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Died: Beverly LaHaye, Pastor’s Wife Who Led Religious Right

The founder of Concerned Women for America was credited by President Ronald Reagan with “changing the face of American politics.”
Died: Beverly LaHaye, Pastor’s Wife Who Led Religious Right
Image: Concerned Women for America / edits by Rick Szeucs

Beverly LaHaye, a timid pastor’s wife who became a fierce champion for conservative Christian politics and a force mobilizing hundreds of thousands of religious women, died on Sunday in a retirement home in El Cajon, California. She was 94.

President Ronald Reagan once praised LaHaye as “one of the powerhouses” of the conservative movement and said she was “changing the face of American politics.”

Paul Weyrich, the conservative activist who helped start The Heritage Foundation and coined the term moral majority, called the group LaHaye founded in 1979, the Concerned Women for America (CWA), the most effective organization on the Religious Right. He told CT in 1987 that the CWA had “the best follow-through” of any political group he’d ever worked with.

At the height of LaHaye’s power, she could get the women she called “my ladies” to send more than 1,000 postcards to a US senator who had slighted her in a public hearing; 2,000 to support a Republican administration official who had been caught selling weapons illegally to Iran; 64,000 to support a controversial conservative candidate for the US Supreme Court; and 778,000 to protest a TV station that ran an advertisement for condoms during prime time.

LaHaye “gave a lot of women a language for understanding women’s conservative activism as absolutely necessary,” historian Emily Suzanne Johnson told The Washington Post. “Women have been the driving force of this movement in a lot of ways, particularly at the grass-roots level. I’m not sure that happens without Beverly LaHaye.”

Her success earned her the ire of those on the left, especially people concerned about LGBTQ rights. In 1993, the spokesman for the Human Rights Campaign called her “a professional hatemonger.”

LaHaye also became a subject of fascination for mainstream media.

According to the Chicago Tribune, LaHaye had “a spun-sugar exterior” but directed her organization “with the fervor of a general.” The Washington Post reported she “combined combative rhetoric with a cheery public image, handing out pink business cards and decorating her organization’s Washington headquarters with pink chairs and pink curtains.” And the Philadelphia Inquirer wondered how she could call herself a traditionalist while running a national organization with a $6 million budget, waging high-profile political battles, and drawing crowds that dwarfed those of her husband, the prominent evangelical minister Tim LaHaye.

LaHaye’s answer was that her husband, who would go on to co-author of the popular apocalyptic Left Behind novels, supported and encouraged her political activism. And she was just trying to answer God’s calling on her life.

“I think God just pushed me up out of my chair and said, ‘Beverly, go for it.’ Anything I’ve done is not my natural way, but God has put it in my heart to do it,” she once said. “You know, when you say, ‘Whatever Lord, wherever you send me, whatever you want me to say, whatever you want me to do, here I am,’ you better hang on. You better hang on tight.”

LaHaye was born in Detroit on April 30, 1929, the second daughter of Lowell and Nellie Davenport. Her father died when she was 2, and her mother was forced to move in with a neighbor and work for the phone company until she got remarried to a tool-and-die maker who worked at Ford.

Watching her mother, LaHaye later said she learned that “women can be very powerful, in quiet ways.” LaHaye had to summon that strength during difficult times in her childhood. Her mother got sick with a heart condition, and LaHaye took time off school to care for her and take over her domestic responsibilities while still a teenager.

At 17, LaHaye left home to study at Bob Jones University in Greenville, South Carolina. There she met her husband Tim, then a 21-year-old veteran who had been an Air Force gunner in World War II and aspired to become a pastor. They got married a year later.

LaHaye left school to support her husband in ministry. In the early days, he made so little money serving Baptist congregations in Pumpkintown, South Carolina, and Minnetonka, Minnesota, that she had to work outside the home to financially sustain the family. Things changed in 1956, when Tim was called to a 300-member church in San Diego. Under his leadership, Scott Memorial Baptist grew into a megachurch.

In Southern California, the 27-year-old pastor’s wife threw herself into any work that needed to be done. When the position of church secretary was vacant, LaHaye filled in. When the church needed someone to direct junior Sunday school, she volunteered.

But LaHaye shrank from the spotlight when she was asked to lead Bible studies and speak to women’s groups. She was so shy that Tim called her a turtle.

“I had an inferiority complex,” LaHaye later said. “I didn’t really think I had much to offer the world.”

At the same time, she struggled with a “smoldering resentment” at the drudgery of household chores and the many menial tasks assigned to her as a wife and mother.

“Day after day I would perform the same routine procedures: picking up dirty socks, hanging up wet towels, closing closet doors, turning off lights that had been left on, creating a path through the clutter of toys,” she wrote.

