Faith & Social Justice: In the spirit of Richard Overton and the 17th C. Levellers

Falwell’s Passing: End of an Era?

Rev. Jerry Falwell (1933-2007), Senior Pastor of Thomas Road Baptist Church in Lynchburg, VA, founder of the Moral Majority (a conservative Christian organization which mobilized Christians for conservative politics), founder of Liberty University (grown from a Bible college to a very large conservative Christian university), and major architect of the Religious Right as a political force in the U.S., died yesterday at the age of 73.  People are assessing his legacy already in terms of lavish praise or deep condemnation.  Regular readers of this blog are likely to guess easily that I was no fan of Rev. Falwell, but may be surprised to know that I thought of him only with mild distaste until 1984.

In the 1950s and 1960s, Falwell was a rabid segregationist, but I was unaware of this until many years later.  I first became aware of him as a teen in the 1970s (when I was only tenuously connected to church life and still struggling back from a stint of agnosticism on the road to my conversion to Christ) when he was a spokesperson against pornography.  I had some sympathy with that campaign (as much sympathy as a hormone-raging, not-yet-converted, teenaged boy CAN have with such a campaign!)  and it successfully got the 7-11 chain of convenience stores to stop selling Playboy, Penthouse, & related skin-magazines in displays where children could see and even purchase them. 

Next, I noticed Falwell support singer/actress Anita Bryant’s campaign against “homosexual teachers in public schools.” Even though (at the time) I considered gay/lesbian sex to be always and everywhere sinful, I had much less sympathy with this campaign.  I was aware, even then, that almost all child molestation is done by heterosexuals and saw little evidence for massive “recruiting” of students on the part of gay or lesbian teachers. (Anita Bryant claimed that because “homosexuals” cannot reproduce, they must recruit, and were deliberately trying to subvert innocent schoolchildren.) I thought this to be a witch hunt and regarded it with distaste. I also regarded television evangelism, then and now, with distaste and believed, then and now, that televising church services as entertainment subverted worship.  To this day, I have never watched an entire church service on television, nor ever belonged to any church that televised their services.  So, I regarded Falwell as an annoying cultural annoyance in the early days, nothing more.

I did notice when he founded the Moral Majority in 1979 and when he became a major player in the campaign against legalized abortion.  But abortion was not considered a major issue in the 1970s.  People supported its legality or didn’t, but this did not fall along predictable religious or political lines.   Very conservative Christian leaders in the 1970s, including W.A. Criswell, Norman Geisler, and Carl F. H. Henry, while opposing the morality of most abortions, expressed support for Roe v. Wade in varying degrees. The Southern Baptist Convention passed 2 resolutions in the 1970s that spelled out a series of instances in which abortion might be the lesser of evils.  For most of us, this was simply not a major issue.  When Falwell began to join his voice to the campaign to overturn Roe, I remember not being sure where I stood.  I did not assume that just because I considered Jerry Falwell to be a loudmouth stereotypical fundamentalist evangelist that he was automatically wrong about this or any other issue.

 I was far more concerned that he was mobilizing conservative Christians to vote for Ronald Reagan in 1980 against Jimmy Carter, whom I then and now, admired greatly.  I thought such “get out the vote” tactics violated at least the spirit of church-state separation and I believed it wrong for churches or pastors to endorse particular candidates for office.  I still do.  When I have been a pastor I made sure my car had no political bumper stickers and no political signs in my yard. I would discuss issues from the pulpit with political implications, but NEVER endorse any particular candidate for office, nor even let my own preference be known. I took the same attitude in the classroom.  So strongly do I feel about this, I would never vote for anyone who is an ordained minister unless and until they resigned their ordination first–and when Pat Robertson resigned his ordination before running for president, I praised the move publicly (although I opposed his candidacy on other grounds).  Christianity has political dimensions, but is NOT to be a partisan tool for any particular party or candidate.

I did not move from this initial mild distaste to firm opposition to most everything Falwell stood for until 1983:  When Jerry Falwell claimed that the anti-apartheid forces in South Africa were nothing more than a front for Communism, denounced Anglican Bishop (not yet Archbishop) Desmond Tutu as a “phony,” and urged the Reagan administration to continue its support for the white government of apartheid South Africa! In my final year of college, at the time, and already applying to become a seminary student,  I was horrified.  I immediately looked up Tutu’s mailing address (not as easy to do in those pre-internet days) and personally wrote him a letter of support. Knowing that other Christians were often confused about Baptist polity (and not knowing how many Baptists were in South Africa), I explained that Falwell was not a part, then, of any major Baptist denomination, and did not speak for the rest of us. I went through the whole “liberty of conscience” explanation that Baptists do not have official spokespeople in the same way that others do.  But I was horrified that ANY Christian could say what he did and reaffirmed my prayers and support for Bishop Tutu’s work. I joined an organization working to change U.S. policy toward South Africa the very next day–and became one of Falwell’s harshest critics ever after.

