Remember the Moral Majority? Founded in 1979 by the legendary Southern Baptist minister and televangelist Jerry Falwell Sr., it was a group of religious leaders and conservative lawmakers that aimed to spread right wing Christian values across an increasingly secular (and, to their minds, increasingly depraved) nation. The group gained huge cultural and political influence during the Reagan administration and set the tone for American conservatism through most of the 1980s. Nationwide efforts to curtail sex education in public schools? The Moral Majority was there. Those famous campaigns to censor art and defund the NEA because it supported artists like Andres Serrano and Robert Mapplethorpe? An effort brought to you by Republican Sen. Jesse Helms and the Moral Majority.
The Moral Majority’s biggest target, at least aside from abortion, was the so-called homosexual agenda and in 1981 it proposed the Family Protection Act, which would have barred federal funds from “any organization that suggests that homosexuality can be an acceptable alternative lifestyle.” The bill was defeated, but the anti-gay crusading continued despite a cultural tide moving decidedly in the other direction. When Ellen DeGeneres came out as gay on her television show in 1997, Falwell called her Ellen DeGenerate.
Thirty years later, a new moral movement is setting the tone for much of American life. It’s covering up art, and influencing public education and, as it happens, condemning Ellen DeGeneres for being a bad person. But this time, it’s coming from the left.
An enormous political and social current under which any number of subcurrents (and their attendant trendy monikers) might exist — cancel culture, purity policing, competitive wokeness — this moral movement is, on its face, a force for good. After all, it’s rooted in an emphasis on social justice and the dismantling of inequitable power structures. And no matter where you stand on dismantling power structures, it’s impossible to argue that there isn’t work to be done in this country when it comes to correcting historic wrongs — particularly those affecting people who’ve been marginalized for reasons related to gender identity or race.
But in the last few years, this adamantly secular movement — let’s call it the moral minority, since the vast majority of Americans are far less strict in their appraisals of the goodness of others — has started to feel almost evangelical in its piousness. Armed with its own scripture and catechisms, it demands something approaching total buy-in from its adherents. Just as Christian conservatives demanded fealty to their interpretations of the teachings of Jesus, the new moral extremists set narrow margins for acceptable behavior.
The new moral minority offers no second chances, least of all to its own flock. Instead, it piles on heaps of shame, rallies the troops, and declares people null and void.
I’m hardly the first to make the analogy between certain manifestations of social justice activism and organized religion. In the last few years, journalists and observers — some on the political right, but more who identify as liberals — have likened the new crop of social justice activists to worshippers, if not downright zealots.
But the worshipping isn’t just about worshipping your god — or ideology — of choice. Moreover, the zealotry isn’t even just a matter of sentencing proven bigots to eternal damnation. It’s about exacting harsh punishments on anybody who ever did or said something insensitive, cruel, or otherwise inadvisable — that is to say, everybody. And we’re not talking about wearing blackface in a decades-old photograph, either. We’re talking about adults forced to do penance for things they did when they were teenagers or barely past adolescence, as appears to be the case with Ellen DeGeneres, who is currently in the stockade for a confusing melange of accusations — some dating back to the 1970s — that she’s not as nice as she’s purported to be. We’re talking about teenagers forced to do penance for things they did when as children, as we see with 17-year-old Dance Moms star Maddie Ziegler, who had to self-flagellate on Instagram over videos she made when she was nine. We’re talking parents punished for the social media transgressions of their children, for instance the Minneapolis business owner who is facing boycotts and evictions because of bigoted tweets his daughter sent as far back as eight years ago when she was 15. (He fired his daughter from the family business, but that wasn’t enough.)
And here is where I find myself in a surprising position: the position of wishing the new moral minority had one thing in common with the old Moral Majority (which, let’s face it, was actually a minority, too). Specifically, I wish it would it embrace that most famous of Christian principles: forgiveness.
The Christian Right, during its cultural war crusade, may have always been obsessed with sinners, be they Bill Clinton or single mothers like the television character Murphy Brown, whose single motherhood Dan Quayle chastised as a “lifestyle choice” that posed a threat to society. But part of the reason for this is that without sin, there can be no forgiveness, and without forgiveness there is no Christianity. After all, Christians believe that God sacrificed his son so that the sins of the world could be forgiven if they put their faith in that son.
