In the late 1970’s, at the height of his cultural influence, the televangelist Jerry Falwell assembled a political coalition he coined the “moral majority.” His intended aim was to influence politics through grassroots campaigns and influencing the narratives of the national media. Falwell believed the nation’s morals were in severe decline and that he could no longer sign off on the idea that politics and religion must stay separated; thus, the moral majority was born.
Falwell’s mission, configuring the nation’s understanding of morality through the lens of Christianity, has most certainly been in decline. But what remains arguable is if morality—the guiding principles that shapes a person’s life—has itself been in decay.
I would say no. Morality in the public square is alive and well, despite how the guiding principles which now shape Americans’ lives have become foreign to anyone anchored in tradition. The phenomenon of which I speak comes into sharp focus when observing the virulent attack of fellow Federalist contributor, Chad Felix Greene, who has been taking his lumps from many prominent progressives for an essay that alleges his conservatism has been less tolerated by his peers than his sexual orientation. I cannot speak personally to this arcane dichotomy, but as an outsider observing the drama play out on social media, I can say it has all the trappings of a Falwell-esque cosmopolitan moral majority.
A Short History of the Moral Majority
To understand what I mean, let’s consider some history that led to Jerry Falwell’s ascent in the public square. As Ross Douthat explores in his book Bad Religion, the devastation wrought by World War II had a striking effect on the collective consciousness of our nation. Americans began asking themselves what separated them from the genocidal Nazis or their bloodthirsty twin, the Soviet communists? Americans’ conclusion was the line that divided them was explicitly expressed in their Christian faith, and this in turn led to a mass revival of Catholics and Protestants alike.
By the time Falwell had entered the scene, mass media was being perfected and televisions were making their way into every home throughout the country. Technological development of this magnitude alone created a new niche for evangelization, and Falwell proved to be ahead of the curve in exploiting the new technology.
But by the late seventies Americans in urban enclaves were growing restless with the faith of their parents and grandparents. The pet projects of the new elites involved codifying into law the cultural changes inspired by the sexual revolution, and every individual with a television had begun grappling with what Neil Postman called “the great symbol drain.”
What Postman theorized is that mass media, in their efforts to produce an unthinking consumerist society and whose values only reflect whatever advertisers wished to sell, had largely neutered the symbolic meaning of religious iconography to the average American. By rendering everything sacred into the latest profane project of Hollywood, a self-help book, or even a nationally televised tent revival, the once cohesive symbols of American unity were being stripped of their efficacy at the service of progress and corporate bottom lines.
It was in this environment that a revolutionary recalibration of American values was undertaken, largely achieved by sheer force through judicial fiat, which the seeds of today’s new moral majority began to germinate. In response to these shifting cultural fault lines, Falwell quite possibly levied the last effective campaign to reestablish evangelical values as the guiding moral principles of America. In the end, his efforts ultimately proved unsustainable as the new values embraced by the tastemakers of the west were proliferated through legacy media and Hollywood.
The doctrines of this new moral majority are manifest in the nebulous jargon of multiculturalism. They preach from their pulpits of equality and progress, and they dispatch of archaic notions like ‘Original Sin’ in preference for its ontological twisted sister anthropogenic climate change.
Arguably, many symbols embody the values of our new priestly class, from artistic renderings of multi-ethnic hands holding the earth to even basic corporate logos like Apple. However, the symbol that speaks directly to the movement of this new moral majority has been the rainbow flag.
The Morality Majority in the Information Age
One distinct advantage that older movements, like Falwell’s, enjoyed, was the speed with which information could travel. It was just fast enough to ensure that the average American received updates in his living room nightly, but not so fast that he could experience fatigue almost as soon as the latest avant-garde symbol for American values is hoisted to prominence.
The internet revolutionized the speed with which information travels and this has had a two-way effect: images pregnant with their intended ideology will spread faster, but they are drained of meaning in an instant. It ultimately makes possible for a novel movement to capture the imaginations of millions of people no sooner than they can turn on their phones, and then find itself on the dust heap of history before the end of that same day. In seeking to catch this viral lightning in a bottle, corporations have even resorted to fabricating these movements in order to build their brand.
In truth, the architects behind redefining marriage were probably the first to successfully blur those distinctions between an organic movement and a multi-million dollar marketing scheme. However, long before viral marketing campaigns became a linchpin industry, Falwell had mobilized the sentiments of his dying majority into a political movement that affected policy for the better part of a decade. In comparison, the best metaphor I can conjure up for how the mighty have so quickly fallen in the arena of ‘gay rights’, is to take note that this is the next great horizon for their movement.
In 2015, the symbolic force that the rainbow had come to embody was at the height of its potency. Obergefell had enjoyed a majority victory from the Supreme Court, and the Obama administration immediately flipped its consistent narrative over gay marriage by illuminating the White House in the colors of ‘Gay Rights.’ And no sooner were those LED lights fired up on the front lawn of 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue than the cohesive force of that symbol had been rendered impotent. Virtue signaling abounded, and it most explicitly took hold in the institutions that all but ensured its demise. A who’s who of corporate advertisers began to promote their products in a mantle of these new values which had now come to fully supplant the old ones.
Marketing friendly catch-phrases including “love is love” and “love wins” had entered our lexicon, social media companies began offering its users special dispensations to react on their forums. And if any CEO wished to remain in the fortune five-hundred he or she temporarily re-branded to reflect Progress Inc.
The Moral Majority Changes, Again
One year later, much to the chagrin of the prophets of progress, Donald Trump was elected president and the fault lines of our new American values had already shifted. In many ways the values that the rainbow flag came to represent had been ravaged by the electorate, Trump himself was an example, but he just as equally embodied the rejection of those same values. And like any religious movement, those cosmopolitan progressives, drunk on the imagery of an arc of history bending towards them, must now contend with purity within their ranks.
This is precisely where the new moral majority might be most like the one organized by the late Jerry Falwell. Conservative and gay figures like Chad Felix Greene and Milo Yiannopolous are being castigated by their peers precisely because they preach heresies against the same values that made some of their lifestyle choices possible. It is no longer enough to agree on any definition of marriage. One must also submit to the dogmas of the trans lobby, single-payer healthcare, lavish environmental taxes, wide-open borders, and whatever other fever dreams concocted yesterday by the highest-quality Bernie Bro that corporate stock options can buy. The structural weakness of a values-oriented movement reveals itself when the same pleas that once effectively bound large groups of people together in a common vision are then turned and used as a means to separate the sheep from the goats.
In effect, as Lauren Theisen brutishly advocates at Deadspin, “conservative gays need to shut the f*** up.” This is the battle cry for a movement who is only beginning to reconcile themselves to the fact that their fifteen seconds are over, the electorate is now bored and ready for a new shiny symbol to consume, and they must therefore refine their ranks under the banner of hyperbole. That Chad Felix Greene has been cast out as a goat by the chattering class for the mortal sin of conservatism, thus emphatically embracing his thesis, only proves that value-based voting is alive and well in America. It may not be Jerry Falwell’s moral majority, but it is attacking the culture war from the same playbook.