On May 15, Jerry Falwell, the well-known U.S. televangelist, died at the age of 73. An obituary will appear in the next issue of this paper, in which his life and legacy will be remembered, but it is important to note not only his influence on American politics, but the lessons he provided to us all.
A fundamentalist preacher who founded Thomas Roads Baptist Church in Lynchburg, Va. in 1956 and Liberty University in 1971, he was initially a critic of evangelicals who were politically active. But after Roe v. Wade in 1973, he shucked his anti-political prejudice and committed himself to restoring what he called “the godly principles” upon which the United States were founded. He became one of the leading opponents of abortion and the gay rights movement and a proponent of prayer in school.
In 1978, he filled Reunion Arena in Dallas, where the NBA’s Mavericks play – with pastors. He knew that to get politically inactive evangelicals to participate in the country’s public life, he would need to awaken priests and pastors who, in turn, would activate their flocks. In 1979, Falwell co-founded the ecumenical and inter-faith Moral Majority to mobilize religious conservatives.
At its height, the Moral Majority had nearly 7 million members and was credited with conributing to Ronald Reagan’s presidential victories in 1980 and 1984, George H.W. Bush’s victory in 1988 and the Republican takeover of the Senate in 1980. Although disbanded in 1989 and overshadowed by groups such as the Christian Coalition and Focus on the Family, it is unimaginable that the Christian Right would have remained a political force today, with evangelicals forming 30 per cent of the Republican party voting bloc, without the groundwork Falwell did nearly three decades ago. As much as anyone, Falwell forced the Republican party to keep moral issues alive in the public square.
Falwell did so because he had no choice. He never set out to be politically influential and indeed, he prefered to open churches, pastor at his own and inculcate the next generation of Christians through his university. But he was a pious man who knew that Christians are called to both prayer and action. Falwell acted. We should, too.
Sociologist Nathan Glazer called Falwell’s actions a “defensive offensive.” The pastor of Thomas Roads Baptist Church knew that Christians had to push back against the secular culture, lest they be overtaken by it. For if the public square is naked, we may have no one else to blame but ourselves.