Jerry Falwell’s Legacy
by MARK GABRISH CONLAN, Editor
Copyright © 2007 by Mark Gabrish Conlan for Zenger’s Newsmagazine • All rights reserved
The first time I ever heard of Jerry Falwell was when I watched him being interviewed on 60 Minutes during the 1980 Presidential campaign — and his brazen insistence that his politics were the only “moral” positions on the various issues he was talking about took my breath away. He even said, as I recall, that supporting Taiwan over mainland China for the “China” seat in the United Nations was the only “moral” position— and I was astounded that he had stuck his neck out that far on an issue seemingly remote from the obsessions of the nascent radical Right with abortion, homosexuality and other “traditional values” concerns. When he went on fellow radical-Right minister Pat Robertson’s radio show 21 years later to say that God had allowed the 9/11 attacks to succeed because of America’s tolerance of abortion, homosexuality and the ACLU, it didn’t seem so astonishing only because, like the rest of the country, I’d become so inured to radical-Right rhetoric that it hardly caused me more than a momentary shudder: “Oh, he’s gone that far, has he?”
Just about every article written about Falwell in the last quarter-century, including the obituaries after his death May 15 (a piece of news I greeted by singing, “Ding, dong, the witch is dead,” by the way), identified him as the “founder” of the Moral Majority organization. That’s not quite true. The Moral Majority was actually the brainchild of some decidedly secular conservative and Republican organizers and fundraisers, led by Richard Viguerie and Paul Weyrich, who in the late 1970’s saw a neglected opportunity for the Republicans to organize among evangelical Christians. Until then, if they bothered to vote at all — and they usually didn’t — white evangelicals usually voted Democratic. They embraced the progressive economic and foreign-policy positions of their historic hero, William Jennings Bryan (who was actually a Presbyterian), while backing the Democrats’ pre-civil rights era opposition to racial integration.
The evangelical Christian community first came into its own as a political force in 1976 when one of their own, Jimmy Carter, won the Democratic nomination for President. Once he got elected, though, Carter disappointed evangelicals; he proved that he’d meant what he said when he said the days of segregation were over and Southern whites needed to get over it and treat Blacks as equal human beings. He wasn’t flamingly pro-choice on abortion — he did, after all, sign the Hyde Amendment forbidding the use of federal funds to pay for poor women’s abortions — but he didn’t regard Roe v. Wade as the work of Satan and call for a constitutional amendment to reverse it either. And though Carter’s aide Midge Costanza arranged the meeting while Carter was out of town and without his knowledge, the first-ever meeting of Queer-rights organizers and activists in the White House happened on the Plains peanut farmer’s watch.
So professional Republicans anxious to defeat Carter saw an opportunity to organize evangelicals to vote against him en masse. To do that, they needed not only to start an organization but to recruit a prominent minister to be its figurehead. As a public figure who’d already turned against Carter in 1976, Falwell was a logical choice — and, as Gay journalist Perry Deane Young reported in his 1982 book God’s Bullies, the pros who actually started the Moral Majority picked Falwell over other, then better-known televangelists precisely because he wasn’t charismatic either in the religious (he wasn’t a faith healer or a speaker in tongues) or the secular sense. “He had no publicly identifiable politics, so they could mold him as they saw fit,” Young wrote. “He could head up their new coalition of single issues because he hadn’t spoken out on any of them (except homosexuality) before.”
The Moral Majority and its successor, the Christian Coalition (organized by Ralph Reed and led by Pat Robertson, one of the ministers who’d been passed over for the Moral Majority in favor of Falwell), proved successful beyond their founders’ wildest imaginations. Today up to 25 percent of all Americans identify themselves as evangelical or “born-again” Christians, and white evangelicals have become the most loyal and committed voting bloc the Republicans have. The legacy of Jerry Falwell, and the organizing effort he publicly represented and came to personify, has been its unique contribution to the overall shift to the Right in American politics that began with the combined 57 percent of the Presidential vote won by Richard Nixon and George Wallace in 1968 and confirmed by Ronald Reagan’s landslide victory over Carter and John Anderson in 1980.
Thanks to Jerry Falwell and his movement, the term “Christian” in American politics has been purged of any association with economic or social justice. Only a few African-American ministers still preach the old Bryanite gospel of economic liberalism and “values” conservatism. “Christian” has come to be political shorthand for anti-choice, anti-Queer, anti-civil rights, anti-evolution, and for a lassiez-faire economy whose outcomes — a vast increase in economic inequality between the rich and the poor and the devastation of America’s middle class — would likely have horrified the prophet who blessed the poor and threw the moneychangers out of the Temple of Solomon.
Thanks to Jerry Falwell and his movement, also, a de facto religious test has been instituted for the presidency and most elective offices in the U.S. It used to be that the presidency came with an unwritten rule that no atheist or agnostic need apply. Now the rule is that no one who doesn’t believe in an actively interventionist God who takes a direct day-to-day role in human affairs need apply. The Founding Fathers, almost all of whom were deists (i.e., they believed in a God which made heaven, earth and the human race, and then left us on our own), wouldn’t be able today to win the highest offices under the constitution they wrote.
Even Barry Goldwater, the founder of modern conservatism — who, when Falwell said it was his “moral duty” to vote against confirming Sandra Day O’Connor to the U.S. Supreme Court in 1981, replied, “I think every good Christian ought to kick Jerry Falwell’s ass” — couldn’t win the Republican presidential nomination today because he believed that conservatism’s promise of “less government” meant keeping government out of the bedrooms as well as the boardrooms. By the end of his career, Goldwater was pro-choice, urged that Queers be made a protected class under the 1964 Civil Rights Act (which, ironically, he’d voted against in the first place) and called for an end to the ban on Queers in the military — all positions that the movement Falwell publicly led has long since put beyond the pale of anyone who wants to be a presidential nominee or a national figure in the Republican party.
Jerry Falwell’s legacy can be seen in the absurd level of piety in our politics today: in the fact that John Kerry became the first Roman Catholic Presidential nominee to lose the Catholic vote because of his pro-choice position on abortion; in the three hands that went up recently when the moderator of a debate of Republican presidential candidates asked which ones believed in creation over evolution; in the furious attempts of Rudolph Giuliani and Mitt Romney to backpedal away from their formerly moderate stands on “values” issues, now that they’re running in the evangelical-dominated Republican primary electorate and not in the liberal bastions of New York City and Massachusetts. Falwell didn’t invent the Republicans’ “Southern strategy” of dividing the country along racial and cultural lines with the idea that that would give the Republicans the bigger piece — Richard Nixon and Strom Thurmond did in 1968 — but the mobilization of Falwell’s “Christian” constituency into the Republican party has helped keep the party of racism and bigotry in the ascendancy and transformed American politics in a highly unpleasant direction for people who believe in equality in general and Queer equality in particular.