Those who knew Falwell personally, both friends and enemies, describe him as a thoughtful, generous man with a disarming sense of humor. Even arch pornographer Larry Flynt, who crossed swords with Falwell many times, said that “My mother always told me that no matter how much you dislike a person, when you meet them face to face you will find characteristics about them that you like. Jerry Falwell was a perfect example of that. I hated everything he stood for, but after meeting him in person, (he) and I became good friends.”
Falwell’s rise to power is a fascinating study in the shifting paradigms of twentieth century politics. The year was 1980, and the administration of incumbent Democratic President Jimmy Carter was coming apart at the seams. A horrendous economy, soaring gas prices and American hostages in Iran left Americans loudly crying out for change. In addition, many conservative Christian voters who actively supported Carter (a devout Southern Baptist) felt very betrayed when the President’s liberal leanings began to show. Enter Jerry Falwell.
On the Republican side, Ronald Reagan was preaching a revival of Barry Goldwater inspired conservativism. Although Goldwater’s far-right crusade had failed miserably sixteen years earlier, Reagan mixed it with a warm optimism and a Christian-based social conscience on issues such as abortion and school prayer. With Falwell’s help, Reagan rallied the disenfranchised faithful, crushed Carter and became one of the most influential presidents of modern times. For better or worse, the new alliance between Evangelical Christians and the Republican Party was set.
Obviously, we cannot view these sort of events uncritically. Did the Republican Party suddenly undergo a religious revival in 1980? We may hope so, but remember, we are talking about politicians here. It is also noteworthy that Barry Goldwater himself was never comfortable with this new partnership, famously stating that “Every good Christian ought to kick Falwell right in the a**”.
Consequentially, some have questioned the validity of Falwell’s activism on legal grounds. Did the Reverend promote an illegitimate union between Church and State? I would answer a qualified no. Contrary to what some may claim, being a member of the clergy does not take away a person’s free speech rights. The law only prohibits ministers from endorsing candidates from the pulpit or from using church funds to support political campaigns. On their “own time,” they are perfectly free to speak at rallies, knock on doors and support their candidates of choice in whatever way the see fit.
At the same time, while Falwell’s right-wing crusades may have been legal, the question remains, were they wise? Although people of faith certainly have vital roles to play in the public arena, was all of the “Wrap the Flag Around the Cross” bravado really the best way to get the point across? The fruits of these efforts, at best, were mixed. Conservative pundit Cal Thomas, a former associate of Falwell’s, rightly points out that:
“The flaw in the movement was the perception that the church had become an appendage to the Republican Party and one more special interest group to be pampered. If one examines the results of the Moral Majority's agenda, little was accomplished in the political arena and much was lost in the spiritual realm, as many came to believe that to be a Christian meant you also must be ‘converted’ to the Republican Party and adopt the GOP agenda and its tactics.”
Nonetheless, the many positives of Falwell’s legacy will live on through his family, through the great church and university he founded, and through the lives of the countless faithful whom he inspired to make a difference in a dark world. Whether we agree with all of his methods or not, those are achievements that can all respect and learn from.