Given that monumental forfeiture, it would be a waste to lock up all trespassers and throw away the key. Moreover, it would also have created a lot of casualties among the Christian Right’s own ranks, since high profile Christian conservatives had a tendency to get caught doing precisely the opposite of what they preach. There was, to cite one deliciously circular example, the case of televangelist Jimmy Swaggart, who in the mid-1980s began publicly attacking competing televangelists Marvin Gorman and Jim Bakker for sexual improprieties. Gorman then had Swaggart investigated, and Swaggart was caught with a prostitute.
Bakker, for his part (if you’ll allow me this little tangent) was later embroiled in a sex scandal involving a former church secretary and also ended up doing prison time for financial misdeeds. Long married to his wife and business partner Tammy Faye Bakker, he was also found to be having same sex relationships. Tammy Faye filed for divorce when Jim was in prison and remarried, though she later wound up doing prison time for bankruptcy fraud. In the years leading up to her death in 1996, she became a cult media personality, appearing on reality television shows and even as the subject of a popular indie documentary. When Jim was released from prison, he remarried and started a new ministry in the Missouri Ozarks. Most recently he’s been sued by the state of Missouri for selling colloidal silver supplements as a fake coronavirus remedy.
Despite everything, Bakker has many supporters, including former Missouri Governor Jim Nixon, who has said, “We all recognize that Jim Bakker has made some significant mistakes, and he’s paid for those mistakes. But to me, I just believe that everyone, regardless of their background, deserves to be treated equally and fairly by the law.”
That’s forgiveness in action, folks.
The new moral minority offers no second chances, least of all to its own flock. Instead, it piles on heaps of shame, rallies the troops, and declares people null and void. And while I don’t want to enter into a referendum here on the meaning of “cancel culture,” which has become too broad and over-invoked to be of much use anymore, it does seem apt that the operative word in all this punitiveness is not reprimand or even punish. It’s cancel. The idea is to make someone cease to exist, to declare them an unperson, to demand that they pack up and leave no trace, like a courteous camper in a federal forest.
But the thing about “canceling,” at least according to the shaky set of definitions under which it currently operates, is that you can only be canceled by your own side. If ideological opponents try to deny your existence, they actually raise your status among your own tribe, as Jerry Falwell did to Ellen DeGeneres when he called her Ellen DeGenerate. On the other hand, if the progressive corners of Twitter decide that Ellen deserves to go, then off she will go. (In the meantime, she has fired three of her producers amid claims of misconduct; maybe if they go, she can stay.)
But as we’re rapidly starting to see, this is a losing strategy for the political left. If there is no forgiveness, only banishment of potential allies, then pretty soon the herd will thin out into nothingness. Meanwhile, the political right is happy to forgive even the most egregious sins of its most despotic members, one of whom occupies the Oval Office, where he routinely sends tweets that the purity police on the left wouldn’t forgive a nine-year-old for.
As Oscar Wilde said, “Always forgive your enemies. Nothing annoys them so much.” In 2020, Wilde would probably expand that to, “Always forgive your allies, because that’s how you keep them.” Without more forgiveness, the moral minority will become a moral microbe. Along the way, the social justice causes that galvanized them in the first place could become part of the collateral cancellation damage.
So maybe it’s time for the progressive left to take a lesson from the Christian Right and turn the other cheek a little more when it comes to transgressions within the tribe. I’m not suggesting that we aim for canceled people to make comebacks by selling fake Covid-19 cures on the internet. I’m merely pointing out that when it comes to the fine art of balancing piety and degeneracy, we’d do well to take a lesson from the masters. Take the Fallwell family empire: Jerry Fallwell Sr. died in 2007 but his son, Jerry Falwell Jr., is alive and well and carrying out the Lord’s work of messing up repeatedly and being pardoned every time. On August 7, Fallwell Jr. stepped down from his post as president of Liberty University (which his father founded) after posting a photo of himself in a state of partial undress with his arm around a woman not his wife. (Yes, he posted it himself.) It’s not his first scandal and it’s significant that students and alumni finally said enough is enough. But if his supporters eventually forgive him — and they almost certainly will — we can count on plenty more scandals to come.
And that, dear progressives, is how you stay in the game.