The Moral Majority has quietly disowned its Maryland chapter after a year in which the chapter's lobbying resulted in a series of public embarrassemtns and conflicts with the national organization and made no significant political inroads in the diverse but strongly Democratic state.
The Rev. Jerry Falwell's conservative Christian organization disbanded its aggressive Maryland affiliate a few weeks ago and began planning for a new group after its executive director complained that the state organization at times held the Moral Majority up to ridicule and was ignoring important national issues.
"They said they didn't like our style," said Jim Wright, the 24-year-old executive director of the now-banished group, which will continue to lobby on family issues under the name Family Protection Lobby. "There were personality conflicts."
"Its tactics and methods were not compatible" with the national efforts of the Moral Majority, said the group's executive director, Ronald S. Godwin of Lynchburg, Va. It was Godwin who forced the split, according to Wright, after the state group made headlines for assults on "lewd" gingerbread cookies and threats to state lawmakers to vote the "right" way.
The break and the decision to start a new Maryland chapter underscore the Moral Majority's concern about its controversial image and its desire to maintain control over supposedly autonomous state groups using the Moral Majority name and platform.
While the split is a commentary on the internal workings of the Christian Right group begun by Falwell, the nation's best known electronic evangelist, it also reflects the experience of a group of political novices who had an unerring instinct for picking the wrong issue and annoying the wrong people in a state that rarely has been fertile ground for conservative political organizations.
The Maryland Moral Majority was the 49th of the state chapters organized by Falwell's supporters, and the late start was a harbinger of the difficulty the branch of the Christian Right would have in establishing itself as a political force in Maryland.
Indeed, as soon as the group was organized in June 1980 following one of Falwell's "God and Country" rallies at Prince George's County's Riverdale Baptist Church, the state's largest independent Baptist institution, it encountered dificulties.
Although an executive board of eight was set up -- composed of independent Baptist ministers associated with Falwell and members of a conservative Christian political action committee recently active in Maryland -- the group was unable to win the sort of support it has in Bible Belt states.
"They just didn't respond," said the group's chairman, the Rev. Herbert Fitzpatrick, pastor of Riverdale Baptist and a close friend of Falwell's who serves on the board of his Liberty Baptist Seminary in Lynchburg. "They weren't attending meetings like they should have."
One reason, Fitzpatrick concedes, was the political composition of a state that regularly has elected liberal and moderate officials and is dominated by the Washington suburbs and Baltimore. Another was that Falwell's fundamentalist constituency was not numerous enough in Maryland to build an organization by itself and the group's conservative politics was not the stuff of coalitions in a religiously mixed state.
When Wright traveled around the state last summer and fall, giving slide shows and trying to attract new members, he says he found "a lot of religious prejudice" and suspicion about the coalition the Moral Majority was seeking. The fundamentalist ministers were worried about polluting themselves by political associations with other denominations or religions and the state's Catholics, Mormons and Jews felt the Moral Majority, with its fundamentalist orientation, had a bias against them.
Through the initial Falwell rally, which attracted about 2,000 believers, and Wright's trips and contacts with antiabortion groups, the organization was able to convince 150 churches, mostly Baptist, to participate or at least follow the group's efforts. By last winter, Wright said, nearly 2,000 individuals had contacted Wright to say they were interested in Moral Majority efforts and the group had increased its monthly contributions from $2,000 to $5,000.
Some, like Eddie Wright, 45, a former District of Columbia policeman who attends Fitzpatrick's Riverdale Baptist Church, heard about the fledgling Maryland organization at church and joined because they had seen Falwell on television and liked what he stood for -- "going back to the family being in control."
Others, like the Rev. Oren Perdue, head of an Eastern Shore fundamentalist church, joined because they were sick of liberal and "atheistic" government. Still others had been active for years in the antiabortion movement and figured the Moral Majority, with its national renown, could win that fight.
Almost as soon as the membership list began to grow and an Annapolis office was set up, problems with the national organization began. For the most part, they centered on Wright, who was elected executive director because he had spent a General Assembly session as a legislative aide and had worked in the unseccessful U.S. Senate camapign last fall of John Brennan, an antiabortion candidate. The experience made him the group's political expert and from then on he set the group's agenda.
It had not taught Wright much about the subtleties of politics, however, and within a few weeks of setting up an Annapolis office Wright had run afoul of state legislators, the news media and, finally, the national Moral Majority itself.
First came the news media. Not long after the Maryland Moral Majority set up in Annapolis, Wright discovered that a bakery was selling gingerbread cookies in the shape of naked men and women, He called a press conference to demand that the cookies be swept from the bakery shelves and that the owners be prosecuted.
The press conference produced no arrests but a wave of national publicity and a huge increase in the bakery's business. In the midst of the uproar, which gave skeptical political and religious leaders their first opportunity to poke public fun at the Moral Majority, Fitzpatrick received a telephone call from a disturbed national office. Having recently emerged from a national controversy over a minister's remark that God does not hear the prayers of Jews, it did not need more missteps.
"That thing was embarrassing," said Fitzpatrick. "It was very embarrassing to Jerry . . . to get sidetracked on something like that when there are the larger issues." Said Godwin: "That kind of activity holds many of our important efforts up to ridicule." Said Wright: "It was a mistake."
A few weeks later the national office again was calling Fitzpatrick to complain. Dozen of angry state legislators had called to report that the state Moral Majority and its brash young executive director had made threats in lobbying against a bill that would allow health aides in public schools to discuss contraception and abortion.
The legislators made some threats of their own and, according to Wright, Godwin decided that the lobbying effort on the measure should be stopped. Despite Godwin's decision, the state group continued its efforts, which so annoyed lawmakers that for a time most pledged to support the bill simply as a slap at the Moral Majority. The measure was defeated only after the Catholic Archdiocese belatedly said it opposed it.
"If the national office had been lobbying at Annapolis it wouldn't've done it that way [threatening people]," said Godwin. "There seemed to be a lack of a reward system for being friends of ours."
By the end of the General Assembly session, in fact, there was almost uniform agreement among the state's political leaders, liberal and conservative alike, that the Maryland Moral Majority had tried to play hardball politics but had done little more than look foolish.
It had incorrectly listed bill numbers in leaflets, targeted measures that were not under consideration this year, and took credit for successes that were guaranteed long before the Moral Majority was on the scene.
"I think they sort of laid a bomb there," said state Sen. Edward Thomas (R-Frederick). "The problem with the Moral Majority is that although philosophically I agree with a great number of their issues, if you're not with them 100 percent you're a bad guy."
In mid-February, Godwin told Fitzpatrick and Wright that the state affiliate had not paid enough attention to the Moral Majority's national goals, citing its recent decision to ignore the parent organization's request that all state branches strongly come out in support of Israel.
A month later Godwin told the state executive board that same thing and said that a divorce was necessary. It was the first time the Moral Majority had decided to boot one of its affiliates from the fold.
When the group disbanded on June 1, about half of the 12 board members said they would stay with the now-unaffiliated Family Protection Lobby. Godwin says he expects to set up a new chapter this summer, one that will be headed by Fitzpatrick but more carefully controlled by the national office.
As for Jim Wright, he says he will continue to run the Family Protection Lobby, with its monthly newspaper, 20,000-person mailing list and 2,000 occasional contributing members. His group will focus on state issues.
Wright says he does not take his renunciation by the national office personally or hold it against Falwell. "I was with Jerry a week and a half ago at the White House and I went up to him and said, 'I want you to know that I'm 100 percent behind you.' I don't think Jerry to this day knows exactly what went on. Getting to him sometimes is like trying to get to the pope."