees a steady stream of direct mail appeals from Falwell for more money, and eventually from other New Right causes, as lists are exchanged and your name and address adorn other direct mail target lists.
The power of these techniques is unsettling. When Falwell went on the air in late 1982 to announce his plans for a series of prime-time television specials on the nuclear freeze, El Salvador, and the Soviet worldwide menace, he asked his followers for a special effort. The response: over $14 million was raised in barely a month of intensive fundraising.
Six months later, he did it again: Going on the air to declare a fiscal emergency for his ministry, he embarked on 40 days of prayer and fundraising and raised nearly $10 million by his deadline of June 30, 1983. That money enabled him to stage a highly publicized rally in Cincinnati entitled "The Rebirth of America," at which he announced his plans to double the size of the Moral Majority before the 1984 elections. Falwell's stated goal is to have 13 million Moral Majority members and to raise $25 million for Moral Majority — separate from The Old Time Gospel Hour, Liberty Baptist College, and his other enterprises — by the summer of 1984, when the national political campaigns will be escalating.
Falwell's reliance on direct mail and television is of course far from unique among New Right groups. Figures from a dozen other groups sharing the right wing of the American political spectrum demonstrate prowess in gaining adherents and dollars (see box on page 85). In each case, direct mail and/or the use of television is an important means of achieving support.
Taken together, the proliferation of these groups in the past two decades and their expertise with direct mail and television must not be underestimated. Huge numbers of Americans have been reached once or many times by their messages. Over 98 percent of all American homes now have at least one television. Reverend Pat Robertson's program, the "700 Club," alone is on so many stations that it could be tuned in to by nearly 85 percent of the American people on any weekday, and the volume of direct mail sent by Roger Viguerie, the father of the high-tech New Right, alone is equal to a letter sent to over one-third of all Americans each year.
Jerry Falwell's expertise in using the media extends far beyond his regular paid programming. He has achieved the intangible but real status of a celebrity. Falwell himself boasted in a direct mail solicitation to supporters in May 1983:
Please understand that I am not running around in a haphazard manner. I have a very specific "battle plan" that I believe will successfully reach grassroots Americans. I've already been on talk shows recently in Washington, Los Angeles, Boston, Baltimore, and on the Phil Donahue show twice in the last two months. I've met with the Editorial Board of several newspapers, including the Los Angeles Times, Washington Post, Baltimore Sun, the Boston Globe, and others. . . . I am appearing on talk shows on both local and national television and radio. . . . I am continuing to place full-page ads in weeklies and dailies around the country. . . .
The Message of the Media
A cynical marketing analyst might say that the New Right's mastery of the techniques of mass communication is the only explanation needed for the success of the New Right. We in America increasingly sell our politicians like soap, using basic Madison Avenue techniques, and that's how the New Right is selling its dogma. That explanation suggests that the content of the New Right message is insignificant compared to how it's being sold.
This is, in some ways, a comfortable, lazy explanation of the New Right's success. The harsher reality may be that the substantive appeal of the New Right really does strum chords in people's thoughts that other interest groups have failed to touch.
Several key themes are woven into every New Right pitch:
• Family, viewed traditionally, with a dominant male head
• God, viewed without question as the fundamentalist Protestant Jehovah
Those themes are as much the Old Right's as the New's. When the Vichy government took over in France to collaborate with the Nazis in World War II, they replaced the bold democratic motto of the French Republic — "Liberty, Equality, Fraternity" — with their own quintessentially conservative motto: "Family, Nation, Work."
The attraction of these themes and slogans for the Far Right, both Old and New, is that they evoke values which are almost universal. People from all parts of the political spectrum understand the tremendous human importance of the family. Most people have strong feelings of patriotism. Most are religious in some way, and believe in the value and necessity of hard work and adherence to discipline. By repeatedly invoking these values, the Far Right attempts to monopolize them, implying that anyone who truly cherishes family, nation, and religion will embrace the Far Right political agenda as well.
