In the fall of 1981, Yale president A. Bartlett Giamatti welcomed the university’s new freshman class with a blast at the Moral Majority, a pressure group of religious conservatives founded two years earlier whose most visible spokesman was the Rev. Jerry Falwell. Giamatti told students that Falwell and his ilk were moralistic authoritarians whose injection of religion into politics was responsible for a “new meanness of spirit in our land” and “resurgent bigotry.” Giamatti’s attack on Falwell and the religious right landed on the front page of the New York Times and made headlines around the country. Conservative journalist William F. Buckley, Jr., had the best riposte, as usual, scoffing that “to be lectured against the perils of the Moral Majority on entering Yale is on the order of being lectured on the dangers of bedbugs on entering a brothel.”
Jerry Falwell was one of the most consistently unpopular public figures of his time. He was also, according to Michael Sean Winters’ new biography, God’s Right Hand: How Jerry Falwell Made God a Republican and Baptized the American Right, one of the most consequential. Indeed, Winters maintains that Falwell reshaped American religion, American politics and the Republican Party – not necessarily in that order – and that his influence has persisted to the present day, even though Falwell died in 2007.
In Winters’ view, Falwell was the figure principally responsible for galvanizing fundamentalist and evangelical Christians to political engagement after their long self-imposed exile from the cultural mainstream following the Scopes trial – though, ironically, Falwell had delivered a famous 1965 sermon criticizing Martin Luther King, Jr., and other pro-civil rights ministers for participating in politics. Falwell and the Moral Majority mobilized social conservatives around support for laissez-faire capitalism, low taxes, American exceptionalism, anti-communism and pro-Israel foreign policy, and opposition to abortion, secularism, liberalism and homosexuality.
Falwell broke new ground by persuading Protestants to make common cause with members of other religious groups, including Catholics and Jews, who formerly had been objects of suspicion and prejudice. And by reviving the Republican Party at the grassroots, Falwell empowered conservatives to first take over the GOP, then to elect Ronald Reagan as president in 1980, and finally to break up the New Deal coalition and enable Republican domination of Congress, starting with the 1994 elections that made Newt Gingrich speaker of the House. The price, however, was that the Republican Party came to resemble Falwell’s theology: rigid, incapable of compromise, intellectually incurious, and possessed of a tendency to see its opponents as not just misguided but evil.
Winters has written an engaging and thoughtful biography, and does a good job of tracing Falwell’s development: his dysfunctional upbringing in the Jim Crow South, his conversion to fundamentalism in 1952, his founding of the Thomas Road Baptist Church and what became Liberty University, his rise to celebrity with his “Old Time Gospel Hour” television show and his entrance into politics with the aim of restoring what he believed to be America’s lost moral purity. Regrettably, however, Winters doesn’t seem to have interviewed Falwell or any of his family or close associates, and his archival research covers Falwell’s public pronouncements rather than the internal operations of his religious, educational and political empires.
Winters is sharply critical of Falwell in many aspects. He points out that Falwell and the Moral Majority made “no attempt to engage in the daunting task of devising anything like a coherent Christian philosophy for political engagement.” He takes Falwell to task for his defense of segregation and South African apartheid, his demonization of the forces opposing him, his tendency to reduce religion to ethics, his divisive political impact and the ways in which his activities sometimes discredited religion and contributed to the growing number of Americans who have rejected religious affiliations. But Winters also defends the importance of religion in American life, the legitimacy of Falwell’s participation in democratic politics, his underrated contributions in purging fundamentalist Protestantism of anti-Semitism and anti-Catholicism, and his ability to disarm critics and even forge unlikely friendships with former enemies such as Senator Ted Kennedy and pornographer Larry Flynt.
Winters’ only departure from fairness comes when he ascribes excessive importance to his subject. Winters fails to note that the reemergence of fundamentalists and evangelicals as a political force first came with their support of Jimmy Carter’s presidential candidacy in 1976 rather than Reagan’s in 1980. He overlooks numerous political studies contending that evangelical conservatives began voting Republican out of opposition to civil rights rather than because of the stimulus of the Moral Majority, and he exaggerates the extent to which even born-again white Protestants agreed with the group’s positions.
Even so, socially conservative religion undoubtedly plays a larger role in Republican politics, and American life in general, than it did before Falwell emerged on the political scene. Winters’ account offers many suggestive parallels between the rise of hard-edged conservative religion and the decline of mainline churches and moderate Republican politics. Falwell makes an excellent case study of the tendency over the past four decades for religio-political forces rooted in nativism, doctrinal certitude, anti-establishment populism and fear of change to displace forces based on cosmopolitanism, intellectual searching, tradition, accommodation and progressivism. Expressions of this change may be seen in Tea Party gatherings, empty pews at many long-established congregations, and the inability of many Republican legislators to depart from conservative orthodoxy even when the nation’s solvency is at stake. Americans who seek a new balance in religious and political life will have to reckon with Falwell’s legacy.
— Geoffrey Kabaservice is a columnist for The New Republic and a visiting research fellow at the Roosevelt House institute of public policy at Hunter College, New York City. His most recent book is Rule and Ruin: The Downfall of Moderation and the Destruction of the Republican Party, from Eisenhower to the Tea Party (Oxford University Press, 2012).