But shoots itself in the foot instead, say its critics.

Moral Majority appears to have damaged its credibility among Senate allies and perturbed evangelicals in Washington by declaring war on a bill that would update the U.S. Federal Criminal Code.

Jerry Falwell’s lobbyists see the revision as “soft on crime.” They have rushed out a hair-raising analysis, written by a Senate staff member, Mike Hammon. He is counsel to the Republican Senate Steering Committee, which is chaired by Sen. Jesse Helms (R-N.C.). Although Hammond wrote Moral Majority’s position paper, the group also retained a lawyer, and relied on its Washington staff for information.

The massive bill culminates 15 years of congressional tinkering with overlapping, contradictory, and outdated provisions in the criminal code. The complexities and sheer length of one Senate and two House of Representatives versions make the job of analyzing it staggering. This has spawned a series of charges and countercharges about who, if anyone, fully understands the bill.

Nonetheless, some conservative senators say that in reacting so harshly to the bill, Moral Majority leaped before it looked.

For example, Moral Majority says the new bill would “create an abortion funding program” for victims of rape. But according to the conservative senators who cosponsor the bill, “The criticism is wrong. The bill provides no compensation of any kind for medical expenses relating to pregnancy.” (An earlier version would have done so.)

Another objection involves the length of prison terms. The current maximum sentence for a convicted rapist is either death or life imprisonment. In the revised code it is 25 years. Moral Majority interprets this to mean that the code will “let dangerous felons loose on the streets.”

But what Falwell’s attack does not say is that the new code also would eliminate parole. As a result, sentences would be served in their entirety. At present, inflated sentences are assigned and then often reduced by parole boards. Proponents of the code say the new sentencing structure would actually result in longer sentences and easier convictions.

Moral Majority’s vice-president, Ronald Godwin, testified before the House Subcommittee on Criminal Justice that “we are experiencing a violent crime wave that is sweeping America, that is being felt by everyone.… We call for a restoration of existing maximum penalties and insist that all existing death penalties be carried forward in a constitutionally valid manner.”

Some knowledgeable evangelicals in Washington see it differently.

Article continues below

Daniel Van Ness, special counsel for Charles Colson’s Prison Fellowship, said lengthy prison terms are not the answer because “the certainty of punishment is more significant than the severity.”

He cautioned, “We have to check our instinct to raise prison sentences, because it’s a false impulse. It makes us look like we’re getting tough, but it doesn’t really accomplish anything.”

To identify a criminal’s state of mind, the current law offers 70 definitions, such as “with malice aforethought” or “with a depraved heart.” In the update, these are reduced to four: acting “intentionally,” “knowingly,” “recklessly,” or “negligently.”

What this will accomplish, according to Senate staff lawyers, is to introduce language that is commonly understood by both judges and juries. But altering the language has drawn fire from Moral Majority. Said Godwin, “In the high and holy name of neatness, they say surely we must do something to tidy it up. I’m not in favor of neatness,” he added, at the expense of eliminating language used to set legal precedent throughout history.

Legislative efforts to update the criminal code began under President Lyndon Johnson in 1966. Later, conservative Sen. John L. McLellan introduced a series of revisions. In 1977, he drafted a compromise bill along with Sen. Edward Kennedy, who chaired the Senate Judiciary Committee at the time. Kennedy’s contribution to that earlier version of the bill has spurred Moral Majority incorrectly to label the current edition a “Kennedy bill.” In fact, it is the result of a broad bipartisan effort, but Kennedy, a liberal Democrat, is a popular target of Moral Majority’s fusillades.

A meticulously detailed rebuttal to Moral Majority’s broadside attack was prepared by the Justice Department and three staunchly conservative senators who cosponsored the bill, who say Falwell’s charges are “false and misleading.” The three are Senators Paul Laxalt of Nevade, Strom Thurmond of South Carolina, and Orrin Hatch of Utah. (Two other conservatives, however, John East of North Carolina and Jeremiah Denton of Alabama, withdrew their sponsorship because of Moral Majority’s objections.

When asked whether Moral Majority officials had studied the bill themselves, spokesman Cal Thomas said, “there is no way we can know the entire contents of every bill.”

Godwin said, “I’m aware of those elements of the bill which concern Moral Majority.”

Moral Majority’s statements raised concern among evangelicals in Washington. At the National Association of Evangelicals’ (NAE) Washington office, public affairs director Bob Dugan said, “I think the whistle needs to be blown on inaccurate reporting, whether in liberal media or conservative fund raising. The bill just isn’t quite the threat that it’s purported to be, especially once you’ve read it and considered that it is cosponsored by some very conservative senators.” Responding to Dugan, Thomas said he was disappointed that one Christian organization should criticize another. “We gave a well-reasoned, articulate defense of our position,” he said.

Article continues below

In its January Insight newsletter, the National Association of Evangelicals raises questions about the bill. But it goes on to explain the reasoning behind the provisions—something the Moral Majority critique does not do. The legislation has won strong administration support, with President Reagan calling it “the foundation of an effective federal effort against crime.” Attorney General William French Smith says it “contains well over a hundred significant improvements in criminal law” and would “clarify and rationalize” existing provisions. But Moral Majority has vowed to work toward defeat of the measure in Congress, saying they “regard improvement by amendment to be virtually impossible.”

As a floor debate in the Senate approaches this spring, Falwell is likely to step up direct-mail and advertising efforts to mobilize Christians to write letters to Congress and financially support his group’s initiative.

Moral Majority Has Harsh Words For Reagan

Some of the most ominous warnings to the Reagan administration yet heard from the Religious Right came during a recent conference on the Christian faith and social issues held at Huntington College in Indiana. The speaker was Cal Thomas, a former NBC newsman, and Moral Majority’s vice-president for communications.

Thomas voiced doubts about the Reagan administration’s commitment to Moral Majority’s social agenda several times in response to questions. “If Reagan cleans up the economy and lots of babies go on being killed, I think we’ll go down the tube. I think we’ll forfeit the right to exist as a nation. The White House doesn’t think we have any place to go. That’s what they think.”

He acknowledged that the New Christian Right would have a hard time finding another presidential candidate to support in 1984, but noted that staying away from the polls is always an option—one that can mean the margin of defeat for a candidate.

Article continues below

Moral Majority is organizing a profamily conference for next summer, when President Reagan will be warned to start moving on the social agenda of the New Right. “He’ll be told if he doesn’t immediately set a social agenda, he’s through as far as the Religious Right is concerned.”

Also, in response to complaints that Moral Majority has not addressed issues such as poverty, Thomas detailed the efforts of Jerry Falwell, Moral Majority president, to help the poor. Last summer, Falwell sent 100 Liberty Baptist College students to live with black families in several urban areas, according to Thomas, including Watts and Harlem. “I think a lot of his social agenda has been unreported. We don’t report it because it sounds self-serving.”

Thomas joined Falwell’s organization last year. “He’s one of the best things Falwell has going for him,” said Wes Pippert of United Press International’s Washington bureau, a conference participant. “He’s brought a lot of people into one-to-one contact with Falwell. I don’t know anybody who’s done more to reach to others on either side. He’s established contact between Hatfield and Falwell. He’s also astute in the use of the news media. He knows how the media operate.”

Before going to work for Moral Majority, Thomas was a correspondent for NBC television in Washington, D.C.


Have something to add about this? See something we missed? Share your feedback here.

Our digital archives are a work in progress. Let us know if corrections need to be made.