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6 of 6 people found the following review helpful
Perhaps nobody in 20th Century politics polarizes responses more completely than Jerry Falwell. Five years after his death, nobody who came of age during the 1980s or 1990s can hear Falwell’s name without strong reactions, pro or con. Yet because he cultivated such strong reactions, he remains essentially enigmatic, more a pioneer or scoundrel than a human with comprehensible motivations. Perhaps it’s time to evaluate Jerry Falwell’s complicated legacy.

Michael Sean Winters combines biography with political history to contextualize Falwell firmly within his time. An adult Christian convert, Falwell initially avoided fame, and apparently never wanted any life other than a moderately ambitious country preacher. But while he quietly constructed a remarkably forward-thinking, innovative ministry, outside forces increasingly encroached on evangelical Christian turf. In forming the Moral Majority in 1979, Falwell merely recognized the signs of the times.

Following the PR nightmare of the Scopes “monkey trial,” evangelicals thought they’d struck a new bargain. They’d abstain from politics, and society would leave them alone. But postwar America didn’t honor its bargain. By 1979, cultural trends that remain conservative rhetorical staples—liberal media bias, secular vulgarity, government intrusion into church ethics—occurred, in ways they hadn’t before or since. Evangelicals felt compelled to act, and Falwell took point.

Before Falwell, public Christianity honored progressives like Reinhold Niebuhr and Dr. King. Falwell’s Moral Majority movement changed that dynamic. By spotlighting sexual ethics, especially abortion and homosexuality, Falwell broadened the scope of possibility in political ethics, a broadening made especially complex by his open alliance with one political party. He recast ethical issues as moral crises, urging his delicate alliance of evangelicals, Catholics, and Jews to the battlements often.

Falwell read American culture with remarkably savvy aplomb. He used changing media to motivate supporters, register voters, and attract money. Though his business management skills often fumbled, Falwell’s ideological leadership kept his constituents’ issues in the public debate. Before him, American Christians voted with both parties impartially. But Falwell so skillfully packaged private ethical issues alongside economic and policy concerns that he essentially realigned political parties along religious lines.

But, contra his critics, Falwell didn’t try to silence critics or enforce state-based religion on America. As Winters deftly demonstrates, Falwell relished electoral challenges, and wanted to win debates, not squelch them. Media moguls loved his affable folksy charm. And he remained visible in part behind his pathological inability to hold a grudge; some of his strongest ideological opponents, including Ted Kennedy and Larry Flynt, became close personal friends.

By his own admission, Falwell faced even sterner charges from the extreme right than the left. He disavowed extremists who wanted theocracy, opposed demagogues who advocated death for homosexuals and abortionists, and condemned Reverend Fred Phelps. Falwell’s liberal opponents may be surprised to learn how much criticism Falwell endured for not being conservative enough. But Falwell had real human goals, and couldn’t stomach unthinking doctrine, even from nominal allies.

Winters’ biography, though, is hardly a hagiography; a Christian himself, he spotlights many costs Falwell inflicted on American Christianity. In fighting secularism in political debates, Falwell needed allies, which required him to soften doctrine. Essentially, he reduced Christian beliefs to mere public ethics, diluting Christianity’s claims to uniqueness. This became especially pointed during the Reagan Administration, when Falwell enjoyed intimate access, and molded spiritual concerns to match party orthodoxy.

Essentially, Falwell wanted to pastor a church, and his political involvement stemmed from his ministerial goals. But he also wanted human recognition, and other people often look more concrete than God. In his desire to be liked, Falwell compromised important religious positions, often scoring short-term gains, but by by weakening his Scriptural foundation. He eventually found himself less defensible, less popular, less equipped for vital public debates.

Worse, by making Christianity look rich, white, and polarizing, he made his faith unappealing to anybody who didn’t share his Eisenhower-era heritage. By 2000, atheists and religiously unaffiliated persons became a significant bloc for the first time in American history, and they mostly voted against Falwell’s positions. Though he admits such developments generally arise from multiple causes, Winters lays part of the blame squarely on Jerry Falwell.

