My first reaction to hearing the news that Jerry Falwell had died was surprisingly the same kind of reaction to the news a couple of weeks ago that astronaut Wally Schirra had passed on: Sadness for having lost something from my youth. A reminder that the candle is starting to flicker and the skein of my life is unravelling faster than I thought possible just a short time ago.
Yeah, it’s selfish. And self-absorbed. But frankly, I view Falwell – like Schirra – as more of a talisman from my past than any great political/historical figure. He was a spokesman for a certain point of view among religious conservatives who thrived in a time of enormous intellectual upheaval for the conservative movement. And unlike some other TV evangelical preachers, he mostly avoided sins of the flesh in carrying out what I’m sure he saw as his mission from God.
Ed Morrissey is right. There will come a better time to assess the political legacy of the Reverend Mr. Falwell. But Ed is a fine Christian gentleman and I, a grubby minded atheist. So allow me to offer a few thoughts regarding the Reverend Mr. Falwell.
Every great political movement in American history has been driven by passion. The 19th and 20th century reformers who ended slavery, fought for womens’ rights, sought to ban demon rum, and agitated for unions were, for the most part, ordinary Americans swept up in historical tidal forces that altered the political and social landscape of America forever. What made them successful was the overarching, overweening, absolute belief that what they were doing was right and that people who opposed them were not just wrong but evil. They didn’t demonize the opposition out of political calculation but rather because they truly believed the fate of the republic or mankind was at stake in the successful prosecution of their cause. Ergo, if one opposes that cause, they are on the side of the dark one.
The period of the mid-1970’s to the late 1990’s could very well one day be remembered as another “Great Awakening” for American evangelicals. The first three “Awakenings” (or four if you subscribe to 1960’s “consciousness raising” as a religious movement) occurred during periods of great social ferment and spun off social movements like abolitionism, prairie populism, and prohibition. This particular “Awakening” inspired a generation of evangelical Christians to treat politics itself as a question of faith – that some political questions were answered not by reason, logic, and adherence to a set of political principles but rather by reading the bible carefully and gleaning God’s plan for man as laid out in the old or new Testaments.
The fact that secular Republicans who did indeed use reason, logic, and adherence to a set of political principles many times came to the same conclusions about issues as the evangelicals meant for an uneasy and at times, uncomfortable alliance with the party. And it was preachers like Jerry Falwell who first introduced these evangelicals – the “moral majority” – to Republican politics. They were never a majority (even of Republicans) and the “moral” failings of many prominent TV preachers in the 80’s and 90’s tarnished the image of the movement considerably with ordinary, secular Americans. But to this day, they make up a sizable (about 15%) and vocal minority in the party. Many analysts believe they were the difference in the last two presidential elections.
Falwell was perhaps the most visible of these TV preachers during the last 3 decades although other, more polished (bland) and carefully spoken leaders have supplanted him as a spiritual guide lately. They too, are not without their failures in resisting temptations of the flesh. But at least they don’t mutter outrageous comments about America being punished for our sins by planes being flown into buildings and a lot of innocents getting killed. While Falwell apologized for his comments following 9/11, there has always been this underlying threat in his sermons that unless America “reforms,” there will literally be hell to pay. In that respect, he is an echo of an earlier evangelical period where hellfire and tent revivals mixed easily with a population that was mostly rural and hungry for answers to life’s tragedies.
I have no doubt the left will make jokes about Falwell’s death as they are wont to do when it comes to anything where faith is involved. He was an easy target thanks to his simplistic world view and uncanny ability to say the wrong thing at exactly the wrong time.
But Jerry Falwell was an authentic American, a linear descendant of Jonathan Edwards whose 1741 sermon “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God” echoed many of the themes in Falwell’s preaching and was a seminal moment in the first “Great Awakening.” These true believers have undeniably contributed much that is positive to our politics. Reformers will tend to do that. But their limited view of issues and their tendency to view opposition to their ideas as evil also makes them a danger to democracy. Thankfully, their numbers and influence has always been limited. This was true even of the biggest TV preacher in history who when all was said and done, lived life by the light of faith he truly and honestly believed was given to him by the Almighty.
Allah has the reaction from the left. I’ll just send you over there without comment and urge you to start clicking.
Michelle Malkin has a round up of mostly MSM sources. As is her wont, she will probably expand coverage as more react comes in.