Politics & Policy

Power to the People

The way Jerry Falwell came into our lives.

Back in 1967 and ’68, when I was on the anti-war Left, on the board of Clergy and Laity Concerned about Vietnam, I often found myself giving lectures around the country, and feeling uncomfortable with the contempt for the United States shown by elements of the Left — and for policemen and firemen, “the pigs,” as the radicals called them with laughter.

Radicals in those days screamed, “Power to the People!” One wanted to warn them: “Be careful what you wish for. Most of the people in the United States do not agree with you. I know from experience that the people I grew up with do not agree with you. I see significant majorities almost everywhere who do not agree with you — even significant majorities on most college campuses.”

“Power to the people,” indeed! The radicals were bound to get a comeuppance.

You can insult the people only so many times, before they mobilize themselves in self-defense and express their own self-confidence. That is where Jerry Falwell burst upon the national stage as the exasperated voice of those he called “the Moral Majority.”

Where did the radicals learn their bad habits? Since the 1920s, the disgusting H.L. Mencken had goaded three generations of journalists into the superior habit of spewing contempt upon ordinary Americans — the “Sahara of the Bozart,” the “knuckle-dragging” baboons, “Homo Neanderthalensis.” Whereas since Jefferson’s time the left-leaning elite had championed the yeomen of the countryside, the good, decent, and true citizens who made democracy work, Mencken more than any other American taught our elites to sneer.

Well, Jerry Falwell had had enough of it. It was time, he judged, to stop cowering, and to take on the leftist elites hand to hand, face to face. And to win.

Beyond the fact that both of us were Christians, and both felt close to the people among whom we had been raised, intellectually and theologically Falwell ought (given the probabilities) to have been suspicious of me, simply in virtue of my being a professor and a writer, even before shrinking back from my credentials in radical politics. Yet on the one occasion when I met him, on his own university campus, he could hardly have been more cordial — wary, but cordial.

But I have long been grateful to Falwell for helping to pull back the drapes behind which our elites had hidden the vast majority of Americans, and cheerfully making their presence know.

That is one of the qualities that Falwell shared with Ronald Reagan, a permanent cheerfulness. Many of us admired it in both of them.

Jerry Falwell called his university Liberty University. We should let this remind us that the main reason our nation has a first amendment is that Falwell’s forebears in southern Virginia were constituents of James Madison in the toughest congressional race of Madison’s life. And they refused to promise him their votes until Madison pledged that he would return to Congress and fight for passage of a Religious Liberty amendment. Madison was reluctant (he argued that such rights were already protected in the Constitution as written), but he gave his word, and he kept it.

It is a nice irony, isn’t it, that Jerry Falwell’s Baptists led the charge for the First Amendment, which our secularists today try to turn against them? At least the ACLU should give a word of gratitude to Falwell’s Baptists for getting the First Amendment enacted into law.

Jerry Falwell, thanks a lot! Thanks a lot for helping America to be America again, by revealing to all of us a crucial part of our national diversity. Your folks were Jefferson’s folks and Madison’s folks, and we salute you for reminding us.

Michael Novak was a Catholic philosopher, journalist, novelist, and diplomat.

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