Bill Moyers on the Rise of the Religious Right

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This week’s episode of Moyers & Company focuses on the rise, fall — and rise again — of Ralph Reed, and his attempts to get conservative Christians to the polls in November, possibly delivering the 2012 election to Mitt Romney.

Bill Moyers traces his own education in democracy and faith back to the Southern Baptist church in Marshall, Texas, where he was baptized as a teenager. For three decades — since the days of Jerry Falwell and Ronald Reagan — he has been chronicling the trajectory of the religious right’s influence on American politics. Here’s a collection of some outstanding moments from his reporting.


In this clip from a 1980 episode of Bill Moyers Journal, Moyers speaks to televangelist Jerry Falwell at a gathering of fundamentalist Christians in Dallas, Texas. The group, most of them ministers, had convened to discuss how to mobilize their congregations for political action. Moyers asks Falwell and some members of his audience how they feel about the Equal Rights Amendment, the proposed amendment to the Constitution which would have guaranteed equal rights for women, had it passed.

At the same convention in Dallas, Moyers also spoke with Paul Weyrich, an architect of the conservative movement widely credited with coining the phrase “moral majority.” Weyrich was a founder of both the Heritage Foundation and the American Legislative Exchange Council, or ALEC.

In this clip from the 1987 documentary On Earth As It Is In Heaven, Moyers interviews Dr. R.J. Rushdoony, an early leader of the Christian homeschool movement and godfather of Christian Reconstructionism, a religious movement that believes the Bible should form the sole basis for social, political, economic and cultural order, as they believe it did in ancient Jerusalem. Rushdoony explains that it is God’s will that the United States return to the gold standard and a debt-free economy. (A call to return to the gold standard is included in this year’s Republican party platform.)

Moyers looks at a divide threatening the church of his youth in the 1987 documentary The Battle for the Bible, which tells the story of a faction of fundamentalist Southern Baptists that set out to take over the denomination. In this clip we meet Dr. W.A. Criswell, pastor of the First Baptist Church in Dallas, at the time the biggest Southern Baptist church in the world. As you’ll see at the end of the clip, when Republicans nominated President Ronald Reagan for reelection at their 1984 convention in Dallas, Dr. Criswell was asked to give a blessing.

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  • Another Bill from Marshall, TX

    I think it ironic that the very far-right ultra-religious wing of the Republican Party supposedly champions individual liberty, yet attempts to legislatively impose their religious beliefs on all. You can’t have it both ways!

  • Coventry

    These guys scare the living daylights out of me. Their absolutely certainty of their own rightness coupled with an appalling ignorance of what the Founding Fathers intended is just terrifying. They believe in individual liberty, all right–as long as you’re just like them.

  • colincr

    I am absolutely certain that Bill Maher had the correct perspective on religion when he said, “I think it’s a neurological disorder.” Put another way, everyone who “believes” (in God, Allah, Vishnu, Odin, Zeus, etc.) has a malformed brain and is, in effect, quite insane if not also moronic. They exhibit an inability to learn, let alone understand, anything and literally have no more than a severely flawed, infinitesimal capacity of reason. Every sect of every religion claims their interpretation of the Bible/Koran/Torah/etc. is correct and all other interpretations are wrong. How can that be if their selfsame “supreme being” and its dictates are “absolute?” As two earlier commentators noted, the religions’ “do as I say, not as I do” behavior should terrify, as well as nauseate, every rational being.

    Facts have no meaning or relevance to the believers, especially when they contradict their beliefs. In my 59+ years on this rock I have yet to meet even a single person of faith (in any religion) that wasn’t an out-and-out hypocrite. Indeed, it is this abject devotion to baseless beliefs and the egregious actions they’ve inspired and perpetrated that have brought all life on this planet, including our own, to the brink of extinction. At the very least, we are witnessing the incipience of the next “Dark Age”… that is, IF any of our species survives the on rush of cascading cataclysms.

  • Epar

    Christians and Christianity are a joke. They are nothing but self righteous hypocrites. They are a disgrace to all humanity. Every person deserves the same rights. It’s ok to disagree with others, but it is NOT ok to discriminate.

  • Albert Lopez

    If this ppl don’t scar the hell out off you you’ve been Brain washed
    Not by religion But by messengers like this, This right -wing nuts are
    dangerous !!

  • mtnjam3347

    When this country of ours begins its tour as a theology based government, we will have become no better, only as good as & at war with, other theology based governments.

