WASHINGTON (ABP) — A Southern Baptist layman credited with being the “godfather” of the modern Religious Right is dead at age 78.
Ed McAteer died after a long battle with myeloma, a form of cancer, on the morning of Oct. 6 at his home in Memphis, Tenn. His wife, Faye, was with him when he passed away.
In the late 1970s, McAteer became convinced that the nation was on a declining moral trajectory. He left a successful career as a salesman and executive with Colgate-Palmolive to enter political advocacy.
He soon became one of the driving forces in convincing Jerry Falwell, the conservative Baptist television preacher, to enter politics in the late 1970s. McAteer — along with Religious Right activists Paul Weyrich, Paul Viguerie and Howard Phillips — helped Falwell found the Moral Majority in 1979.
Although the Moral Majority no longer exists, it was the first major organization encouraging fundamentalist Protestants to get involved in secular politics.
“Ed was a gigantic figure, starting in the late '70s on through the '80s, in the life of America in the conservative — especially the religious — right,” said Tom Lindberg, a family friend and co-author of a recent biography of the activist. “Jerry Falwell has said that there would not have been a Moral Majority if it had not been for Ed McAteer. Ed has been a titanic figure in that.”
McAteer organized the first National Affairs Briefing, which brought about 15,000 pastors and other conservative Christian activists to Dallas in 1980. At that meeting, then-presidential candidate Ronald Reagan — by most accounts a nominal Presbyterian — cemented his ties to the Religious Right by famously declaring, “I know you can't endorse me, but I endorse you.”
According to Lindberg, who is pastor of Memphis' First Assembly of God, that event “catapulted Reagan toward the forefront” of the presidential race among evangelicals — even though he was running against incumbent Democrat Jimmy Carter, an avowed born-again Southern Baptist.
The meeting drew national headlines for Reagan's statement, as well as publicity surrounding comments by Southern Baptist pastor Bailey Smith. He received heavy criticism for telling National Affairs Briefing participants, “God Almighty does not hear the prayer of a Jew.”
According to Americans United for Separation of Church and State, which has tracked McAteer's career, the Memphis activist was passed over as director of the Moral Majority, but soon founded his own organization, the Religious Roundtable. He directed the group until his death.
McAteer — a longtime member of Memphis' Bellevue Baptist Church — devoted much of his time in subsequent years to building support among evangelical Christians for the modern state of Israel. He organized regular prayer breakfasts “for the love and support of Israel,” Lindberg said, in both the United States and in Jerusalem. His most recent pro-Israel prayer breakfast took place in Memphis earlier this year.
The activist's support for the Jewish state owed to his adherence to an interpretation of the Bible that claims the present-day version of Israel continues to have a special relationship with God and role in biblical prophecy, according to Dallas minister Mark Wingfield.
“Ed McAteer epitomized a certain strain of Southern Baptist fundamentalism that is focused in on Israel's role in premillenial dispensational theology as the key to understanding the world,” said Wingfield, who knew McAteer from his previous career in Baptist journalism. “His whole worldview was built around eschatology — it was his driving passion.”
But McAteer also became frustrated with the Religious Right's lack of success in achieving many of its policy goals, Wingfield said.
Although he midwifed a movement that led many conservative evangelicals into the Republican Party, McAteer sometimes felt as if the party did little to return the favor.
For example, in 2001, a host of conservative religious and political leaders lobbied newly elected President George W. Bush to appoint McAteer as ambassador to Israel. But Bush passed him over for Daniel Kurtzer, a former ambassador to Egypt. “We were dropped like a hot potato once they got out of these Christians what they wanted,” Wingfield quoted McAteer as saying, in an article for the Texas Baptist Standard.
McAteer “was one of the few people who grew weary of political leaders making promises to the Religious Right to get elected, and then not keeping them,” Wingfield said. “Which is, in time, what drove him to support more and more fringe candidates. He's a fascinating case study of a true believer.”
McAteer's health had declined dramatically over the last two years of his life, and particularly over the three months prior to his death, according to his friend and neighbor in Memphis, A.J. Adelson.
Nonetheless, McAteer was still completing speaking assignments, “even when he shouldn't have been, mentally or physically,” right up to the time of his death, Adelson said. “Ed was so dedicated he wouldn't slow down.”