Wednesday, May 16, 2007

That Old-Time Religion

-- by Sara

Well, Jerry Falwell's gone home to Jesus. It does mark the end of an era.

A bit of context is in order. It's important to note that Falwell was hardly a breakthrough phenomenon in the world of broadcast preachers. Oral Roberts and Jimmy Swaggart were already long on the scene when the Thomas Road Baptist Church began broadcasting its Old-Time Gospel Hour in 1968. Kathryn Kuhlman, radiant in her white gowns, was on TV calling in souls every week using a script lifted word for word from the one Sister Aimee Semple MacPherson used back in the 1920s. (The most recent heir to this lineage is Benny Hinn -- also in radiant white -- who still does Sister Aimee's schtick to perfection.). Falwell drew heavily on the same formula that broadcast preachers had used all the way back to Dwight Moody -- testimonies, healings, the big choir, individualized prayer, and the selling of blessed relics. Even the business of starting colleges was nothing new: Moody had done it in the 20s; and Oral Roberts University in Tulsa, OK graduated its first class the year before Falwell went on the air.

It wasn't the rather typical content of his show that made Falwell the defining TV preacher of his generation. It was his willingness to vault his big old bear-like self over the long-standing legal and theological line that kept preachers from openly engaging in politics. Evangelicals of that generation had been taught all their lives to eschew the things of this world -- to render unto Caesar the things that were Caesar's, and to God the things that were God's. That, very decidedly, meant no politicking. But as the 60s unraveled into the 70s, Falwell had the guts to look his growing (and increasingly terrified) flock in the eyes, and tell them that the only way they'd make an increasingly incomprehensible world right again was to get out into the streets and organize.

It was a message that they'd been waiting to hear. Falwell stepped up into the role of Moses, leading dispirited Evangelicals back to the promised land -- a road he insisted ran right through Washington, D.C. His political intentions were implicit in his design for Liberty University, which opened in Lynchburg, VA in 1971. Previous broadcast-preacher colleges were aimed at bringing up missionaries, choir directors, and local pastors; but Liberty soon established departments in law, business, accounting, and communications -- the skills required for the kind of political revolution Falwell had in mind. (It was a formula Pat Robertson would re-create 15 years later across the state at Regent University.)

During the 70s, Falwell -- using his massive direct-mail arm as a lab of sorts -- also narrowed in on gay rights and abortion as the two hot-button issues that would keep the religious right angry, mobilized, and writing those checks -- issues whose staying power led them to dominate the American political discourse for the next 30 years. These efforts eventually coalesced into the Moral Majority. Wikipedia notes that:
The Moral Majority was initiated as a result of a struggle for control of an American conservative Christian advocacy group known as Christian Voice during 1978. During a news conference by Christian Voice's founder, Robert Grant, he claimed that the Religious Right was a "sham... controlled by three Catholics and a Jew." Paul Weyrich, Terry Dolan, Richard Viguerie and Howard Phillips left Christian Voice. During a 1979 meeting, they urged televangelist Jerry Falwell to found Moral Majority. This was also the beginning of the New Christian Right.
Anyone who still wonders if there's racism at work in the religious right should ponder the fact that they had to throw "three Catholics and a Jew" overboard just to get the Moral Majority out of the dock.

The Moral Majority was the first overtly Evangelical political organization America had seen in over 50 years. It's remarkable now to look back and realize how fast it rose on the scene, mobilizing millions of Evangelicals and raising tens of millions of dollars for conservative Republican candidates. In two years flat, it got its preferred candidate into the White House -- and bought itself a front-line spot in the Reagan Revolution that followed.

But the glory faded through the 80s, as Falwell turned from churchbuilding and kingmaking to petty libel battles (most notably the one with Larry Flynt); as the press and the courts began to take notice of the ways in which he blurred the lines of church and state separation; and as politicians turned out to be very happy to take the Moral Majority's money, but less enthusiastic about enshrining its morality as federal law. His attempted turnaround of Jim Bakker's Heritage USA enterprises ended in bankruptcy court; and in 1989, the Moral Majority was absorbed into his friend and rival Pat Robertson's Christian Coalition.

Falwell himself was never much of a political or cultural force after that. But it's arguable that if there's one person without whom the religious right would never have risen -- and the GOP's hegemony would never have been possible -- Jerry Falwell was that guy. By organizing traditionally apolitical Evangelicals into the country's dominant political force, he provided the GOP with the essential base of support that's undergirded everything they've done in (and to) America over the past 27 years.

Jerry's gone. Pat Robertson is old and nuts. James Kennedy is in failing health. The old lions of the Christianist movement are heading off to their heavenly rewards -- leaving a new Evangelical generation to re-organize themselves for other battles, under other leaders who are ready to talk about other things besides gays and abortion --things, perhaps, like peace, justice, and the environment. Ironically, it seems that the same energy that fed the religious right is now toward flowing in a leftward direction. Falwell would definitely not approve, but I suspect Jesus would have been quite pleased.

Still, it was Falwell who gave American Evangelicals their first taste of political power -- and, having acquired that taste, it's doubtful they'll ever fully retreat into their quiet corner again.

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