  • S.Kate

    It has become a manipulative and cynical ploy to motivate voters on emotional points instead of using logic and reason. It could be that the republican party would have no leg to stand on if it had to rely on logic alone. I am and have always been a Christian and it offends me that the religious right has hijacked my sanctuary and cheapened it to a point of no return. How dare they!

  • Deb Mohr

    If these “gents” of the far-right wing, clothed in religiosity, grab control of the presidency AND Supreme Court, it’s good-bye, “Roe v. Wade” and hello to a vise-like grip on women and birth control. My recently published book, “The Flume Tender’s Daughter,” explores this issue. What, indeed, happened to women early in the 20th Century who attempted to teach a population–in this case poor, uneducated people–about birth control? Not a pretty picture. My book is available on Amazon and e-book.

  • Anonymous

    That is what Thomas Jefferson and James Madison tried to stop and these monsters are doing it in their names.

  • The Secular Human

    Bill. Your reporting over the years on the religious-right has been one of the reasons why I donate to my local PBS station. Thank you.

  • Jovina

    Separation of church and state or lose their status as a church. 501(c)3 or 4.

  • NotARedneck

    If some extra terrestrial power were to come to earth and eliminate all these violent imbeciles, the average IQ would increase by at least 15 points and our economy would flourish since it would no longer have them dragging us down. Instead, these are exactly the types who flourish and breed in an environment where the evolutionary controls are removed. No wonder they put their faith in creationism!

  • NotARedneck

    Churches are about as honest as Wall Street, the banksters and most members of Congress. They’ll find a way to get around any laws designed to get them to do religious charity – the only defensible reason to give them such massive tax breaks.

  • Anonymous

    How is it then that Media Matter; which is a radical left-wing media watchdog group, a 501(c)3 non-profit organization? Your threat to churches that they cease to engage in politics or else lose their 501(c)3 non-profit status is truly a clerical gag-rule that was imposed by LBJ and this clerical gag-rule has to be eliminated in any reform of the IRS.

  • Gato Pardo

    These people are haters…..They’re basically white extremists that invite minorities to their churches and use them as pets to promote their agenda…..

  • Al Dente

    As the law is interpreted now only partisan politics disqualifies an organization from tax exempt status. Churches and MM do not endanger their status unless they tell you who you should vote for. Then again, I’ve seen church “voter’s guides” that didn’t say who to vote for in so many words but made it obvious who who they favored. I agree that the law should prohibit tax-exempt organizations from participating in any politics. I would have liked to see the CoLDS loose their tax-exempt status for spending $millions promoting California Proposition 8.

  • Anonymous

    It is only a matter of interpretation about which political activity constitutes telling voters who to voter for and which political activity does not constitute telling voters who to vote for. It should not be up to the government to determine which political activity is acceptable for a “non-profit” organization and which political activity is not acceptable. This is completely contrary to true freedom of speech and association. The 501c-3 rule prohibiting partisan politics is a complete church gag-rule. It was invented for the precise purpose of shutting down church participation in politics. Media Matters and liberal universities and colleges are constantly participating in partisan politics of the hard left kind. The 501c-3 rule prohibiting partisan politics should be eliminated and Media matters, wealthy universities, and every organization constituted for political ends should be stripped of their 501(c)3 status. A university like Harvard or Princeton sitting on millions of dollars in its endowment and making millions of dollars in profit from student tuition is not a non-profit organization! The same is true for Media Matters and the other left-wing front groups.

  • Al Dente

    A problem your reply indicates is how almost everything is politicized now. Religious conservatives don’t accept evolution so biology is now political. Corporations have a lot to loose from CO2 regulation so studying the climate has become political. History has been politicized as well. Liberal historians think FDR’s New Deal lifted our nation out of the depression while conservative historians think the New Deal prolonged the depression; no mater what position you take you piss someone off! There was a time when science was for science’s sake; when history was for history’s sake; and economics was for economics’ sake. Now they are just tangents to political positions.

