Whatever Happened to the Moral Majority?

Michael Kazin is currently a fellow at the Woodrow Wilson Center. His most recent book is "The Populist Persuasion: An American History."

‘I do not believe that a majority of Americans actually share our values,” concluded veteran Christian conservative Paul M. Weyrich, after the Senate acquitted President Bill Clinton.

His lament, which the right may be debating into the next millennium, raised a significant, if seldom pondered, question about U.S. political history. Can moral crusaders ever succeed if they’re convinced that most of their fellow citizens oppose what they want to accomplish?

The first impulse is to answer “no.” In a democracy, censuring the people seems a sure way to guarantee political oblivion. In 1976, Jimmy Carter gained the White House with the slogan “a government as good as its people”; it would be hard to imagine a candidate winning an election by denouncing the people.

The conventional wisdom can also trip up movements that organize outside the two-party system. During the Gilded Age, educated reformers known as Mugwumps railed against government corruption; they claimed that working-class voters were ignorant dupes of urban bosses. The sting of the Mugwumps’ critique helped goad Congress into establishing a limited civil-service system, but then, like honeybees, they quickly expired as a cohesive force.

But certain social movements have altered history by refusing to worship the popular will. Consider the abolitionists. In 1831, William Lloyd Garrison inaugurated his antislavery journal, the Liberator, by colorfully lambasting “the apathy of the people [which] is enough to make every statue leap from its pedestal, and to hasten the resurrection of the dead.” If most white Americans were indifferent to slavery, they despised the abolitionists for daring to challenge the reigning economic and racial order. Congress banned their petitions, mobs destroyed their presses and vandals ransacked their interracial schools. At one point, Garrison publicly tore up a copy of the Constitution and vowed to secede from the Union if federal authorities kept bowing to the demands of slaveholders.


Yet, the abolitionists, black and white, believed they were the conscience of America and never declared a truce in their moral offensive. Americans’ support gradually increased, more in anger at the slaveholders than out of concern for the slaves. After the bloodiest war in U.S. history, they finally celebrated victory.

Or consider the prohibition movement. Organized agitation against the alcohol business began before the Civil War, when most American men, and not a few women, drank beer and hard cider with their meals and hard liquor whenever they could afford it. Many people even believed regular drinking was a good way to keep up one’s strength.

In the teeth of such opinions, the “cold-water army” set out on what became a 90-year campaign to make self-discipline, clean living and productive work the norms of the land. Antidrink activists realized that millions of citizens and most immigrants would hate them for denouncing their individual pleasures and forcing them to adopt a version of morality opposed to their own. But prohibition activists patterned themselves on the abolitionists. “If our republic is to be saved,” declared the head of the Anti-Saloon League, “the liquor traffic must be destroyed.” They persevered until prohibition was written into the Constitution in 1919.

Or consider the black freedom movement of the 1950s and ‘60s. Like Garrison and his comrades, civil-rights activists took for granted the hostility of most white Southerners and the apathy of whites in the North. In fact, Martin Luther King Jr. and other black leaders hoped their campaigns of civil disobedience would awaken America’s guilty conscience. It was a shrewd strategy. The sight of black children blasted to the pavement with high-power water hoses and of jails bursting with thousands of peaceful demonstrators embarrassed public officials into speeding an end to segregation and protecting the right to vote. But a majority of white Americans never embraced the movement that had forced the issue.

What united these three crusades--against human bondage, the liquor trade and legal racism--was a determination to keep speaking truth to power and complacency, no matter what the odds. It helped enormously that most activists were evangelical Protestants who shared the conviction that God was on their side, even if a majority of Americans were not. With the support of a “beloved community” of fellow visionaries, they continued their mission to persuade. Surely, the immorality of their enemies would eventually come to light. Then the moral crusaders would be hailed as prophets of a more decent society.

Advocates of black freedom, in the 19th century and our own, lived to see that future come to pass. But the triumph of the cold-water army was fleeting. By the mid-'20s, the urban press was mocking prohibitionists as humorless scolds, and enforcement of the law was becoming a bad joke. The ease with which the amendment was repealed in 1933 indicated the movement had crested in political power just as the Victorian moral code that inspired it was becoming obsolete.

Weyrich seems to dread that his generation of Christian crusaders will suffer the same fate. He may be right. Americans appear to long for an end to “culture wars” in which they never cared to enlist in the first place. As militant minorities battle over homosexual and abortion rights, most people have come to resent exhortations to choose one side or the other. In the two decades since Jerry Falwell founded the Moral Majority, growing numbers of Americans have learned to live with apparent contradictions--befriending a gay co-worker but blanching at a Robert Mapplethorpe show, or lecturing one’s pregnant daughter about the sanctity of life before driving her down to Planned Parenthood.

During the impeachment ordeal, Clinton clearly benefited from the public’s ambivalence about turning personal sins into political crimes. The moralist right now has to think hard about whether, like the abolitionists and the black freedom movement, they are on the cutting edge of cultural change or whether they will end up, like the Anti-Saloon League, as a moral movement on the wrong side of history.

Of course, they could also reexamine their assumptions about the need for Americans to adhere to an ethical code that condemns how millions of sane, productive people have chosen to lead their lives. But serious self-criticism has never been among the personality traits of the political crusader.*