When the news of Jerry Falwell’s death broke, the major Republican presidential contenders were quick to pay tribute. Sen. John McCain, who famously characterized Falwell and Pat Robertson as “agents of intolerance,” remembered the televangelist as a “man of distinguished accomplishment who devoted his life to serving his faith and country.” Rudy Giuliani, perhaps the least Falwell-like of the GOP hopefuls, praised him as a “person who told you what he thought.”
Even such longtime Falwell detractors as Hustler’s Larry Flynt and Americans United for Separation of Church and State’s Barry Lynn were restrained and polite in their public statements. But nobody has forgotten how polarizing the Moral Majority founder could be. Matt Foreman, executive director of the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force, recalled him as a “founder and leader of America’s anti-gay industry.” It was a rare news story that didn’t refer to Falwell’s predictions about the Antichrist — definitely a Jewish male — or his complaint that feminists, gays, and ACLU types helped bring about 9/11.
Falwell’s foot-in-mouth syndrome didn’t keep him from changing American politics. The three biggest Republican triumphs of the last 30 years — Ronald Reagan’s election in 1980, the GOP congressional takeover in 1994, and George W. Bush’s reelection — would have been impossible without the Christian right. Today, religious conservatives are the largest single voting bloc within the Republican Party. They supplied more than a third of Bush’s 2004 tally.
Yet for the movement he led to prominence, Falwell’s legacy will remain a mixed blessing. His strident and sometimes irresponsible public pronouncements helped set the tone for conservative Christian political involvement. That tone — angry, bombastic, and frequently puritanical — was easily caricatured as hateful and intolerant of women, homosexuals, and religious minorities. Worse, it was often difficult to square with the Gospel.
This problem is well known to many politically active evangelicals, who have tried to approach these emotionally charged debates in a spirit of Christian compassion only to have some of their leaders’ more outrageous comments quoted back to them. Falwell may have helped empower conservative Christians, but by the end of his career he was as often an impediment — and sometimes an embarrassment — to them.
Another failing of the Falwell-era organized Christian right is that it frequently prioritized access and power above results. When Falwell dissolved the Moral Majority in 1989, he announced that it had accomplished the things it set out to do. But Supreme Court decisions legalizing abortion, banning school prayer, and banishing the Bible from public schools all still stood (and, with some modifications, still stand today). At that time, divorce, sexually transmitted diseases, and out-of-wedlock births were all on the rise. In 1990, a record 1.6 million abortions were performed in the United States.
There were plenty of people holding office who were willing to invite Moral Majority officials to meetings and photo-ops. Far fewer elected officials were interested in spending political capital on the group’s substantive agenda.
Ironically, Falwell was well positioned to understand the limits of politics in promoting cultural and moral change. He pioneered the use of television in Christian evangelism. He helped encourage Protestant fundamentalists to engage the wider culture and founded Liberty University. None of these things required government action. Yet after fifty years in ministry at Thomas Road Baptist Church, the American public remembers Falwell as a political rather than a spiritual leader.
Falwell deserves credit for helping millions of pro-life, pro-family, and pro-faith Americans find their voice in politics. The movement he led will only prevail if it learns from his failures as well as his successes.
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