The passing Tuesday of the Rev. Jerry Falwell, founder of the Moral Majority and Liberty University in Lynchburg, Va., at age 73 coincides with what just might be the passing of the influence of the political movement that he helped launch.
While the Rev. Falwell struck us as a genuine and decent person, his movement left a lot to be desired. In particular, the Christian right had trouble separating its religious and political elements. He and other such leaders often viewed the government as the means to achieve their social aims.
Before the emergence of the “religious right,” Christian fundamentalists tended to steer clear of politics. But Falwell saw the need for conservative Christians to engage the culture and become active in the political realm – and his organizing skills helped bring new conservative activists into the GOP. He tapped into deeply held concerns over the legalizing of abortion, the emergence of a vocal gay rights movement, what he saw as the erosion of the traditional family and the perception that the United States was getting soft on defense.
For good or evil, the modern conservative movement was to some degree due to the success of the Rev. Falwell and his rival televangelist Pat Robertson.
But in recent years, some Republicans have begun to resent such influence. The top Republican contenders for 2008, in fact, come from the more liberal wing of the party. Rudy Giuliani is not only pro-choice, but has publicly favored taxpayer-funded abortions. Sen. John McCain has often fought with the religious right. Potential candidate Newt Gingrich’s scheduled commencement speech at Liberty University this weekend speaks to the lingering sway of Christian conservatives, but such appearances no longer are required of candidates.
For many people, the Rev. Falwell may be most remembered for his tendency frequently to express publicly his perhaps honest but nonetheless extreme and sometimes foolish beliefs. Following 9/11, for example, he said on a Christian TV program: “I really believe that the pagans, and the abortionists, and the feminists, and the gays and the lesbians who are actively trying to make that an alternative lifestyle, the ACLU, People for the American Way, all of them who have tried to secularize America. I point the finger in their face and say ‘you helped this happen.’” To his credit, he quickly apologized for those remarks.
Columnist Cal Thomas, who in the early 1980s worked for Falwell in the Moral Majority, came to oppose the Christian right movement. In an interview in 2002, he argued: “(In the New Testament) there is no expectation and no commission for believers to change the hearts or minds of unbelievers through the power of a fallen state in a fallen world made up of fallen people. There is, however, a commission to go out and make disciples – disciples of Jesus Christ, not the Republican Party. But this is not to be done as part of a conservative movement and not as an agenda and certainly not as part of a fund-raising scheme.”
Thomas came to understand something the Rev. Falwell never appeared to grasp: Morality cannot be improved through the intervention of the state.
The passing of Rev. Jerry Falwell might coincide with the waning of the religious right movement.