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How the Ghost of Jerry Falwell Conquered the Republican Party

The 2012 GOP nominating contest has witnessed the final triumph of an unlikely figure. I say “unlikely” because his name hasn’t been invoked much (if at all) by any of the candidates, nor has he been mentioned frequently by the press in its campaign coverage. What’s more, he died in 2007. Yet when historians someday go looking for the intellectual and ideological father of the Obama-era GOP, I suspect they will fixate on one figure above all others: the Reverend Jerry Falwell.

That may sound odd: After all, Falwell was a social conservative; and social conservatives, while undoubtedly powerful within the GOP, are commonly thought to be just one of several key constituencies that make up the modern Republican Party. Moreover, isn’t the animating philosophy of today’s GOP deeply libertarian—and aren’t libertarians the intellectual descendants of anti-Christian thinkers like Hayek, von Mises, and Rand? Plus, you might point out, Falwell was an evangelical Protestant, and the three finalists for the GOP nomination this year are a Mormon and two Catholics. Can his influence really have been that strong?

In a word, yes. Falwell helped to lay the groundwork for the coalition of Protestants, Catholics, and Mormons that now makes up the social conservative wing of the GOP—and helped to bring this coalition of social conservatives into an even larger coalition with fiscal conservatives and foreign-policy conservatives. Moreover, it was Falwell who did more than anyone—even Ronald Reagan—to foreshadow the political style of the contemporary GOP, a style rooted in orthodoxy and disdainful of compromise. In short, if at any point during the past few years you’ve found yourself wondering how the Republican Party got to its present state, understanding the worldview of Jerry Falwell is a good place to start.

IN 1981, ONE OF Reagan’s top aides, Michael Deaver, told an interviewer that evangelicals like Falwell were welcome in the White House, but they had to come through the back door. When Falwell did come for a visit, Reagan assured him he could always come through the front door. Falwell told reporters, “Mike Deaver probably couldn’t spell ‘abortion.’”

The incident, and others like it, gave rise to a narrative that traditional conservatives like Deaver (who were more focused on fiscal matters), social conservatives like Falwell, and foreign policy hawks were three distinct groups within the Reagan coalition—all pitted against each other in a battle for influence within the party. But this narrative was far too simplistic because it grossly underestimated the degree to which these groups would eventually merge. And, in many ways, it was Falwell who presided over that merger.

Even before the 1980s, evangelicals had long supported free market economics and a strong foreign policy. Their commitment to both capitalism and a strong military was rooted in their pronounced anti-communism. Earlier evangelical preachers such as Carl McIntire in the 1950s had voiced their enthusiasm for Senator Joseph McCarthy’s anti-communist witch hunts. But for Falwell, the links between capitalism, foreign policy, and religion ran especially deep.

Falwell’s laissez-faire economic views stemmed from a particular theological perspective: his hostility to the Social Gospel movement. During the first decades of the twentieth century, liberal Protestant pastors, such as Walter Rauschenbusch, had encouraged Christians to move beyond traditional charitable concern for the poor and to support the social welfare state as an ethical matter. Falwell strongly opposed this position. In 1965, he delivered a sermon entitled “Ministers and Marches,” in which (ironically) he criticized Martin Luther King and other preachers for being too politically engaged. The sermon was printed in leaflet form to assure its widespread distribution. In that sermon, Falwell condemned the Social Gospel movement as unbiblical. “Education, medicine, social reform, and all the other external ministries cannot meet the needs of the human soul and spirit,” he told his congregation. For Falwell and other fundamentalists, efforts to improve this world detracted from the effort to attain the next.

Still, Falwell ended up backing into an exception to his lack of concern with worldly matters: anti-communism. Two years after his “Ministers and Marches” sermon, he placed advertisements in a local newspaper for two Sunday evening sermons on “godless Communism” at Thomas Road Baptist Church in Virginia. Several years later, in 1975, Falwell’s commitment to American exceptionalism, in contradistinction to communism and European-style socialism, manifested itself in a series of “I Love America” rallies. He would fly the choir from his school, then called Lynchburg Baptist College, around the country, invite local pastors and their congregations, erect a flag-bedecked stage on the steps of the state capitol building, and give an address filled with the kind of encomiums to American exceptionalism that Sarah Palin would later make a staple of her stump speech. Reagan, too, expounded a version of American exceptionalism, but it was Falwell who gave it the distinctly religious character it enjoys today, which sees the American founding as a quasi-salvific event and treats the constitution as a semi-sacred text. “The United States Constitution has as its cornerstone the Ten Commandments,” Falwell told his television audience in March 1976. “I was reading the Constitution this week. It is a masterpiece. I don’t believe it was written under divine inspiration like the Bible, but I indeed believe it was inspired. … There’s no question about it, this nation was intended to be a Christian nation by our founding fathers.”

