For over 25 years Jerry Falwell has helped to define the public face of Christian fundamentalism — both for Americans and Europeans — and his death yesterday has critics and admirers scrambling to define his legacy. Lost amid the cacophony, though, is a larger sense of the significance of Christianity to America’s democratic government.
Albert Mohler, president of the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, admiringly described a man “awakened to a sense of political and social responsibility.” Columnist Susan Jacoby, by contrast, saw nothing but “bigotry, xenophobia, anti-modernism, and utter stupidity.” The headlines in the Guardian
and The Independent
noted Falwell’s infamous remarks blaming the 9/11 attacks on feminists and gays. Much of the reader response to his death is too offensive to reprint here.
To be sure, Falwell could be a man of seemingly glaring contradictions. During the struggle for civil rights in the 1960s, he sermonized against mixing religion and politics. “Believing the Bible as I do, I would find it impossible to stop preaching the pure saving gospel of Jesus Christ and begin doing anything else — including the fighting of communism, or participating in the civil rights reform,” he said. “Preachers are not called to be politicians, but to be soul winners.”
Yet in 1979 Falwell founded the Moral Majority, a political-action group that helped elect Ronald Reagan. As a fundamentalist, he regarded believers in other Christian traditions — including evangelicals such as Billy Graham — with deep suspicion. Nevertheless, his Moral Majority united fundamentalists, Mormons, Catholics, and Jews on a pro-life, pro-family agenda. At its peak, the organization grew to 6.5 million members with a budget of more than $100 million.
Claiming he was weary of being a “lightning rod” for criticism, Falwell quit the Moral Majority in 1987 to focus on preaching at his Thomas Road Baptist Church in Lynchburg, Va., and building Liberty University. Yet he maintained a significant presence in American politics. During the Clinton years, he claimed to have a video implicating the president in illegal activity. He actively backed George Bush in the 2000 presidential race. In 2004, he organized the Faith and Values Coalition as a “21st century resurrection of the Moral Majority,” in order to support anti-abortion judges and a constitutional amendment banning gay marriage.
Falwell was a partisan — a staunch Republican — who nevertheless lambasted the party for its failure to push aggressively for his conservative agenda. He was a patriot — he believed that America was “founded as a Christian nation” — yet suspected that the nation’s cultural decline (brought on, in his view, by abortionists, pagans, gays, and feminists) had caused the 9/11 attacks. “Living by God’s principles promotes a nation to greatness,” he said, “violating those principles brings a nation to shame.”
Falwell’s contradictions continue to define too much of conservative Christianity in America. The assumption that America lays claim to a “covenant” relationship with God, the confusion of the gospel of Christ with a party platform, the narrow definition of a “moral agenda” in American politics — all were among the unseemly aspects of Falwell’s activism that survive his death.
Yet there are other elements of Falwell’s legacy that are worth recalling on both sides of the Atlantic. For one thing, he helped religious believers of all stripes take their civic and political responsibilities more seriously. Today Christian conservatives are perhaps the most politically active and important voting bloc in America. Though many find aspects of their agenda objectionable — their pro-life position or support for Israel, for example — their impressive advocacy on behalf of international human rights is widely respected. No constituency has fought harder for peace in Sudan, for laws against the sexual trafficking of women, or for America’s global AIDS policy. No group has done more to bring attention to the human rights atrocities of the North Korean regime. Sadly, these issues were never taken up by the Moral Majority, but it helped to lay the groundwork for this kind of engagement.
Equally important, Falwell’s political efforts united believers of wildly diverse religious views in common cause. America is defined by its pluralism, and yet it sustains a level of civic peace and democratic stability that is the envy of the world. It could be argued that Falwell’s political activism is one of the reasons. Catholics, Baptists, Presbyterians, Lutherans, Mormons, Jews, Hindus — and, increasingly, Muslims — work together peacefully on a range of social and moral issues. They’ve been doing so for the better part of a quarter century. That makes it less likely that they’ll demonize one another in the future.
Falwell’s critics — such as Polly Toynbee of The Guardian or Susan Thistlethwaite of Chicago Theological Seminary — like to compare his Christian fundamentalism to Islamic radicalism. They see the same brooding hatreds at work. “The world can no longer afford the kind of absolutist religion and politics Rev. Falwell helped to popularize,” Thistlethwaite snapped. “It will literally be fatal.”
Yet any calm reflection on Falwell’s record exposes that characterization as pure sophistry. Falwell was strenuously opposed to abortion, for example, but he was quick to denounce any violence committed against abortion doctors and he supported programs for unwed mothers. He sometimes used inflammatory biblical language to describe the culture wars in America. But he utterly rejected any notion of a theocratic state or Christian jihad. What many of Falwell’s critics find so offensive is the idea that religious ideals — particularly those in the Judeo-Christian tradition — should help shape our politics. That secularizing approach, so popular in so much of Europe, does not appear to be producing more humane or just societies. It cannot, in the end, sustain a democratic society.
Jerry Falwell had his faults, excesses, and ego. His style of politics has no doubt contributed to the public rancor over religion. But think about it: The most frightening outcome of his activism was not a cadre of suicide bombers, or a culture of nihilistic rage, or a network of terrorists plotting to destroy the foundations of Western civilization. The most frightening outcome of Falwell’s activism was the mobilization of middle-class citizens to join school boards and city councils, to launch lobbying campaigns and voter-registration drives, to participate in local and national elections.
We call that democracy.
– Joseph Loconte, a senior fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center and a commentator for National Public Radio, writes a weekly column for the London-based BritainAndAmerica.com