Wednesday, May 16, 2007

Jerry Falwell

In noting the passing of the Reverend Jerry Falwell, I don't feel compelled to join the ranks of liberal observers standing in line to stomp on the man's grave. Steve Benen at the Carpetbagger Report has put together a list of some of Falwell's most egregious behavior for those who have a taste for such things.

Falwell made his greatest impact by organizing thousands of fundamentalist Christians for political action. Alan Wolfe, writing at Salon, has the best understanding of Falwell's legacy I've come across so far:

To the religious life of the United States he made no significant contribution. But to the political life of the country, he made one: He founded the Moral Majority. In so doing, Falwell managed to take something holy -- one does not have to be a Christian to admire the life and teachings of Jesus Christ -- and turned it into something partisan and divisive. Falwell, the quintessential conservative Christian, was always more conservative than Christian. To the extent that history will remember him, it will be as a politician, not as a preacher.

Conservative Christians' participation in American politics has waxed and waned over the decades. Falwell, along with contemporaries like Pat Robertson, helped put together one of the most effective mergers of religion and politics America has ever seen. Over the last 30 years, this movement provided a key base of support for the election of Republican presidents and legislators, as well as gaining leverage in a number of state and local governing bodies. They did this in large part borrowing from the organizing tactics of the left, such as the civil rights movement. The Moral Majority was a prime example of conservatives beating liberals with their own stick, while many on the left stood and watched in dumbfounded amazement that their strategies worked equally well for conservatives.

Falwell's influence declined with advancing years and a series of foot-in-mouth statements, culminating in his suggestion that America's immoral culture was in part to blame for 9/11. Wolfe correctly notes that Falwell would have been barely visible if not for the cable news shows that kept the Reverend on call in case he had something nutty to say. Meanwhile, a new breed of high-profile ministers like Rick Warren and Joel Osteen have been moving evangelism away from direct political action and toward emphasizing believers' personal relationships with Christ. It may be that Jerry Falwell helped many people find comfort in their soul, but I would suggest that he gave equal numbers of people good reason not to believe in God.