But now Falwell is dead.  Is the dominance of the Religious Right over U.S. politics also over? I am not quick to conclude this. Many people wrote it off in the late ’90s, but the Religious Right came roaring back during George W. Bush’s campaign in 2000 and was a major force in the 2004 campaign.  It faltered in 2006 and has had several problems since then, but has made far too many comebacks before to be counted out, now.  And Falwell had not been dominant in the Religious Right for a few years, though still enough of a powerbroker that Sen. John McCain (R), who once called him an “agent of intolerance,” had to mend fences with Falwell in order to run for the GOP presidential nomination this year.

But wait a minute.  Falwell is dead and the Moral Majority disbanded.  Pat Robertson, though still making outrageous statements every month or so on the syndicated 700 Club TV show (which has millions of viewers worldwide, sad to say), is 76 and no longer head of the Christian Coalition, which has lost members and influence in recent years.  Donald E. Wildmon, who founded the National Federation for Decency in 1977 (renamed the American Family Association in 1987) , and led the fight against pornography and obscenity in the arts, is 69 and has faded from prominence.  James Dobson, founder of Focus on the Family (whose books advise parents to have young sons shower with fathers to prevent them from “becoming homosexual!”) is 71.  As Falwell’s and Robertson’s political influence has waned, Dobson’s has grown, but has looked weak during the current election cycle.

D. James Kennedy, Pastor of Coral Ridge Presbyterian Church in South Florida, is 77 and, after a heart attack, has retired from politics and may soon retire from his pastorate.  Gary Bauer, past president of the Family Research Council, is 61 and seems to be waning in influence, although still strong in conservative circles.

 So, the generation that brought us the rise of the Religious Right in 1979 is passing from the scene.  There are younger leaders, like R. Albert Mohler, Jr., President of The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, who has a prominent radio show, blog, and writes influential works in conservative evangelical circles.  But there seem few others who have Mohler’s audience and he does not wield near the political clout that Falwell and company did at a similar age.  One source of leadership for the Religious Right in the past came from the pastors of influential mega-churches, but many of the younger such pastors, like Rick Warren of Saddleback Community Church, while still conservative on issues like abortion, are progressive on other political issues, like the environment and the campaign against torture.  Some mega-church pastors, like Brian MacLaren, are progressive on a wide range of peace and justice issues and considered “liberal” by members of the Religious Right.

So, as the Falwell generation of Religious Right leaders pass from the scene, there seems, at least, to be a power vacuum for their constituencies.  This could be good news for progressive faith leaders, including progressive evangelical leaders, but their leadership seems only in marginally better condition. And the numerical and financial health of those denominations once considered “mainstream” in America (Episcopalians, Presbyterians, United Church of Christ, United Methodists, American Baptist Churches, U.S.A., Disciples of Christ) continues to decline. So, it is not clear whether or not the forces of progressive faith–and those who consider the Rule of God to transcend political loyalties–can capitalize on this opportunity for resurgence.

I leave it for others to judge Falwell’s personal legacy for good or ill.  I did not like the man, but must join all the church in offering his family and church my prayers in this time of grief.

May 16, 2007 - Posted by | Baptists, church-state separation, evangelicals, Obituaries, theology, U.S. politics


  1. Very interesting review of the issues. I am with you about the separation of Church and State though mostly I hold these views for the sake of the Church. I think proclaiming Jesus Lord is pretty revolutionary, even anti-establishment. I would not want to see a progressive “moral majority” anymore than I was happy to have a conservative one.

    Comment by Aric Clark | May 16, 2007

  2. Excellent, excellent, excellent analysis. Well done!

    Comment by Kerry | May 16, 2007

  3. Aric, I don’t want any progressive moral majority or christian coalition either! I think progressive Christians need to exert an influence on the culture, but not in the “vote like this or you are damned” method of the Religious Right.

    Comment by Michael Westmoreland-White | May 16, 2007

  4. I believe we already have amoral majority groups who are immune to Church/State separation issues.

    Comment by Looney | May 17, 2007

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