Two generations after hitting the national stage, and five years after his death, Jerry Falwell’s legacy remains distinctly mixed, a jumble of sweeping accomplishments and missed opportunities, electoral triumph and theological debacle. Winters provides the clear-eyed, dispassionate analysis Falwell’s legacy deserves. If religious and non-religious Americans want rapprochement, it’ll come only through Falwell’s shadow. And that means we must understand this complex, powerful man.
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16 of 21 people found the following review helpful
on January 18, 2012
I've not made it fully through this important book, but it's sharp-edged analysis is breathtaking in what it unearths. Foremost is Winters' startlingly insight that today's political landscape -- its fault lines and battlegrounds and ideological armaments -- derive not from Reagan and his so-called revolution, but rather from the mind and manipulations of Jerry Falwell and the Moral Majority he built and deployed into partisan politics. With careful archival and historical research, moreover, Winters shows both how Falwell was able to accomplish this as well as revealing the peculiar architecture of mind, psychology, and theology behind it all. Many books of punditry and opinion purport to explain the origins of contemporary American politics, in God's Right Hand Winter's does the scholar's task of tracing real history. Highly recommended...
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10 of 14 people found the following review helpful
HALL OF FAMEon February 25, 2012
Author Winters credits Reverend Falwell with building a disdain for government involvement in private enterprise and health care, and bringing his Moral Majority and millions of voters over the divide between religion and politics - mostly landing in the Republican Party where they've also mostly remained. Ironically, Falwell was the child of agnostic parents, and initially ambivalent about mixing religion and politics.

Falwell's interest in politics grew out of the Supreme Court's decisions on abortion, banning prayer in public schools, and taking away the tax-exempt status of religous schools, combined with the later push for gay rights. Republicans were already benefiting from a backlash against Civil Rights legislation - adding these religious issues helped put into the majority in many locations.

Falwell was a fundamentalist (saw the Bible as literally true) Baptist preacher. That immediately put him on the 'wrong side' (my opinion) of valuing intellectual curiosity (not). Winters also tells us that fundamentalists are generally more strident and inflexible than evangelists. Regardless, Falwell's political strength involved bringing fundamentalists such as himself together with evangelicals, and conservative Catholics and Jews.

Falwell's religion also became synonymous with patriotism and the tenet that American greatness is self-evident and divinely rooted. (Winters, however, does not explain the religious rationale for this connection. Likely explanations include America's attraction to millions of immigrants over hundreds of years, and some Puritans' belief that God had chosen them to lead the other nations of the Earth.)

Minimal government size and involvement (eg. health care) was another aspect of Falwell's 'theology,' based on his belief that bigger government brought socialism, and socialism was just a step away from Godless Communism.

Also per Falwell, America's Founding Fathers (FF) were deeply religious - despite considerable evidence either that a)their vision of God was one with uninvolved in human affairs (Deism), or b)they didn't believe in God at all. (Why Falwell pushed this supposed link between the FF and religion - Winters doesn't explain that either. Probably because it supported American exceptionalism.)

Finally, Winters reports that Falwell believed the Bible mandated support for the nation of Israel. (Guess where that's led American foreign policy!)

Bottom-Line: 'God's Right Hand' was very useful in improving my understanding of the origin of much of conservative politics and foreign policy today today. Another source credit's Falwell's continued strength today for having boosted McCain's 2008 campaign by selecting Sarah Palin - a 'Falwell type.'
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on June 22, 2015
With the increasing secularization of society in the 1960s and 70s Evangelical and Fundamentalist pastors took up the call of Christian Reconstructionist theologians to "reclaim America for Christ." Jerry Falwell became the leader and spokesperson of this movement to politicize Christians and wage culture wars.

Michael Sean Winters has written a very informative biography of Falwell. As Winters points out, Falwell's entry into politics and culture battles diverted the church from its mission of spreading the Gospel of Jesus Christ. For followers of Falwell and like-minded Christians "morality" in America became the issue, not the salvation of souls. Dismissing the Bible teaching that Christians were foreigners and exiles in this world (II Peter 2:11), Falwell encouraged an idolatrously patriotic attachment to America. It would be difficult to overestimate the damage done to the church's witness by Falwell and other nationalistic Christians. "(Falwell) did not see, as many still do not see, that by reducing religion to ethics in order to gain access to the public square, he was participating in the privatizing of religion and thereby aiding the very secularization he sought to defeat" (p. 115).

As secularism advances Christians are increasingly less able to impact public opinion and government policy. Perhaps now we can concentrate on spreading the "Good News" of salvation through Jesus Christ rather than distributing Republican Party campaign literature.

This book is not without its flaws. Winters, a Roman Catholic who tips his hat to 30 priests in his acknowledgements, is not above favorably comparing leaders from his denomination with gaffe-prone, shoot-from-the-hip Falwell. Also, information about Falwell's personal life is minimal at best.
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1 of 2 people found the following review helpful
on June 30, 2012
The negative reviews for this book are from individuals that obviously did not read the book. They reflect the statement by Winters in the book - "those who denounced Falwell as intolerant had their own intolerances."

