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A Prayer for Jerry Falwell
on November 24, 2013
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.