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Farewell to Falwell

Jerry Falwell's friends and allies on the right tell us that he was a force for democracy in America. This is true. Thanks to Falwell, millions of conservative evangelical and fundamentalist Protestants now actively participate in the political life of the nation, consistently mobilizing on the far-right side of the Republican Party. This makes Falwell historically important. But was he an admirable figure? Did he contribute to elevating the political culture of the United States? Have evangelical and fundamentalist Protestants proved to be thoughtful citizens, adding to the seriousness, depth, and rigor of public debate? Or have they, instead, injected superstition and sectarianism--in short, religiously based illiberalism--into the political life of the nation? More than six years into the failed evangelical-Protestant presidency of George W. Bush, the answer is obvious.

Defenders of the religious right like to link it to earlier examples of religious activism in American history--above all, abolitionism and the civil rights movement. Evangelicals supposedly follow in the footsteps of William Lloyd Garrison and Martin Luther King Jr. Yet the inconvenient fact is that Falwell and most of his fellow evangelicals sat out the civil rights movement. Back then, the segregationist Falwell thought that preachers were called to be "soul winners," not politicians.

What led Falwell join the political fray was not indignation at racial injustices but disgust at the sexual liberation of the 1960s and early 1970s. In the starkly Manichean outlook of Falwell and his followers, post-'60s America seemed to be (as he put it in his autobiography) a "war zone where forces of God do battle with forces of evil." For Falwell, it was the duty of all genuine Christians to take sides against Satan in this theological struggle.

At first, evangelicals hoped that one of their own--Jimmy Carter--was the right choice to lead the charge. But Carter quickly proved to be a disappointment. Few today remember that Falwell and other organizers of the Moral Majority were definitively persuaded to abandon Carter and embrace Ronald Reagan in 1980 because of a seemingly insignificant misjudgment on the part of the Carter administration. Under pressure from his fellow evangelicals to stem the tide of immorality in the nation, the president formed the White House Conference on the Family in 1979, hoping it would mollify his religious critics.

But, as with so many initiatives of the Carter administration, the plan backfired. In order to placate feminists and gay rights activists who feared that the executive branch would be holding up a single form of family life (the "traditional family") as legitimate and therefore denigrating "alternative lifestyles," the president quickly moved to pluralize the title of the conference (from "Family" to "Families")--an action that infuriated Falwell and his allies. It was only a matter of months before evangelicals withdrew their support from Carter and began actively campaigning against him. Reagan, they now believed, would be much more effective at combating the growing secularism and depravity of American life. The Moral Majority and its successor groups--Ralph Reed's Christian Coalition, James Dobson's Focus on the Family--have been fierce Republican Party loyalists ever since.

Approximately one-third of Americans describe themselves as evangelicals. Those millions of votes give them tremendous leverage with the GOP. In order to guarantee their continued support, the party has taken increasingly strident stands on the right flank of the culture wars, and never more so than under George W. Bush. The Bush White House has appointed right-wing justices to the Supreme Court. It has come out in support of a constitutional amendment banning gay marriage. It intervened in the right-to-die case of Terri Schiavo. It defends its foreign policy in quasi-theological terms. The president himself has even gone out of his way to portray himself as a born-again Christian whose decisions are guided by his personal relationship with the Lord. And as we've learned with the ongoing Justice Department scandal, Bush has packed his administration, at all levels, with conservative evangelicals--including numerous graduates from Falwell's fourth-rate Liberty University.

Those are Jerry Falwell's distinctive contributions to American political life. Falwell's death should serve as an occasion to reflect on the ambiguous goodness of all political ideals--very much including democracy.