Concerning the book, the author provides a biography that showed the strengths and weaknesses of Jerry Falwell. The author's views, which are interjected occasionally as commentary, do not distract from a sound biography on Falwell's life. I actually attended Liberty University in the early-1980s during the heyday of the Moral Majority and though I distanced myself from some of the ultra-conservative views over the years, I always had a respect for the genuine love and concern that Jerry showed to people that he met. Then he seemed like a bigger than life character and today he is easily dismissed as an intolerant,homophobic right-wing extremist. He was none of those qualities and his influence remains today. Whether it is in the religious right or Tea Party movement in today's politics, there is a segment of society that is concerned about the moral relativism of society and the lost of religious freedom in America. This small town, fundamentalist preacher gave them a voice in the 1980s.

The book follows Falwell through his early life growing up in Lynchburg to his death. Much of the middle portion of the book deals with the Moral Majority years and his political influential years. The chapter on his battle and later friendship with Larry Flynt was insightful and entertaining. The last few chapters deal with the Jim Bakker scandal, the expansion of Liberty University, the Clinton years where Falwell was again on the defense and his final years. In the epilogue, Winters gives an overview of Falwell's impact on our culture in the later portion of the 20th century. I highly recommend this book.
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1 of 2 people found the following review helpful
on August 26, 2012
God's Right Hand is a well written book that helps the reader to understand Falwell's background and the impact of his life. The author is not seeking to demonize Falwell, or to ignore Falwell's more divisive activity, but presents a well researched summary of the man's life. I learned a lot about how Falwell began one of the first mega-churches in America, and the impact that he had in influencing the Republican party in the 1980s. Overall an excellent biography that helps the reader understand American Christianity through one of the most visible figures.
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8 of 13 people found the following review helpful
on January 21, 2012
Winters' exhaustive research sheds new light on the profound and lasting impact Falwell has had on American politics, most notably the rise of social and religious conservatism; Falwell's fingerprints are all over the dogma of the Tea Party. A balanced and trenchant biography that is particularly relevant this election year.
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3 of 6 people found the following review helpful
on September 17, 2012
I purchased this book to try to understand what Winters would say about the tragic suicide of my brother and Falwell's part in making a film that accused the President of the United States of murdering Vince Foster. The film was peddled widely for months on TV and it profitted hundreds of thousands of dollars, maybe more. I wanted some insight into what drove a man who had done so much good for so many people, had built church upon church upon church, and had achieved a measure of influence through hard work and ingenuity and unerring belief in himself to stoop to such a rotten act for political purposes.

The writer gives short shrift to this sorry episode, and for that reason the book disappointed me. However, he writes skilfully and produces a wealth of material about Falwell's rise to power within the Baptist Church, the Moral Majority, and the Republican party. Unquestionably, Falwell used the Republican politicians, and they used him to achieve their mutual ends. But his shilling for the far right caused taxpayers to spend millions of dollars funding government investigations to prove wrong Falwell's scurrilous accusation about the President. And he caused untold and prolonged grief to Vince Foster's family.

This book is well worth reading about an imperfect man of our time.
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0 of 2 people found the following review helpful
on January 18, 2013
Jerry Falwell did so much good for the nation. This behind the scene look at his ministry from someone that may not appreciate him offers things one that does appreciate him may not learn otherwise.
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3 of 12 people found the following review helpful
VINE VOICEon January 18, 2012
We have seen of late some extraordinary icons of intolerance and of hate had their lives rewritten, such as J. Edgar (Two-Disc Blu-ray/DVD Combo + UltraViolet Digital Copy) prettified and Glenn Close's The Iron Lady (Blu-ray/DVD Combo + Digital Copy) softened and made sympathetic.

Now we get the repugnant bigot Falwell revisited without research through rose colored lenses.

What's next,

Pinochet, Champion of Truth and Justice?

Franco the Friendly?

Wojtyla the Wondergod?

Reagan the Reasonable?

We've already seen Pat Robertson's white wash of the genocidal maniac Efrain Rios Montt, servant or dictator?: The real story of Guatemala's controversial born-again president.

Nevertheless, for whom is this extended puff piece intended? Moreover, can it pass academic muster?

Perhaps at Falwells' own Liberty U, or Domino's Ave Maria?

How soon before the Republican Catholic bishops buy out, bail out, Liberty U like they did the Crystal Cathedral, instead of serving, of liberating, the poor?

What audience does this book address, to deceive?

We remember Falwell, well, and this Falwell fails to fall well.

In the eighties Republicans found fashionable and profitable finding falsely "revisionist" history, when African Americans and women and other oppressed populations examined our history from the point of view of the enslaved. We had of course all along such primary sources as Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave & Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl (Modern Library Mass Market Paperbacks), but we never read them as historical documents. And when suddenly people began to read them, this was discouraged and disparaged as practicing revisionist history.

So it is quite strange now to find the same people actually performing pruning revisionist history upon such monsters as these.

Anyway, this title, God's Right Hand?

Why does it make me think UNWILLINGLY of something UNWATCHABLE from some lame Ali G routine?
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