The new, the different, the unexpected become in the New Right's lexicon the dangerous, the un-American, the ungodly. Any idea or policy which the New Right finds unacceptable is promptly lassoed and branded as antifamily, anti-God, and/or anti-nation.
The Appeal to Fear
Consider the appeal to fear and the use of those four key themes in these letters sent out by Falwell:
Dear Friend: The battle lines are drawn. America is on the verge of a moral rebirth — and I believe we must seize the opportunity while it exists today. Will you help me fight the militant homosexuals, abortionists, and pornographers who are attempting to destroy the very fabric of our American society?
June 15, 1983
Dear Friend: I fear for the future of my children. I don't want them to be cremated in the blast of a nuclear warhead. Or die slowly from radiation burns. . . . If the 'freeze-niks' have their way, this country is going to surrender its freedom to the Soviet Union. I for one refuse to sit back and wait for Russia to take us over or destroy us in a rain of nuclear missiles.
Dear Mrs. _____: Never before have I faced such unbelievable opposition. . . . Four years ago as a private citizen I organized a brand new movement here in America called the Moral Majority. . . . I knew then that abortionists, pornographers, and secular humanists would declare war on me. But I also knew that I could not remain silent about the sins that were destroying America. I could preach about abortion, homosexuality, pornography, and other evils that were hurting the Christian family . . . but my hands were tied when it came to influencing legislation that would stop these cancers from eating away at this country's foundation.
So under the leadership of the Holy Spirit, I launched the Moral Majority and since that time we have made much progress in returning our nation to moral sanity.
But now all the groundwork we've laid and all the progress we've made is in jeopardy.
Dear Friend: Sometime in early October the Senate is scheduled to vote on President Reagan's new Constitutional Amendment to allow our children to pray in public schools. . . . This means we may have as little as 30 days to alert our Senators and Congressmen to vote for the new school prayer Constitutional Amendment — or our children may never pray in school again.
August 30, 1983
Dear Friend: I need immediate financial assistance from every single member of the Moral Majority. A violent war is raging — only two short hours from the shore line of America.
And we absolutely must alert this nation to the Communist threat in El Salvador, or Nicaragua, or Costa Rica, or Honduras, or Mexico — though they certainly plan a takeover in these countries.
But they plan to force millions and millions of "feet people" — people who are fleeing from Communism — across the borders into Mexico and into our country. And for only one purpose — to weaken our country socially and economically so the Communists can then step in and take over the United States.
October 14, 1983
In those and dozens of other direct mail letters and televised broadcasts Falwell and his New Right colleagues appeal blatantly to people's fears and encourage them to take action, primarily by sending money to Falwell and his cohorts but also by lobbying, letter-writing, and all the other classic forms of political organizing. Direct lobbying of the Congress is frequently urged, with the names and addresses of the recipient's senators and representatives often conveniently listed.
The appeal to fear inevitably involves scapegoating; images of Judas blend with those of Benedict Arnold. Among those named explicitly in Falwell's letters as the causes of America's woes are the ACLU, the National Organization for Women, the National Education Association, the American Library Association, "perverted" homosexuals, "fern libbers," and "pornographers."
In 1981 Falwell sent out a major fundraising letter attacking "the left wing American Civil Liberties Union." Falwell wrote:
. . . . The American Civil Liberties Union is the single most destructive threat to our traditional American way of life. This is because the ACLU is:
1. Opposed to prayer or Bible reading in public schools.
2. In favor of homosexuality as an accepted alternate lifestyle.
4. Pro-ERA. In fact, they have even supported legislation to eliminate criminal penalties for marijuana!
Falwell went on to offer his readers an attached two-page "confidential expose" of the ACLU, noting that "in the opinion of many, the left wing ACLU has had ties with Communists and Communist linked organizations since its very beginning!" Old-fashioned red-baiting is the most noteworthy feature of the two page "expose." The label "Communist" or "Communism" is used over a dozen times, along with other characterizations of ACLU efforts as "radical" and "pacifist." Falwell accuses the organization of disseminating propaganda, refers to "the ACLU's advocacy to overthrow the government," and states that the ACLU has "consistently supported" the "right to advocate murder."