When Falwell finally decided to jump into the political fray by forming the Moral Majority in 1979, the group’s political platform had four over-arching themes. It would be pro-life, pro-family, pro-moral, and pro-American. This last theme entailed support for a tough U.S. foreign policy. An early piece of Moral Majority literature warned against an “unprecedented lack of leadership” with the “danger of capitulation to the Soviet Union a very possible result.” In the South, where Franklin Roosevelt had often located new military bases as a way to secure the support of conservative southern senators for other parts of his political agenda, the military was becoming a central part of the culture—more so than in other regions of the country. The South was also, of course, the evangelicals’ geographic base. All of this made it the perfect environment for Falwell’s marriage of conservative theology and hawkish foreign policy.

Many commentators voiced alarm when President Reagan, in a press conference on his ninth day in office, denounced détente with the Soviet Union. In fact, he was using words that could have been lifted from any of a number of Falwell’s sermons or from the preacher’s 1980 book Listen, America, which included a chapter on fighting communism. Here was Reagan: “I know of no leaders of the Soviet Union since the revolution, and including the present leadership, that has not more than once repeated in the various Communist congresses they hold their determination that their goal must be the promotion of world revolution and a one-world Socialist or Communist state, whichever word you want to use.” And here was Falwell on the same subject: “The Soviets have always had one goal, and that is to destroy capitalistic society. They are a nation committed to communism and to destroying the American way of life.” What’s more, the fear of a one-world state—which Reagan alluded to—had important implications in the universe of fundamentalist thought. A 1980 mailing from Falwell’s “Old-Time Gospel Hour” warned that the time of Tribulation foretold in the Bible would witness a “Russian invasion of Israel” (although Russia is not mentioned in the Bible), and warned that “A powerful ruler, led by Satan and referred to as the Anti-christ, will rise to power. After leading the nations to form an alliance to help preserve the world system, he will break the treaty and be responsible for persecuting the nation of Israel and leading the last great battle against the forces of God in the battle of Armageddon.”

In the spring of 1981, the newly installed Reaganites made the decision to lead with their economic agenda, not with the divisive social issues like abortion and gay rights that were understood to be the principal concern of Christian conservatives. Some interviewers were surprised when Falwell told them he endorsed this decision. “I don’t think the president is sidestepping the moral and the social issues,” he explained on “Face the Nation.” “I think he wants to give [his economic agenda] the full shot.” But Falwell did more than support Reagan’s decision to emphasize economic issues. He also lent him cover for his proposed cutbacks in social programs. “We must be sensitive to the fact that we cannot ignore the presence and the needs of the poor among us,” Falwell said in that same interview, “and I think that is where the churches must quickly move in, particularly conservative churches of which I am a part, and fill the vacuum that no doubt the country can no longer fill.”

For Falwell, then, being a social conservative was not simply a matter of denouncing abortion and gay rights. It also meant fealty to laissez-faire economics and to an aggressive foreign policy. But even as he was helping to make evangelicals into hard-right fiscal conservatives and foreign policy hawks, Falwell was also doing something else: giving them permission to form alliances with other religious groups. Before Falwell, fundamentalists were warned against being “yoked” with non-believers, and a “non-believer” was anyone who did not share the core beliefs of evangelical Protestantism. Mormons, Catholics, and most liberal Protestants did not make the cut. But, after reading Francis Schaeffer’s teachings on “co-belligerency”—the idea that believers and non-believers could cooperate—Falwell came to see the necessity of working with non-fundamentalist but conservative believers of other creeds. This newfound awareness of ecumenical possibilities came to Falwell in the late 1970s, just as he was being encouraged to get politically involved by GOP operatives. If Simon the Cyrene could help Jesus carry his cross, Mormons and conservative Catholics and fundamentalist Baptists could join forces to defeat liberalism. In the early years of the Moral Majority, Falwell would brag that a third of the group’s members were Roman Catholic.

And so it is that the three remaining Republican candidates for president (excluding Ron Paul, who has one ideological foot outside the GOP) are a Mormon and two conservative Catholics. Without Falwell, it seems quite possible that none of their candidacies—let alone the entire coalition that presently forms the Republican base—would have been possible.

BUT PERHAPS THE MOST profound impact Falwell had on the modern GOP was that he promoted the language and the logic of orthodoxy in conservative politics. In doing so, he paved the way for the emergence of a Republican Party that is incapable of compromise, in which moderate Republicans are seen as betrayers—a party that nominates Christine O’Donnell over Mike Castle, and is in the midst of a primary campaign that has focused less on experience or electability than on adherence to the Tea Party creed.

This was a key area where Reagan and Falwell differed—and where today’s GOP is really more in line with the preacher than with the ex-president. Reagan was a tolerant, pragmatic man. There is plenty of circumstantial evidence suggesting as much: the fact that he got his start in Hollywood, that he opposed a 1978 California ballot initiative which would have barred homosexuals from teaching in public schools, that he was divorced, and that he was, according to his biographer, Lou Cannon, “not the sort of person who bothers about what people do in their own bedrooms.”

