Politics & Policy

The Moral Majority of the Story

Jerry Falwell remembered.

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.

Richard Brookhiser

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.

Michael Cromartie

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.

Lee Edwards

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.

Ed Feulner

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.

Paul Kengor

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 .

Ralph Reed

Jerry Falwell was one of the most historic religious and political figures of the 20th century. He transformed the life of our nation, even as he never wavered from his first love and calling, which was to preach the gospel of Jesus Christ. When he founded the Thomas Road Baptist Church in 1957, fundamentalism was in the mid-throes of a half-century of withdrawal from American civic life, a self-imposed exile that had begun with the Scopes Trial of 1925. As arguably the leading fundamentalist pastor in the nation, he organized a network of independent Baptists and fundamentalists into a formidable force, moving fundamentalism back into the mainstream of American religious culture. The “fundamentals” of the Christian faith that he preached from the pulpit — the inerrancy of Scripture, the virgin birth, the substitutionary atonement, the bodily resurrection of Christ, and the imminent return of Christ — came to heavily influence a movement back to orthodoxy within American Protestantism, most dramatically represented by the return of the Southern Baptist Convention to its conservative roots. This, along with a return to orthodoxy among pro-life, observant Catholics (especially under the papacy of John Paul II, which began in 1978), marked perhaps the two most important changes in religious life in the United States in the last half century.

Falwell’s liberal critics saw him only through the prism of secularism, and so they never grasped what a groundbreaking progressive he was within fundamentalism. He insisted that the Moral Majority work with Catholics, Jews, charismatic Protestants, and Mormons, who were anathema to some of his fundamentalist colleagues. But this break with the separatist, isolationist past of fundamentalism was critical to building cooperation across denominational and doctrinal lines in the pro-family movement. It is one of his most significant and lasting achievements. His support for Israel and his work with the Jewish community were legendary. Today, there is much talk about whether the pro-family community should work on a narrow band of issues such as abortion and protecting marriage, or whether it should broaden its concerns to include foreign policy and other domestic issues. Dr. Falwell grasped from the creation of the movement that the values of social conservatism spoke to every area of public policy, including foreign affairs and defense. He was a staunch anti-Communist, a strong supporter of Israel, and a believer in religious liberty around the world.

When he founded the Moral Majority in 1979, he awakened the slumbering giant of the evangelical vote. The marriage of that vote to an ascendant, confident Republican party is among the most important political demographic changes of the last century. One could see the shadow of his presence on the stage at the South Carolina Republican presidential debate last night in Columbia, as the ten aspirants for the GOP nomination sought to connect with the evangelical voters who will decide the outcome of that primary, and probably the Republican presidential contest. The Republican majority that exists in states like South Carolina and other states across the south and midwest would have been unthinkable without the voters that Falwell helped energize.

Though not without controversy, Jerry Falwell led an enormously consequential life. Few of us who are engaged in politics failed to be touched directly or indirectly by his leadership. Many of us were fortunate to count him as a friend. He will be greatly missed. He was also wise enough to leave no void of leadership, either at his beloved Liberty University and Thomas Road Baptist Church, or at the helm of the pro-family movement he helped to birth. He is gone, but his vital work will go on, often in the hands of those he mentored and inspired, and the American people will continue to hear the clarion call of faith to which he devoted his life.

– Ralph E. Reed Jr. is president of Century Strategies and the former head of the Christian Coalition.

Gleaves Whitney

He turned Tinky Winky into an icon of the gay agenda; blamed 9/11 on the sins of abortionists, pagans, and feminists; compared Hillary Clinton’s electoral appeal to that of Lucifer; and claimed the antichrist was already among us — in the form of an adult male Jew.

Quite a lightning rod, the author of those utterances. Because Jerry Falwell was a founding father of the Christian Right, it was always easy to depict him on the margins of American politics and culture. But his impact was hardly marginal. An empire builder in the great American tradition, he rose from a hardscrabble youth to become one of the moguls of our cultural commons.

Falwell’s impact was based, first, on staggering organizational ambition, whether in religion, education, or politics. His church counts 24,000 members; his university more than 20,000 students; and the Moral Majority, in its heyday, some 100,000 clergy and seven million laypeople unified in “a pro-life, pro-family, pro-Israel, and pro-strong national defense lobbying organization.” That effort was to insure Ronald Reagan’s victory over incumbent Jimmy Carter in 1980. (Falwell could also plausibly claim that his followers made the difference in 2004 with the reelection of George W. Bush.)

Falwell’s impact was also due to a consuming passion for mass media, which enabled him to magnify the message and multiply the messengers. Within weeks of founding his new church in 1956, he launched a daily

radio and weekly television ministry that eventually reached every habitable continent. One of the pioneers of televangelism, Falwell claimed his ministries “saved” more than three million souls. He also frequently appeared as a commentator on news shows because of a talent for outraging liberal critics. Beyond the polarizing sound bites, his achievement was to flex the religious muscle in the public arena.

Falwell’s achievement is the more remarkable when set in the broader context of fundamentalism’s tension with American culture. Fundamentalists had been in the wilderness for a half century, ever since the Scopes Trial (1925). Roe v. Wade was the transforming event. A handful of televangelists, including Falwell, successfully lured white fundamentalists back into the public arena and specifically into the Republican fold in the 1970s and ‘80s (a political shift as significant as FDR’s success in luring blacks into the Democratic Party in the 1930s and ‘40s). The 2008 election — the first open election for president since 1952 — will suggest whether the marriage between fundamentalists and Republicans will last or end in estrangement.

– Gleaves Whitney is director of the Hauenstein Center for Presidential Studies at Grand Valley State University.

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