Rev. Jerry Falwell, founder of Liberty University and the Moral Majority, died on Tuesday at age 73. National Review Online asked a group of political observers to reflect on his political impact.
Garry Wills wrote that educated America periodically rediscovers the existence of millions of pious Americans. For the first 25 years of my life, most people like myself thought that the Scopes trial had settled the hash of evangelicals. Inherit the Wind was a staple of high-school drama departments, right up there with The Fantasticks and The Crucible. The hip might have taken a Camille Paglia view, the Orientalism of the American south — holy rolling as the fecund soil of Jerry Lee Lewis. Negroes could sing and pray, but that was all right, because they were Numinous. Not white folk. Jerry Falwell said: Wait a second.
How the nations raged. Bart Giamatti, president of Yale, a decent and (for his station) conservative man, treated Falwell far more harshly than Yale would later treat its Taliban student. Then along came Pat Robertson. More apoplexy.
They weren’t always on the side of the angels. The religious Right became a movement, then an establishment, with all the ills that form of success is heir to. There was also a viciousness to intra-religious Right politicking which was as bad as Tammany knee-groining: the charges that flew from and towards the Robertson campaign during the 1988 Iowa caucuses were particularly revolting; poor Mitt Romney ain’t seen nothing. Robertson also put his name to a lunatic book of anti-Masonic conspiracy theories, straight out of the Illuminatus trilogy. When I once asked Ralph Reed about it, he smiled and said Pat probably never read it.
By then, Jerry Falwell was an emeritus eminence. I first heard him preach late in the game, in the late 80s, and wrote about it in The Way of the WASP. He said the most important thing in his life was to be a planter of evangelical churches. He seemed to mean it. R.I.P.
– Richard Brookhiser is a senior editor of National Review and author of What Would the Founders Do?: Our Questions, Their Answers.
For the first 45 years of his life, the Rev. Jerry Falwell believed what the majority of fundamentalist Protestants believed about political activism and public involvement: He was adamantly against it. In the 1960s he preached against the active involvement of Christian ministers in the civil-rights movement, specifically speaking out against the Rev. Martin Luther King’s peaceful demonstrations. Years later, he recanted and repented of those views and said so from his pulpit.
When he founded the Moral Majority as an ecumenical and inter-religious effort to mobilize religious conservatives to become politically active, he received public criticism from people on the political Left and, surprising too many, from fellow fundamentalists who thought such political efforts were a form of the social gospel (one fundamentalist leader called Falwell a “tool of Satan” for setting up such a political organization).
Falwell mobilized millions of here-to-for apolitical fundamentalists to become more active in civic life and public policy disputes and his work deserves much credit for the political victories of Ronald Reagan in 1980 and 1984. His movement was a “defensive offensive” (Nathan Glazer’s term) against Supreme Court decisions, especially Roe v. Wade, that caused Falwell, and other fundamentalists leaders, to reconsider their former negative view of politics.
American politics has never been the same and the ongoing influence of religious conservatives will remain a powerful (if often overstated) force in our public life.
Whether one agrees or disagrees with Falwell’s theology, politics, style, or tactics, the work he began in the late 70s has kept many moral and social issues of great consequence at the forefront of our public conversation. And that is not a small accomplishment.
– Michael Cromartie is vice president of the Ethics and Public Policy Center in Washington, D.C.
Until Jerry Falwell founded the Moral Majority, the Christian Right had ceded the political realm to the Christian Left, as represented by the National Council of Churches and similar groups. With the emergence of the Moral Majority and its successors such as the Christian Coalition, the Christian Right became a major player in American politics. It helped defeat a dozen liberal Democrats in Senate races in 1978 and 1980, helped Ronald Reagan win a landslide victory in 1980, and provided the essential ground troops for conservative candidates over the next quarter of a century. Reverend Falwell was certainly a man of God, but he was also an organizational genius whose political legacy will be with us for years to come.
– Lee Edwards, distinguished fellow in conservative thought at the Heritage Foundation, is the author of many books about American conservatism, including the first political biography of Ronald Reagan.