In February, 1983, as part of his campaign against the nuclear freeze, Falwell wrote a letter suggesting that the "powerful" National and World Councils of Churches were "advocates of unilateral disarmament." That same month, in a television broadcast, Falwell approvingly noted the Reader's Digest article on the NCC and WCC, saying, "If you're giving money that's going to the National Council of Churches, you are funding revolution, on the left side of the spectrum. It's an excellent article. Get the January issue, print it in your church bulletins. Get the word out to everybody."
Throughout 1983, in numerous letters and in repeated television broadcasts, Falwell attacked all supporters of a nuclear freeze, consistently referring to them as "freeze-niks" and as "dupes of the Soviets" who advocate "handing America over to the Soviet Union on a silver platter."
In his opposition to abortion and to any deviation from the traditional family unit of a dominant man and
submissive woman, Falwell persistently attacks both feminist groups and gays. In his June 15, 1983 letter announcing a "Clean Up America Poll," Falwell deplored the fact that "on June 28th, tens of thousands of homosexuals plan to march again in the annual gay march in New York City, where gays fully exhibit their perverted lifestyles," and asked his readers, "Are you in favor of known practicing homosexuals teaching their lifestyles to our school children?"
In a July 14 letter he attacked "the gays, porn kings, abortionists and others," specifically naming both the National Organization for Women and the National Abortion Rights Action League (NARAL), as groups out to "destroy" the Moral Majority. Referring to NOW's support for the Equal Rights Amendment, he said, "Remember — if NOW gets its way — your daughter or granddaughter could be marching off to battle in the next war." In an earlier TV broadcast, in February, he had attacked NOW by referring to the arrest of Ginnie Foat: "Did you read in the paper where the president of the NOW chapter in California was arrested for murder the other day? . . . In this age, when the whole world is trying to debase Biblical womanhood and motherhood, and the role of the householder, and the role of the mother and wife, the Biblical role: thank God there are those people still preaching" the Gospel.
Falwell and Southern Politics
While Falwell is far from alone in constantly preaching the New Right gospel through the mails and over the air, he stands as the preeminent New Right propagandist directly and publicly involved in electoral politics. In addition to his new ILAPAC's financial support for candidates across the nation, he plays an increasing role in specific political campaigns in the South, most notably in his home state of Virginia and in neighboring North Carolina.
In the fall 1983 elections, one of Falwell's top aides, Harry Covert, a former editor of the Moral Majority Report, ran for the Virginia Senate against Elliot Schewel, Lynchburg's state senator for the past eight years. New Right financial support, coming from Paul Weyrich's and other New Right leaders' PACs, made that state-level race an extraordinarily expensive one. Covert raised and spent nearly $50,000, an amount that just a few years ago would have funded a strong campaign for the U.S. Congress. And both Falwell and one of his associate ministers at Thomas Road Baptist Church endorsed Covert over the air, a valuable bit of free broadcast support. (Falwell claimed he did not know he was on the air when he gave the endorsement.) Falwell defended his endorsement as a minister, while also appealing for support for his Christian candidate, by noting that Schewel's rabbi put a bumper sticker for the incumbent on his car. Nevertheless, Falwell's aide was beaten badly in the race, at least in part because Schewel was able to raise enough money to match Covert's extravagant spending.
