Strengthening Constitutional Self-Government

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Jerry Falwell, RIP

I have to disagree a bit with Peter’s contention below that Falwell was not a master of nuance or theology. I have a soft spot for Falwell for a couple of particular reasons. True, he said some stupid things from time to time (and I rap him for it in my forthcoming book on the Reagan preidential years), but it is also true that he never got a fair shake from the media. On one point he was quite sound: He usually insisted that the Moral Majority was a political and not a religious movement. This distinction was lost on the media, and also on too many of his comrades in arms such as Pat Robertson, and I think Falwell’s deciding to fold up the Moral Majority in the late 1980s was shrwed and points to a substantive difference between him and Robertson--a nuance, if you like.

There was one of other thing about Falwell I liked. In LA in the 1980s, Falwell’s Old Time Gospel Hour was broadcast at the same time as Jimmy Swaggert. I would tell people to toggle back and forth between Swaggert, who was leaping around the stage, crying, singing (after the style of his cousin Jerry Lee Lewis), and making absolutely no sense at all, and Falwell, who would be fixed behind the pulpit, usually saying something like "This week’s Bible verse comes from Ephesians, chapter 2, where Paul instructs us on. . ." Then there would follow a typical, calmly presented Baptist exegesis on the text. The contrast between Falwell and Swaggert couldn’t have been more dramatic and, I think, meaningful. To the contrary of Peter, Falwell was the only one of the TV preachers I could stand to watch.

Discussions - 15 Comments

Mr Hayward,

You have indicated nicely the difference between Fundamental Christians - those in the anabaptist wing of the faith who wanted to recover Biblical inerrancy in the context of traditional Christian belief - and pop culture Evangelicalism. Fundamentalists are not anti-intellectual, quite the opposite - they have a Text they interpret with the utmost care and moral seriousness. They choose to circumscribe their intellectual inquiry, but they are not without their own form of rigour and moral seriousness. Swaggert (and the name-it-and-claim-it posse which followed him) not Falwell, is the high-tech heir to Flannery O'Connor's hayseed charismatics.

Furthermore, Falwell understood the need for an intellectual infrastructure for his movement. That doesn't make him Thomas Aquinas; he did not have the background for that. But the University he founded succeeds in educating, not just indoctrinating. Liberty's law school has a moot court team which has defeated Harvard's. All this is to say nothing of Fallwell's home for unwed mothers, his outreach to alcoholics, etc.

Anyone with the public position Falwell had (and a microphone in front of his face for 30 years), will get carried away and say a handfull of silly things. He did. But the good that he did will not be buried with his bones, his school, his law school, and his charitable institutions will remain. His political works will remain also, and the good already outweighs the bad by some margin.

I guess I am more with Peter on this one. Perhaps the reason people like Robertson did not distinguish between Falwell's political message and his theological message, is because he gave theological justifications for his political actions. In that sense, it was a religious movement and his supporters were of a religious variety. He obviously had to know that.

Very good, wm and amen.

Every foolish thing Falwell said was magnified by the media in the effort to discredit him. I wonder what he said that was good and never made it to public ears because it would be to his credit. Maybe I should have listened to him. His "moral majority" was already out there, but it was good to have a rallying point, and clarity on some issues. It must have taken a great deal of courage to do what he did.

Erik, the faithful carry their religious principles with them into the political arena. They can't help it, morality being an aspect of politics. One can politicize theology, or merely let theology inform political decisions. There is a distinction.

Hey Kate,

Yes I know there's a distinction, that is why I used the word justified (justifications). There is a difference between it informing one's actions and being the basis of one's actions.

Mega-dittoes on Steve's post. The Blob demonized Falwell, and, in some cases, prevented even conservatives from appreciating him. He was an outstanding leader who did more for this country than all but a small handful of others in his lifetime.

Taking a break from grading papers, I promised Kate on the thread below I would relate a story about Jerry Falwell: Back at the beginning of the Gingrich Congress in 1995 my wife, who had just been appointed to a position by the new Speaker, was smeared on the front page of the New York Times as an anti-Semite and was abruptly fired, causing a mini-firestorm. Later that same week, we were invited to a Sabbath party at the home of the Bureau Chief of Israeli TV in Washington, along with many officials from the Israeli Embassy and AIPAC (the Israelis had better sources than the NY Times, and had reason to care about the truth). That evening, we had a long and memorable conversation with the then officer in charge of inter-religious affairs at the Embassy. He regaled us with the story of his attempt to reconcile key American Jewish leaders and leaders of evangelical Protestantism. It was important to Israel to foster good relations between evangelical types and major Jewish organizations, for obvious reasons. A major Jewish organization had recently issued a report accusing Jerry Falwell among others of anti-Jewish sentiments because of their position that Jews could not be saved. So, the official arranged for the various parties to spend a day together in the same room to talk, among whom was Rev. Falwell. The day started out frostily, with no one speaking a word. According to our friend, Falwell broke the ice by going up to a well known Jewish leader and with a smile on his face informing him that he didn't understand. It was not personal. It didn't have anything to do with Jews. After all, his own father wasn't saved, his grandfater wasn't saved, and etc.........! Jerry at least TRIED to charm his accuser! We then, as I recall, had an interesting discussion about differences between Catholic and evangelical doctrine on salvation and agreed it was hard to know who was to be saved and who not, a wonderfully Machiavellian (in the best sense) Catholic understanding. As Peter said, Falwell's strength was probably not theology. But I am sure he rests in the bosom of Abraham.

