Catholics and the Moral Majority


November 1, 1982

THE MORAL MAJORITY campaigned vigorously during the 1980 elections for conservative candidates and conservative positions on social issues, rousing vehement denunciations from some and outraged protest from politicians it helped defeat. (“They did a very thorough job of beating my brains out with Christian love,” moaned ex-congressman John Buchanan.) This past September Senator Robert Packwood read aloud from a 400-page book on abortion as he and other liberal senators filibustered to prevent a vote on an anti-abortion bill sponsored by Jesse Helms inside the Senate and by the Moral Majority among the public.

Moral Maiority, the subject of much editorial debate, is seen by most of the American public and media as a fundamentalist, evangelical Protestant movement. Its chief organizer and most visible leader, Jerry Falwell, is a Baptist minister. Yet Moral Majority claims widespread Catholic adherence. In 1980 it supported a number of Catholic candidate id lor the past two years it has concentrated most of its efforts on fighting abortion, an issue important to many Catholics.

Scholars and journalists who have examined Moral Majority agree on the key role played in its formation and operation by Paul Weyrich, a long-time political consultant conservative groups and causes. Weyrich himself was born and raised a Roman Catholic, leaving to join the Eastern Rite Catholic Church when Vatican II liberalized the liturgy. Weyrich urged on Falwell a policy he called “reverse ecumenism,” suggesting that Falwell organize Moral Majority as an ecumenical movement for conservative Catholics, Mormons and Orthodox Jews, as well as Protestants. If blue-collar Catholics were mobilized around abortion and other issues, said Weyrich, they could be “the Achilles heel of the liberal Democrats.”

Most journalists and scholars believe that Moral Majority played an important, perhaps decisive, role in four senatorial elections in 1980. In three of those four races, it backed Catholic candidates. In Alaska, a state described as coming closer than any in the country to having no organized parties at all, Moral Majority and other evangelical groups literally took over the Republican slate convention and nominated Catholic Frank Murkowski for the United States Senate. In Oklahoma, hardly a Catholic stronghold, Catholic Don Nickles “riding a wave of support from the Moral Majority, rose from the backbenches of the Oklahoma legislature almost overnight to become the youngest member of the 97th Congress.” (So reported the respected Congressional Quarterly Weekly Review.) Alabama’s Jeremiah Denton, a Catholic, a former navy admiral and a genuine American hero for his bravery as a Vietnamese prisoner-of war, won support from Moral Majority in his successful Senate run.

In a number of other races, anti-abortion organizations, many with strong Catholic leadership, joined with evangelical Protestants, including Moral Majority members, to elect conservative, “family-issue-oriented” candidates. This was true, for example, in the successful campaigns against George McGovern in South Dakota and John Culver in Iowa. By mid-campaign 1980 Jerry Falwell was claiming a constituency for his Moral Majority organization of “50 million Protestant evangelicals, 30 million morally conservative Catholics, plus a few million Momions and Orthodox Jews.” No strong data backed the claims. In spite of these membership claims, Moral Majority support for Catholic candidates and the undoubted fact of alliances between anti-abortion forces and Moral Majority, Catholic participation in or support for Moral Majority seems not to run very wide or deep.

First, there has been no formal Catholic Church support for Moral Majority. As Frances Fitzgerald noted in her article on Moral Majority for New Yorker magazine, Falwell never has had much success organizing the Catholic or Jewish clergy. Bishops have been more discomforted than pleased when, occasionally, they have pursued activities applauded by Moral Majority or other New Right organizations. After issuing his pastoral letter condemning politicians “who make abortion possible,” Humberto Cardinal Medeiros reportedly was embarrassed to hear Howard Phillips, head of the Conservative Caucus, declare that “Cardinal Medeiros has joined the Moral Majority.” “Medeiros,” wrote columnist Anthony Lewis, “is by no means a right-wing figure and he surely did not intend to give general comfort to the New Right. ”

Catholic school leaders vigorously protested President Reagan’s nomination of Robert Billings, formerly executive director of Moral Majority, to be assistant secretary for non-public education. Journalists Rowland Evans and Robert Novak wrote that “Catholics could not abide the idea of a fundamentalist Baptist and Moral Majority activist dictating policy to the nation’s private schools.” Then, too, during the 1981-82 congressional sessions, the National Conference of Catholic Bishops split with a number of other anti-abortion groups. The bishops decided to support Utah Senator Orrin Hatch’s more moderate anti-abortion constitutional amendment rather than the hardline bill sponsored by Jesse Helms.

The Protestant attracted to Moral Majoiity is the fundamentalist, evangelical Protestant; for Catholics, an uneasy bedfellow. As late as I960 it was the fundamentalist Protestant who most feared and opposed John Kennedy’s bid for the Presidency. These memories are fresh in the minds of many Catholics.

Finally, while some Catholics may join with Protestant fundamentalists in their opposition to abortion, they part company on many of the other moral and social issues on the Moral Majority agenda.

Surveys show that on almost all sexual and moral issues, except abortion, Catholics are more liberal than southern white Protestants, and at least as liberal, sometimes more so, than northern white Protestants.

For example, Catholics are more apt than either Protestant group to feel sex education should be available in the public school (84 per cent of Catholics agreeing versus 81 per cent of northern white Protestants and 71 per cent of white southerners). They are somewhat less apt to support laws prohibiting the sale ot pornography (43 percent of Catholics versus 47 percent of white northern Protestants and 50 per cent of white southerners). They are more willing to have marijuana legaliaed (20.5 per cent of Catholics vs. 18 per cent of white northern Protestants and 9 per cent of white southerners.) Catholics, also, are markedly more willing to support civil rights for homosexuals (71 per cent of Catholics so saying as opposed to 65 per cent of white northern Protestants and 49 per cent of white southerners.) These figures are from a series ot general social surveys taken by the National Opinion Research Center of the University of Chicago.

There seem to be too many historical memories and too many value differences between the groups, then, for Weyrich’s dream of a conservative religious/political coalition based on “reverse ecumenism” to come true.

From Vol. 1, No. 1 of the original “Catholicism in Crisis”, published November 1982.


  • Mary Hanna

    When Crisis was originally published in 1982, Mary Hanna was Associate Professor of Political Science at Whitman College in Walla Walla, Washington.

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