Jerry Falwell shows no signs of being deterred by the setback, however. In 1984 it appears that his most intensive electoral involvement will be on behalf of North Carolina's senior U.S. senator, Jesse Helms. Falwell and Helms have long had a strong, highly public political alliance. Falwell praises Helms as "a national treasure" and publicly wishes that the U.S. Senate contained "100 Jesse Helmses." In the spring of '83, Falwell turned his "Old Time Gospel Hour" pulpit over to Helms one Sunday night, in one of the most explicit blendings of New Right politics and ultra-fundamentalist religion. Falwell's endorsement of Helms led to the Moral Majority's voter registration drive targeted at "Christian" voters in North Carolina. Barnstorming the state arm-in-arm, Falwell, Helms, and the Moral Majority's North Carolina director, Reverend Lamarr Mooneyham of Durham, announced their intention to register 200,000 Christians to secure Helms's re-election in 1984.
Falwell's electoral ambitions go beyond his substantial efforts on behalf of Helms. He also intends to play a role in the re-election of President Reagan. He has already announced his and Moral Majority's endorsement of Reagan's re-election, and his direct mail and television broadcasts contain frequent explicit appeals to his followers to support the work and the candidacy of President Reagan. On one broadcast earlier this year, Falwell explicitly rebuked a Lutheran minister for disagreeing with President Reagan on the nuclear freeze, claiming that Christianity requires allegiance to all policies of the current administration.
Exploiting Traditional Values
The New Right is willing to tackle any issue in the public eye. School prayer, abortion, birth control, pornography, divorce, sexual preferences, and other social issues are blended with national and foreign policy issues like nuclear arms, military options, involvement in the Middle East and El Salvador. Their mastery of the technology of direct mail and the immediate forum they have each day and week on television shows makes it possible for New Right preachers to address any issue that catches the momentary limelight.
Perhaps the most garish example of this ability was the Soviet shooting down of the Korean flight carrying Representative Larry McDonald of Georgia in September 1983. Less than a week after the incident, Falwell had mailed an appropriately outraged letter to thousands of his followers. His letter was full of plans "to use this opportunity to flay the Soviets alive in the court of world opinion and to expose their nuclear freeze propaganda for what it is." Saying that "it is my personal opinion that the Soviets shot down Flight #007 for the specific purpose of assassinating Larry McDonald," Falwell announced his establishment of yet another entity, the Larry McDonald Memorial Family Fund, "to help raise funds to take care of his family — the children and widow."
Even as the New Right leaders exploit the headlines of the moment, they adhere to the subtler and more constant exploitation of the four major themes: Family, Nation, God, and Authority. Again, the obvious advantage for the New Right in manipulating these words is that they are symbols with which many if not most Americans readily identify. While too little research has been done on the people who respond to the New Right appeal, the evidence to date confirms the assumption that this audience is predominantly Protestant, white, rural, and small-town. Some scholars further suggest that the prime targets for the New Right are rural or small-town folks who are being confronted with rapid social, technological, or demographic change.* That description fits almost any rural community or small town in the United States in the last decade, and fits many areas of the South particularly well.
Reaching those small-town and rural audiences is possible only through the modern technology of television, radio, and direct mail. By definition, the rural communities and small towns, even if they are growing, remain too small and widely dispersed to be reached effectively by traditional political whistle-stopping or the neighborhood organization tactics that can be effective in urban centers. Falwell's distribution system reflects those facts: his programs are broadcast regularly on 72 television stations across the South, potentially reaching a large proportion of all Southerners.
Appeals to fear, along with scapegoating campaigns, exploit the erosion of old values cherished by traditional, rural people living in a society of enormous and rapid change. These people feel a threat to the old way of life and its values. The New Right willingly distorts what and who the threat is, and appropriates its audience's financial and political resources for its struggle against progressive values.
1983 fund-raising letter from Christian Voice, a lobbying group that monitors Congress, vividly captures the confused fear and exploitable anger of the people to whom the New Right appeals:
If pressure-group politics is the only way to get anything done, then we Christians have to be the biggest and strongest "pressure group'' around if we're going to save what's left of what's good and decent about America, and start turning this country back to God. . . .
You and I have to convince our elected representatives that homosexuals and atheists aren't the only ones who have "rights." The average hardworking citizen who is the backbone of our country has rights, too! But they're being taken away from us one-by-one — and we're tired of it.