The upshot here is not simply that Reagan was a lot less interested in social conservatism than today’s typical Republican. It was that, with the exception of some of his rhetoric about the Soviet Union, he tended to eschew the harsh Manichaeism, the rigid obsession with orthodoxy in all political matters, that now defines the Republican Party. Orthodoxy, by contrast, was the signature of Falwell’s style. And irony, tolerance, and pragmatism were never his strong suits. They did not sit well with the earnestness and literalism of fundamentalist Christianity. “In the intellectual battle of the present day there can be no ‘peace without victory’; one side or the other must win,” J. Gresham Machen, a professor of New Testament at Princeton Theological Seminary and one of the founding lights of fundamentalism, wrote in 1923. Falwell’s folksy sermons transferred this absolutism about church doctrine to the political realm. “We are developing a socialistic state in these United States as surely as I am standing here right now,” Falwell preached in one sermon. “Our give-away programs, our welfarism at home and abroad, is developing a breed of bums and derelicts who wouldn’t work in a pie shop eating the holes out of donuts.”

It was this cast of mind, the sense that political and religious facts were as obvious as his “standing here right now,” that was arguably Falwell’s principal contribution to the shaping of the modern GOP. Yes, Falwell made abortion a key issue; he liked to say that you could no longer run for the Republican nomination to be dog catcher without articulating your position on abortion. But the arrival of an orthodox temperament to Republican politics was not only about abortion or about social issues. It soon extended to everything.

Whatever the value of Falwell’s black-and-white approach to theological debates, this worldview, when carried over to the political realm, resulted in a coarsening of discourse and increased ideological rigidity. Politics does not save, but the newly engaged religious right brought all the fervor of, well, evangelists, into discussions of economics, foreign policy, the environment, and a host of what had previously, and properly, been considered mundane concerns. With evangelical voters, everything took on an eschatological veneer. “Falwell’s speech is not like secular speech,” wrote Professor Susan Friend Harding. “He inhabits a world generated by Bible-based stories and, as a ‘man of God,’ his speech partakes of the generative quality of the Bible itself.”

Before Falwell, if liberals wanted to increase the minimum wage by one dollar and conservatives did not want to increase it at all, they could compromise and raise the minimum wage by fifty cents. Before Falwell, the American public’s ambivalence about abortion could find expression in the Hyde Amendment, which does not prohibit abortion but denies federal funds for the procedure. After Falwell, such compromises were seen not as part of the art of governance, but as a betrayal of first principles. After Falwell, conservatives could not entertain differences of opinion on many issues without being accused of political heresy. Grover Norquist is as much Falwell’s heir as any preacher. Stephen Schneck, director of Catholic University’s Institute for Policy Research & Catholic Studies, puts it this way: The Tea Party’s “zeal, anger, conviction of righteousness, and its prophetic engagement in the world have a fervor beyond mere partisanship or political ideology. Maybe crusade is the right word.”

FOR YEARS, FALWELL’S INFLUENCE seemed to be everywhere. His ministry purchased a plane to facilitate his campaign-style speaking tours, rallying the troops. And the influence of his Lynchburg Baptist College, which grew into Liberty University, was significant as well. “Television and radio are effective; the local church here is effective; our speaking tours are effective,” Falwell told Christianity Today in 1986. “But my hope for making an impact on the world with this generation and generations to come is to train young people in the things that are vital to the cause of world evangelization.” The school’s journalism and government programs, and its law school, which opened in 2004, have trained an array of influential conservatives from Shannon Bream of Fox News to Tony Perkins, head of Focus on the Family. In 2010, Liberty University brought one of the first lawsuits against the Affordable Care Act.

In recent years, pundits have generally been slow to recognize the degree to which Falwell influenced the modern GOP. Still, as frustration and bewilderment with the state of the Republican Party has grown, some pundits have begun to point to the connection between fundamentalism and the current Republican mindset—a connection that Falwell did much to establish. “Conservatives have created a box of orthodoxy so small that even the most conservative candidates must engage in contortions just to fit,” former Bush speechwriter Michael Gerson wrote in The Washington Post this past November. “Many political activists have adopted a form of fundamentalism: the belief that a return to power can be achieved only by a return to purity.” For a community of believers, orthodoxy certainly does matter and heresy really is a threat. But, as Gerson rightly indicates, politics requires agility as well as firmness, pragmatism as well as principle. Gridlock can be as threatening in politics as compromise. Besides, Christians are called to be “stubborn in the Lord” not stubborn in the tax code.

Issues, and the events that lend them currency, may come and go, with the electorate focused at different times on different policies. Falwell’s legacy is that he shaped the way the Republican Party approaches all issues. Without the temperamental revolution that Falwell authored, it seems unlikely that Mitt Romney would have felt compelled to describe himself as “severely conservative” during his recent appearance at the Conservative Political Action Conference, or that Rick Santorum, a deeply flawed politician whose main selling point is the sanctimony of his worldview, could have vaulted to the lead in national polls of Republicans. And without the intra-religious coalition of social, economic, and foreign policy conservatives that Falwell helped to assemble, the Republican Party would not be the entity it is today. The party of Reagan? Please. Today’s GOP is the party of Jerry Falwell.

Michael Sean Winters is the author of God’s Right Hand: How Jerry Falwell Made God a Republican and Baptized the American Right.