A man of deep faith, the Rev. Dr. Jerry Falwell was an unapologetic spokesman for the Judeo-Christian values on which America is based.
He was steadfast in his religious beliefs, and steadfast in his view that every American owes it to future generations to get involved in the public arena. Yet this steadfast man was always willing to listen and to learn — and, where appropriate, to humbly confess error.
In the political realm, he will be most remembered for his role in founding the Moral Majority — the organization that galvanized evangelicals into political action in the late 1970s and helped Ronald Reagan win a landslide victory in the 1980 election.
A founding father of the religious Right, his success in encouraging millions of Americans to engage in political action will be a major part of his legacy.
– Ed Feulner is the president of the Heritage Foundation.
Like or dislike him, love him or hate him, it will be hard to imagine not having Jerry Falwell around. Maybe we should borrow from Richard Nixon? The Left should be quite saddened by this, because it won’t have old Falwell to kick around anymore.
Not to say that he never deserved criticism, but the Left was very unfair to the man, turning him into a handy caricature. I learned early on to always double check any news story on the guy. I often found that what was reported was actually quite different from what he really said or meant. Of course, he was such a lightning rod, and was never afraid to leap into the most sensitive, controversial battles.
That said, here is something that will not be acknowledged in obituaries and hit pieces that try to frame him as a theocrat: Falwell and many of those in the Moral Majority got involved in politics not because they were sticking their nose where it didn’t belong but because they saw what happened to the culture and to their country when they were not involved in politics. Falwell was a reaction, a response to the nation’s moral drift in the 1960s and beyond. Many of those who followed him, like Pat Robertson, had been committed Democrats. They saw the Republican party, beginning primarily under Reagan in the 1980s, as the only home for them, especially on moral issues like abortion. They agreed with Reagan that the Democratic party left them, not that they had left the Democratic party. And it was once Falwell and his followers identified so strongly with the Republican party that they forever made themselves enemies of the secular Left that dominates our media and culture.
– Paul Kengor is author of The Crusader: Ronald Reagan and the Fall of Communism and associate professor of political science at Grove City College in Grove City, Pa. He is also director of the Center for Vision & Values at Grove City College.
John J. Miller
Many obituarists will call Jerry Falwell divisive. I don’t have a strong opinion on the subject. But I did interview him once, last fall, for a National Review article about evangelicals and Mitt Romney. In our conversation, Falwell emphasized inclusion: “We’re not electing a Sunday-school teacher, we’re electing a president.” Polls suggest that many Americans, on both the Right and the Left, aren’t so open-minded about the possibility of a Mormon in the White House. On this question, at least, Falwell was a voice of tolerance.
– John J. Miller is national political reporter for National Review and the author, most recently, of A Gift of Freedom: How the John M. Olin Foundation Changed America.
Fr. Richard John Neuhaus
He exulted in the role of the country cousin, and leader of other country cousins, who crashed the national family reunion. In the mid-Seventies Jimmy Carter announced that he was an “evangelical,” prompting reporters to query the experts about a species that was supposed to have been extinguished, or at least held in captivity somewhere down south, following the “monkey trial” of 1925. After Carter’s election, many, if not most, evangelicals quickly discovered that he was not an evangelical the way that they were evangelicals. They were still strangers in their own land and, like Howard Beale of Network, they were not going to take it anymore. Thus was launched the “religious Right,” and in its front ranks the unabashedly boisterous Rev. Falwell delightedly playing to stereotype. He had other notable achievements, of course. He was pastor of a megachurch, and then there is Liberty University, which is nothing to sniff at, although that has not stopped the sniffing. In American histories rightly told he will be more than a footnote. As much as anyone, he precipitated a reconfiguration of our public life whereby democracy has been reinvigorated by the inclusion of millions of citizens determined to have a say in how we order our life together. May he rest in peace where the sounds of battle are no more.
– Fr. Richard John Neuhaus is editor-in-chief of First Things .