While similar experiences pushed many women toward feminism, LaHaye came to think this wasn’t an issue of inequality and the unfairness of social expectations put on women. It was a spiritual issue. She believed she needed to learn submission, because “submission is God’s design for women,” and that would transform her experience of the daily tasks of a wife and mother.

“I wasn’t just picking up dirty socks for my husband,” she wrote in The Spirit-Controlled Woman. “I was serving the Lord Jesus.”

In the 1970s, LaHaybe began to overcome her timidity and start teaching others what she had learned. She and Tim started Family Life Seminars, offering eight lectures on the biblical principles they said that God gave to “guarantee the happiness and fulfillment He intended for the Christian home.” LaHaye spoke on overcoming anxiety, discipling children, “Spirit-controlled” family living, and sex.

When the youngest of LaHaye’s four children turned 18, LaHaye started publishing books. The Act of Marriage, which she coauthored with her husband in 1976, became a bestseller.

A “deliberately frank book,” The Act of Marriage told readers that “God never intended any Christian couple to spend a lifetime in the sexual wilderness of orgasmic malfunction.” In fact, “Spirit-controlled Christians” following biblical principles would “enjoy the beauty of sexual lovemaking more than anyone else.” It was commonly used in evangelical marriage counseling and premarital counseling, and the book sold more than 1 million copies a year for 20 years.

LaHaye became a political activist in 1978. As she frequently recounted over the years, she and her husband were watching the feminist Betty Friedan being interviewed on television, and she grew frustrated that Friedan acted like she represented all women. She didn’t speak for LaHaye. She didn’t speak for all the “average, normal, and traditional women” who were committed to their families, their churches, and the traditional values sustaining America, LaHaye said.

LaHaye decided to organize a coffee klatch for local women opposed to feminism and the Equal Rights Amendment, and in the process she founded Concerned Women for America.

“I was just kind of swept along,” she explained later. “The hall owners said, ‘What’s the name of the organization?’ When I said, ‘We’re just a group of ladies in the community,’ the reply was, ‘We only rent to organizations.’ … Then I said, ‘Oh, Concerned Women for America.’ I laughed when I said it—I never meant it to be serious.”

More than 1,000 people showed up at the coffee and the CWA was soon organizing chapters across the country.

“Churchwomen all over America were hungry for someone to sort out the things that would affect families and the religious values systems they had,” LaHaye said. “From there, it took off like a prairie fire.”

In the early days, the CWA rallied opposition to the Equal Rights Amendment, which would have added a prohibition to discrimination on the basis of sex to the US Constitution. The CWA, along with other conservative activists such as Phyllis Schlafly, helped the amendment from being ratified by the required 35 states.

Under LaHaye’s leadership, the group also engaged with a wide array of other political issues. The CWA put a major emphasis on opposition to abortion and mobilized women to call for prayer in schools, abstinence-only education, and parents’ rights to exempt their children from curriculum they found offensive. The organization also advocated for more military spending and raised concern about the growing Communist influence in Latin America.

The CWA opposed legal protections for the civil rights of LGBTQ people and supported laws that would prohibit them from having contact with children. LaHaye argued that homosexuality was unnatural and that gay people recruited converts through sexual abuse.

“I’m not saying they all are,” she told the Chicago Tribune, “but the movement itself is aggressively trying to go after boys.”

By the mid-1980s, the CWA boasted 500,000 dues-paying members and nearly 2,000 prayer/action groups around the country.

“When they hear about issues, women are not content to sit back and say, ‘Well, somebody’s got to do something.’ They say, ‘What can we do?’” LaHaye told CT. “We try to give them not just prayer requests, but action ideas, too. There is action at all levels, whether a woman sits at home and writes a letter, or has time to go to the nation’s capital.”

LaHaye moved to the capital herself to be “closer to the center of the action,” as she explained to the Arizona Republic in 1985. She oversaw a staff of more than 25 people, including lawyers and professional lobbyists, who pushed conservative priorities in the Reagan White House and both houses of Congress.

On some occasions, LaHaye took center stage in the national political discourse. In 1987, for example, she testified on behalf of Supreme Court nominee Robert Bork, who faced fierce opposition from liberals. She defended him at a hearing broadcast on live television and answered aggressive and tricky questions from Democratic Party leaders, including Joe Biden, then the senator from Delaware.

“Beverly would not hesitate to accept the opportunity to be the voice of Christian women,” according to a family-authorized obituary. “She always conducted herself with grace and dignity and spoke truth with strength and clarity.”

LaHaye served as president of the CWA until 2006. She retired from its board in 2020.

“Her life is a testament to the impact one woman with a vision and mission can have on the course of history,” said Penny Nance, the current president of the CWA.

LaHaye’s husband died in 2016 after 69 years of marriage. Her son Lee died the following year. LaHaye is survived by her children Linda, Larry, and Lori, as well as 9 grandchildren and 20 great-grandchildren.

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