  • Anonymous

    The problem that you recognize is real. The cause for this problem is that academia is no longer committed to the impartial and unbiased search for objective truth. This is what Plato’s Academy and Aristotle’s Lyceum were founded on. None of them charged tuition fees for entrance into their academy. Of course that can not occur today because of capitalism but the elimination of student tuition should occur in education through a universal voucher system in which academically qualified students (based on their grades and not slanted to the rich and the biases of those who control academia today with the alphabet soup of standardized testing) are admitted and can enroll in the school of their choice or their parents choice with the government paying for it directly to the parent or adult student. This would effectively and truly make schools competitive for the best students and non-profit institutions. Education then would get back to the impartial and unbiased pursuit of objective truth against sophistry, skepticism, and the various irrational ideologies of liberalism and conservatism that dominate academia today. For example, there is no way that I can find now an impartial research affirming climate change and yet the climate change/global warming movement demands legislation such as cap and trade, etc. that would heavily effect the production and cost of energy in this society in addition to significantly interfering with the way companies in the energy sector do their business. And the results of cap and trade and other legislative proposals interfering with the market capitalist economy effect every American citizen!

  • Al Dente

    Churches are not required to be tax exempt. One of the things that impressed me about ISKCON was in the 1980’s when they chose to pay taxes rather than be a tax exempt. Their reasoning was if they are attacked police will help them, if their temple catches fire the fire department will help them, and they use the roads and bridges like everyone else so they wanted to pay their fair share. The problem as I see it is when churches want it both ways; they want tax exempt status but they don’t want to play by the rules that the status requires. Any church that wants to function as an overtly political organization can do so and pay taxes like everyone else.

  • Al Dente

    Colleges now are vocational training centers. I hear people talk about the return on investment in college all the time. My parents could not understand why I choose to study music in college. At my college 70% of music majors were freshmen so there was a huge washout rate. After getting a music degree the odds of finding a secure well-paying job in the field was slim. At the time college at an excellent state university was $4/semester hour. Music was more of an ascetic pursuit for me than a vocational choice but college was cheap enough that I didn’t have to constantly worry about how I’d pay off my student debt because I didn’t have any. I don’t think college will ever get back to being that cheap. Our best bet now is the internet. You really can learn just about anything you want to on the ‘net for free. It is the Plato’s Academy and Aristotle’s Lyceum of today.

  • Anonymous

    Yeah, I would support eliminating tax exemption on income for churches when the same thing happens for universities and real political organizations like Media Matters. Media matters is a hard left political organization. They have an explicitly political agenda and yet they are considered non-profit 501(c)3 organizations and thus tax-empt. These universities such as harvard, princeton, yale, etc. are dominated by liberals who use their platform to not only promote left-wing politics, the democrat party, but pornography and every sexual perversion imaginable. Yet they are considered non-profit 501(c)3 organizations. They along with liberal churches can get away with explicit endorsements of candidates for political office and you will hear nothing from the Americans United for the Separation of Church and State or the ACLU in protest; demanding that they be stripped of their non-profit 501(c)3 status. This is a complete fraud by the left and I call it what it is. The left and that includes you Al Dente want to strip conservative and anti-liberal churches of their non-profit status simply because you do not agree with their politics and their religion. This is un-American and I call it what it was invented to be by LBJ a clerical shut-up rule, intended to silence the explicit participation in the political process by certain clerics and churches. To be consistent and fair this stripping of tax-exempt status, if it ever occurs, has to be implemented across the board. That means no more tax frauds like the Media Matter and other hard left groups claiming to the IRS that they are “non-profit” organizations when they get funding from George Soros! This is a game by the left and it has to stop. Harvard, Stanford, and USC are no more of a non-profit organization than any other big buisness. Universites today are big business and they rake in the money and then use it to promote secular humanism, atheism, marxism, modernism, and every other anti-Christian ideology. See the movie “Ivory Tower”.

  • Anonymous

    It is definitely time to start regulating these universities as any other business would be regulated and that includes taxing their income. This would definitely help to decrease the budget deficit at the federal level. Why do liberals demand increased taxes on the rich but ignore the rich liberal universities that get away with paying no taxes on their organizational income!

  • Al Dente

    I’m fine with groups like Media Matters loosing tax exempt status if similar conservative groups did as well. Note that the actual legeslation regarding 501(c) groups say that the group must exist solely for charitable activities. The way the law has been interpreted is that organizations must primarily operate as charities. Lots of lobbying groups on both sides of the fence enjoy tax exempt status by claiming that at least 51% of their activities were charitable. If we got back to the original intent of the law to only extend tax exempt status to organizations that are entirely charitable than we would all be better off. I don’t buy your claim that Harvard, Princeton and Yale are overtly liberal institutions. All of these institutions have both conservative and liberal politicians as alumni. To you they may seem like liberal organizations. There is a saying; from the north pole everywhere is south. If you are so conservative that mainstream ideas and information are liberal indoctrination this says more about you than about them. Ideologues hate reality when it contradictions their ideology.