Jerry Falwell passed away on May 16, by which time he had become a caricature of himself, all too often fullfilling the need for Larry King or some other journalist to have some bloviating Christian fundamentalist on their show. Whether it was accusing a children’s television character of promoting homosexuality or blaming the feminists, homosexuals and abortionists for the September 11 terrorist attacks, Falwell could be counted on to court controversy. But by focusing on these easily mockable statements – and the left certainly did mock them and him – one can easily forget how influential a religious and political force Falwell once was – and remained.
Falwell never set out to be a political mover or shaker. In fact, he eschewed politics in his early career. Born in Lynchburg, Va. in 1933, the son of an atheist and bootlegger, Falwell attended Lynchburg College, but later transferred to Baptist Bible College in Springfield, Mo. in 1956. It was the furthest and longest he would stay away from his hometown, returning to found the Thomas Road Baptist Church in 1956 at the age of 22. Immediately, he began radio broadcasts of his sermons, the first of many examples of Falwell embracing technology to evangelize. From the 1960s through to the 1980s, his television program The Old-Time Gospel Hour was watched by millions. In 1958, he married Macel Pate. They had two sons (Jerry Jr. and Jonathan) and a daughter (Jeannie). In 1971, he founded Liberty University (also in Lynchburg) to provide a biblically based liberal arts education to Christians.
Throughout this time, Falwell avoided politics, going so far as to criticize religious leaders involved in the civil rights movement – which he called the “civil wrong” movement (he later apologized for his comments). But in 1973, the United States Supreme Court legalized abortion on demand; later, he found evangelical Jimmy Carter’s presidency to be lacking the religious vitality the former Georgia governor promised. In response, in 1979, Falwell co-founded the Moral Majority, became a leader of the Religious Right and ensured that the values of Christian conservatives were reflected in the political arena.
Falwell co-founded the Moral Majority with conservative activists Paul Weyrich, a Catholic, and Howard Phillips, a Jew. He filled Reunion Arena in Dallas, home of the NBA’s Mavericks – with pastors. He knew that pastors were the gatekeepers to millions of Christians, many of whom either did not vote or failed to have their votes reflect their own moral views. Ralph Reed, head of the Christian Coalition in the late 1980s and early 1990s, said Falwell “awakened the slumbering giant of the evangelical vote.” Battling against abortion on demand, as well as the encroaching homosexual agenda, and defending prayer in schools, the Moral Majority fought (in Nathan Glazer’s words) a “defensive offensive.” Falwell knew that Christians could no longer afford to sit on the sidelines of public life while society went to hell in a handbasket.
Political scientist Paul Kengor said: “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.”
During a speech in Toronto in 2003, Falwell explained how he brought fundamentalists back to the public square: he kept pastors informed of the issues through a regular newsletter and constantly instructed them to pass on information about issues and candidates, as well as how to register to vote, to their congregants. It is estimated that in 1980, the Religious Right registered between four and eight million new voters. Some churches held registration events within their buildings.
Also during his Toronto visit in 2003, Falwell explained to The Interim that personally, all he did was tell his congregation they had a responsibility to be informed about political issues, to register to vote and to vote morally. He also informed them of how he intended to vote – which is different from endorsing a candidate, something church leaders are not allowed to do by law (and, in most cases, church tradition).
The Moral Majority is sometimes credited with Ronald Reagan’s victory – a slight, but only slight, exaggeration. It would be truer to say it radically transformed American politics, enlivening conservatism and making possible the ascendancy of the Republican party, which previously was the voice of Wall Street or Midwest moderation. In 1976, Jimmy Carter carried the evangelical vote, but in 1980, 63 per cent of evangelicals marked their ballots for Reagan. It was the beginning of the Christian Right, the most reliably Republican group of voters, with four out of every five evangelicals voting for the party. Without the work of Falwell, who highlighted abortion, family values, a strong national defence (it was during the Cold War) and support for Israel (to help fulfill end-times prophecy), it is unimaginable that the Republican party would have remained so solidly pro-life and pro-family over the past quarter-century.
By 1989, the Moral Majority’s influence had faded. Pat Robertson’s Christian Coalition had become the pre-eminent Christian Right organization (only later to be overtaken itself by James Dobson’s Focus on the Family). It is to Falwell’s credit that he closed shop when it was clear his organization had run its course. But he personally remained influential among Christian conservatives. In 2006, after years of ambiguous relations with some pro-lifers, Senator John McCain, a Republican presidential aspirant, made the trek to Liberty University to signal to evangelicals that he was on their side. Another GOP hopeful, former speaker of the House Newt Gingrich, gave the commencement address this year.
The Interim asked Falwell, who had been a notoriously anti-Catholic bigot prior to the founding of the Moral Majority, how he worked alongside Catholics in the U.S. culture wars. Speaking of his friend, the late Cardinal John O’Connor, Falwell said were it not for the gravity of the abortion issue, he would never have shared a stage with him. Falwell explained that socially conservative Christians “must draw a circle, put everything they agree on in the circle and not talk about the things outside the circle.” He said theology was outside the boundaries of that circle. Last year, Falwell told National Review that former Massaschuetts governor Mitt Romney, a Mormon with pro-life and pro-family views, was an acceptable Republican presidential candidate because the Christian Right was choosing a “president, not a Sunday school teacher.”
Ironically, despite his change of mind about politics, Falwell thought his church ministries, including the university, were the most important things he did. Although he eschewed the label “evangelical” – he preferred the term “fundamentalist,” as he took the Bible literally and considered it the sole source of truth – he wanted to strengthen existing Christians and evangelize to make new ones.
His imprint upon America is great and will, because of both his political activism and evangelicalism, last long after his passing. As Michael Cromartie, vice-president of the Ethics and Public Policy Centre in Washington, said in the days after Falwell’s death, “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.”