Thank you. That is another interesting perspective on the man. However, isn't that view of salvation part of Baptist theology? Some of my kids went to a Baptist school for a couple of years and who was or was not saved seemed to be part of every week's chapel program. The pastor of that church expressed no equivocation on the matter.

Kate, the GENERAL Catholic view is, that since salvation is a matter of the disposition of the heart, which is primarily interior, judgement with regard to damnation remains a mystery. This can be seen as early as in the thought of Augustine, who argued against the possibility of a Christian polity in part on grounds that one could not know who was and was not regenerate. Baptists of course do not have an official theology (there is no teaching authority) but we noticed equivocation when we hobnobbed with Baptists in the early 90's. Accepting Christ as one's personal savior seemed in one sense unequivocal, but in practice they admitted backsliding. Shakespeare teaches that the external world has not changed as a result of the incarnation--but what has changed has the inside. But what difference does that make?

Robert, The variety of Baptists is staggering and no, there is no real authority for any official Baptist theology. From the Free-Will Baptist to the Reformed Baptist they exhibit a sliding scale of belief between the Arminian and the Calvinist on this topic, alone. The pastor of church that sponsored that school my kids attended insisted you had to be a Baptist to be saved, though a later pastor of the same church allowed for a more general type of salvation.

The exclusivity of the matter for some folks can descend to the ridiculous, as when the wife of the pastor of one very small church told me that I had to make my husband join their congregation because only members of their church had a place in Heaven, and yet she couldn't imagine me not to be saved. I suppose it was as a sweet a thing she could have ever said to me. As their church consisted of family and a few close friends it made Heaven seem a very exclusive club.

As to the backsliding issue, you can get a group of Baptists to argue all day about the "once saved, always saved" issue and if right or wrong behavior really has anything at all to do with salvation.

What you say about the "GENERAL" Catholic view is interesting to me because of the variety of belief I have encountered within the Catholic Church. Some might as well be Lutherans. Within the American Catholic Church there can be a very democratic attitude as in "The Pope does not speak for me in that." and a multitude of mini-schisms flourish.

Many Protestants agree with Augustine on that and other points. In this case, it was a reason why Falwell's call to Christian involvement in politics could be controversial in some churches where a distance from such worldly things was seen as evidence of one's holiness.

(I don't think I understand what you are saying about Shakespeare there at the end.)

For conservatives, the only appropriate response to Jerry Falwell was the comment of Barry Goldwater:

"Every good Christian out to give Jerry Falwell a swift kick in the ass."

Larry, I've read one of your books, and I'm generally a fan of Darwinian conservativism, but I didn't realize you were such a horse's butt. Too bad.

Kate, by GENERAL, I meant the mainstream theological position. I am certain the new Catechism is consistent with this. True, some Catholics may err for one reason or another, but there is only one Catholic position when the Church speaks clearly and directly. The Shakespeare comment was slightly random. I was referring to the teaching, especially of his later plays such as Cymbeline, that deal in part with the relation of Christianity to the political. The Christian revelation affects the inside, the interior of the person, or of some persons, but does not affect the political. The world remains the same insofar as the essential questions and constraints of politics is concerned. He is dealing with the challenge to classical political philosophy posed by Augustine and Machiavelli, in slightly different ways. Political life must still be addressed largely on its own terms. I liked your point about separatism. See Philip Hamburger's book on "separation" of church and state in America. The early sections deal with the effect the protestant notion of separation from the impure world had on the success of the Jeffersonian enlightenment secular version of separation in the 19th Century. Thanks...


Could you explain why Barry Goldwater was wrong about Falwell? Would you say that Falwell had a better understanding of conservatism than did Goldwater? Goldwater has been generally rejected by the evangelicals. Would you say that they correctly saw that Goldwater did not understand conservative political thought?

Goldwater's position on the evangelicals has recently been defended by Victor Gold in his book INVASION OF THE PARTY SNATCHERS. Could you explain why you reject Gold's defense of the Goldwater position?

Can you explain why you are Larry Arnhart?

Rev. Falwell focused traditionalism in this country and helped give it a political voice. Barry Goldwater was essentially a libertarian. 'Nuff said.

Larry, don't you write about the fact that traditionalism is the very embodiment of tried-and-true folkways inherent in our biology? And that this makes true conservativism and religious traditionalism very compatible? Why would you dislike Falwell's movement?

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