Jerry Falwell, Chancellor and founder of Liberty University and The Moral Majority has passed away today. Falwell had a major impact upon American Christianity and politics in the 1970's and 1980's by encouraging Evangelical Christians to get involved in the political process and elect conservative candidates who shared their moral values. He was very effective in reminding Christians of their political responsibilty and was instrumental in leading Evangelical Christians out of the Fundamentalist Retreat that had characterized their existence on the national scene since the Scopes Monkey Trial of 1925. The primary result was the election of Ronald Reagan in 1980 and a resurgence of conservative political power led by Evangelicals.
Dr. Falwell will be honored by many for his accomplishments over the next few days and he certainly did accomplish a great deal. I was never a very big fan of his activities, however. I believe that he was the leader of a movement that capitalized on a great deal of selfishness in American Christianity. What I mean by that is, the Christian conservative political movement led by men like Pat Robertson, D. James Kennedy, James Dobson, and Jerry Falwell was primarily interested in reclaiming America for God and protecting conservative Christian values. The gist of the movement seemed to be that we keep America nice for us so that we can have a nice country and live happy lives. At least that is how I took it. The main issues surrounded moral values, and while I agreed heartily with many of the positions of the conservative Chrisitan movement, over time, I found them to be hollow and self serving. Abortion, for example, is something that I absolutely disagree with. Therefore, I favor the movement against it led by these men. However, the movement never gained much traction because it was never able to mobilize grass roots action to stem the tide of teen pregnancy and it's incubator, urban poverty among minorities and the lower classes. It seemed that we were against abortion in theory and we voted that way, but there was little movement beyond protest to really do something about invtervening with young girls who were most at risk BEFORE they got pregnant, or after to save the baby's life by providing options. Some of that occurred, but not nearly enough.
The problem with the conservative Christian political movement can also be shown by the timing of it's birth. In the 1960's, Falwell was asked his opinion of liberal ministers who were marching against segregation in the South. His response was essentially that he was too busy carrying out the pastoral duties of his church and doing evangelism. He had no time for political activity. This was the consensus belief of Evangelicals during this time period, especially Southern Baptists. We were either silent or we opposed reform regarding the biggest domestic moral issue of the 20th Century, the repeal of segregation in the South and equal treatment for Blacks. However, when Roe V. Wade came down in 1973, Falwell became engaged with transforming the moral and political landscape of our country. Why the change? Why were politics below him in the 1960's when human beings were being denied civil rights and were being beaten and blasted with fire hoses, but were his tool when abortion was legalized? If he had awoken to his responsibility then and helped stand against inequality and abortion, he would have been consistent and much more effective. However, it was obvious that the conservative Christian agenda was narrow in focus regarding the issues that were important to white evangelical Christians.
This inconsistency has led to a whole host of problems in our nation, in my opinion. When James Dobson came to Montgomery, AL to protest the removal of the 10 Commandments from the Supreme Court building a few years ago, he invoked the memory of Rosa Parks and the Montgomery Bus Boycott by saying that American Evangelical Christians were not going to ride in the back of the bus. To compare segregation and Jim Crow with the removal of the 10 Commandments is an historical mistake that could only be made by an affluent person who had never been truly persecuted. I was shocked at the hubris of such a statement, but then I realized that this movement is primarily about protecting OUR rights and OUR country. It was primarily about us, and because of that, it failed.
I did not know Jerry Falwell personally, so my comments are not directed to how nice of a man he was or wasn't. I can only speak to his public positions. While I too desire to see America honor God and be moral, I recognize that politics are not the avenue for change in this country. Politics require compromise and the lure of power is always contaminating. No, as Christians, we should seek to transform society by what we do, not by our votes. Politicians cannot protect America from evil, but we should work hard to make America great by transforming and rebuilding our cities, by ministering justice to the least of our citizens, and by truly being salt and light to a dying world. We should be marked by compassion and we should stand for those who cannot stand for themselves. Our work to save the unborn should go beyond the ballot box and we should work for equal opportunity for all of our citizens, regardless of race, gender, or religion. We should be consistent and actually live out our political principles and apply that action to all people. Maybe then people will see that we mean what we say and that we are not just acting in self interest.
I am not saying that Dr. Falwell did not agree with those positions. He might have. Maybe his enemy was the media who only reported on the political facet of his work. I know that Pat Roberston founded Operation Blessing which has done enormous good. My point is that Jerry Falwell was known for trying to change America primarily through the political arena, and because of that emphasis, I feel that he failed. However, I don't entirely blame him. It seems that he gained a large following because he was taking us where we all wanted to go anyway. Maybe we have learned and we will head a different course. One positive thing from his life is that we learned that when Christians are united, we can make an incredible difference in our country. The negative lesson is, when our energy is focused in the wrong direction, we can also cause harm and weaken the message of Jesus that is not always compatible with the politics of the Religious Right.
Let us not give up doing good and trying to change our nation. But, let us do it with a prophetic voice, not beholden to political processes. Jesus is bigger than political parties and power plays and His salvation is for all who believe in Him and are transformed in their hearts. As Jesus began his earthly ministry, he quoted Isaiah 61. If we read further, maybe Isaiah 61 can be a guide as to how change can really happen:
1 The Spirit of the Sovereign LORD is on me,
because the LORD has anointed me
to preach good news to the poor.
He has sent me to bind up the brokenhearted,
to proclaim freedom for the captives
and release from darkness for the prisoners,
2 to proclaim the year of the LORD's favor
and the day of vengeance of our God,
to comfort all who mourn,
3 and provide for those who grieve in Zion—
to bestow on them a crown of beauty
instead of ashes,
the oil of gladness
instead of mourning,
and a garment of praise
instead of a spirit of despair.
They will be called oaks of righteousness,
a planting of the LORD
for the display of his splendor.
4 They will rebuild the ancient ruins
and restore the places long devastated;
they will renew the ruined cities
that have been devastated for generations.
Maybe we can begin to turn our attention to verse 4 and live out what we profess to believe on a national scale. If Dr. Falwell brought us together and that was the ultimate result, then his legacy will be one worth leaving.
Update: As I have read other comments on Dr. Falwell's life, I realize that my comments here could be taken negatively regarding the whole man. I am primarily reacting to his political activities as that is what I am most aware of. I never really followed his ministry or was that close to it at all. For all of the good that he did in his life and ministry through living an upstanding life and leading many to faith in Jesus, I salute him. My comments are primarily directed to the effectiveness of his political legacy for the rest of us.