We want to return to the old values of hard work, thrift, decency, and obedience to the laws of God.
In other words, WE WANT OUR COUNTRY BACK!
It's OUR money the government is squandering every day on useless and even immoral programs, including "homosexual rights" and killing babies with taxpayer-paid abortions. We want our MONEY back to spend in our own way on the things WE believe in. They're OUR schools that they've banned all religion in, and are using to brainwash our children with secular-humanist hogwash. Government has replaced God with sex, drugs, illiteracy and rampant violence in our schools. We want our SCHOOLS back! They're OUR sacred and cherished Christian beliefs that the government is trampling all over, and we're sick of it! WE WANT OUR COUNTRY BACK! — the way it was before God was banned from the classroom — before the vilest pornography was allowed to be put on the magazine shelf in every corner drugstore — before the ultraliberals and radicals started separating America from God and before the liberals made our streets safe for rapists and muggers, but not for God-fearing people.
An Unfair Fight
There is an obvious sense in which progressives are in an unfair fight with the New Right. Progressive-minded folks should be appealing to people's hopes and aspirations, as banal as that sometimes sounds, rather than to their fears.
Trying to understand what the New Right is saying to its adherents and its potential converts helps make it possible to shape alternative arguments. By looking, for example, at the yearning to protect the family, progressives might learn that they too can speak fervently of the family. We need to make the case about how nutritional programs for children, food stamps that keep a family minimally fed during bad economic times, and other social welfare programs — persistently and successfully attacked by Jesse Helms, Jerry Falwell, and other kingpins of the New Right — are in fact pro-family. Indeed, we must demonstrate that more damage is being done today to the integrity of the traditional family by the economic and related stresses imposed by the current administration and by its New Right policies than by all the shortcomings of the social welfare programs they attack.
As for religion, progressives can join the debate over religious values by making it clear that the most fundamental religious tradition of this country is that of diversity and tolerance, the tradition that is ordained in the Constitution. Far from being antireligious, many of the positions taken by progressives over the years, such as on school prayer, are fundamentally consistent with the long-term protection of individual religious liberty.
Regarding patriotism, progressives are too frequently maneuvered into the position of appearing to be against what this country is in world terms, when the real point is that many of us are for what this country could be in world affairs. Ronald Reagan isn't the only one who has a vision of this country as a "light upon a hill"; some people just think it ought to be a better, far brighter light.
At the same time progressives need not be afraid to stand by the liberal traditions of the past 200 years. Individual liberty, economic equity, and social equality remain admirable and proper lodestones. Looking at how the New Right has been communicating its values simply suggests that progressives can't talk only to one another. The New Right has mastered the tools of mass communication and public persuasion. It is time to follow their example.
In doing so, progressives must not write off those constituencies to which the New Right is appealing. Many Protestants in the South, for example, are suspicious of the motives of Falwell and others. No less a figure than Billy Graham has suggested in print that the political preachers of the New Right may be guilty of exploiting religion for their own political, not spiritual, purposes. And small-town ministers frequently discuss with some bitterness the siphoning of money from their communities by distant television prophets who perform none of the social services which the local brick-and-mortar churches are left to do. Coalition-building across the political, racial, and religious spectrum is the old and often elusive dream of progressives, perhaps especially in the South, but the lesson the New Right is teaching is that if we don't reach out, they will.
*See, e.g., Michael Liensch, "Right Wing Religion: Christian Conservatism as a Political Movement," Political Science Quarterly, (Vol. 97, No. 3), Fall 1982. (pp. 403425).
Barry M. Hager is director of the North Carolina office of People For the American Way, a national, nonprofit educational group dedicated to the preservation of our constitutional rights and liberties. Over 13,000 Southerners belong to People For. Hager is an attorney, former Time magazine correspondent, and former counsel to the U.S. House of Representatives subcommittee on environment, energy, and natural resources. (1984)