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God's Right Hand: How Jerry Falwell Made God a Republican and Baptized the American Right Hardcover – January 17, 2012
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“Jerry Falwell plowed the field that the Tea Party is flourishing in today. In this resonant and revealing biography, Michael Sean Winters captures the man, the political movement he created, and the beliefs that continue to sustain it now. Falwell matters. Winters explains why.” (George Stephanopoulos)
“Left at the Altar describes the Democratic party’s fickle relationship with faith and values voters with passion and insight. Michael Sean Winters has lived, worked in, and studied this world. No one knows it-or tells the story-better.” (George Stephanopoulos, on LEFT AT THE ALTAR)
Winters credits Falwell with leading a movement that registered and motivated millions of voters. His legacy will be bringing a vast group of religious citizens into the voting booth. It is already hard to imagine our political landscape without them. (Commentary)
From the Back Cover
Falwell did not eliminate the divide between religion and politics. Nor did he blur it. He jumped over it, bringing millions of voters with him, and he never looked back.
—from the Introduction
Mounting concerns over the nation’s moral decline. A populist critique of cultural elitism. Disdain for government involvement in private enterprise and health care. These themes dominate our political discourse, and have for a generation’s worth of elections. And they are themes almost single-handedly brought to the fore by the Reverend Jerry Falwell. As America was questioning its most revered institutions in the wake of the Vietnam War and Jimmy Carter’s malaise, Falwell was building his own institutional strength and influence, answering a felt need for certainty in a suddenly uncertain world. In this highly anticipated major biography, Michael Sean Winters traces the polarizing pastor’s journey to reclaim America for Christ—and his tireless work to define the orthodoxy and vocabulary that the Republican Party has used to great success ever since.
Falwell was, for many, the face of Christianity in America. The child of agnostic parents, he made a name for himself as a pastor and later founded his own Christian university. Initially ambivalent about politics, his controversial Moral Majority catapulted Falwell into the political arena. His life intersected with some of the most notable figures of his time, from Ronald Reagan, whom he helped elect president, to the scandal-ridden Jim and Tammy Faye Bakker. Falwell stared down pornographers and wrestled with women’s groups. He battled with liberals and enforced a brand of orthodoxy on conservatives. He was a man of strong views—and he knew that those views were shared by millions of Americans who were disengaged with public life. Falwell led them into the public square, articulated a coherent rationale for their involvement with politics, and made them the largest and most organized constituency in the contemporary Republican Party.
Today, no Republican candidate can hope to win elections without the support of evangelicals and fundamentalists, and the Tea Party has adopted nearly wholesale the rhetoric of Falwell’s ministry. His legacy—as controversial as it is consequential—has never been more palpable.
Top customer reviews
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.
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.
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.