You are currently viewing archive for May 2007
Looking back on the era in which evangelicals and political conservatives came together to reshape the American political landscape, Jerry Falwell praised Ronald Reagan as his “Christian hero.” Recalling their first meeting at the White House, “early in [Reagan’s] first term,” the minister departed the Oval Office convinced the newly elected President was “an answer to prayer.” Falwell, the founder of the Moral Majority and a key apostle of the newly mobilized “Christian Right,” rushed “to tell the evangelical world that a new day had dawned in America,” spreading the good news that the President of the United States not only valued the evangelical community, but he viewed them as indispensable allies in forestalling the “nation’s moral collapse."

Over the next two decades, the exultant glow of Falwell’s recollection and his faith in Ronald Reagan remained unshakable. Examinations of Reagan and his relationship with religious conservatives often commence with a form of this question: how did a divorced, moderate-drinking, former movie star turned politician come to epitomize the perfect American statesman for so many evangelicals? Falwell’s comments illustrate at least a partial answer. Reagan appealed to religious conservatives because he embraced their issues and was comfortable speaking their language—and, most significantly, evangelicals found him authentic.

The rise of Ronald Reagan and the revolution that bears his name coincided with the resurgence of conservative evangelicalism in the latter half of the twentieth century. Born (or reborn) in the early moments of the Cold War, both movements shared a compatible worldview: religious conservatives and Cold Warriors each regarded their cause as part of a cosmic struggle, employed a similar oratory of good and evil and expected apocalyptic consequences if they failed in their task.

Coming to personify the “new conservative” political movement, Reagan espoused a set of “timeless” values, “rights and wrongs” and absolutes. His message resonated with a swelling evangelical political activism during the 1970s and 1980s. Reagan, often called the “Great Communicator,” went to evangelicals and effortlessly connected with them, speaking their language; even more significant, he oftentimes employed the vernacular of evangelicals in the secular world. During the Reagan era, and beyond, the rhetoric of conservatism and the rhetoric of evangelical Protestantism was often the same.

Jerry Falwell, with a genius for political engagement based on religious principles, like Reagan, understood the emerging common cause. Falwell transcended the world of "televangelists" to bring together two powerful and historic currrents of American society and help refashion our political culture.
As Jerry Falwell is remembered this week, I am sure that someone will bring up his suspicions of the civil rights movement during the 1960s. Among other things, he seems to have believed some of the rumors about Martin Luther King, Jr., and the Communist Party circulating in the South.

No man completely transcends his time and place. Falwell was a white Southerner during a time of momentous changes. Changes so profound that those of us from farther north perhaps cannot fathom the dislocation felt by those who went through them in Dixie.

But, a man should be judged by the legacy he leaves from over a lifetime of work. Falwell's most lasting legacy is Liberty University. According the the official website of the school, of its 9,558 residential students in 2005-2006, 79% were white and 10% were African American. Of the distance learning students, 69% were white and 17% African American. Liberty would not appear to qualify as a racist institution.

And speaking of hate, would you rather be a conservative speaker at Columbia or Harvard, or a liberal speaker at Liberty U.? Which audience do you think would behave most respectfully toward you?

I am not a Falwell fan on all counts, but give the man his due.

Earlier posts here and here.
In my earlier post I attempted to take the long view, giving what I think will be the paragraph or two devoted to him in the history books a century from now. In doing so I omitted some of his more controversial aspects.

Gateway Pundit has coverage of the anti-Falwell blogosphere reaction, including comments being added to his site.

I now want to address three controversial aspects of Falwell's career.

1) His anti-homosexual-practice stance and preaching. While Falwell usually was condemning the practice of same-sex sex, and the political activity of groups like ActUp, his own rhetoric could be heated. It is indisputably true that he advocated, over and over again, hating the sin but loving the sinner. It is also indisputably true that his rhetoric sometimes seemed harsh and loveless on the topic. I think the explanation lies in the nature of conservative Southern preaching. Populist rhetoric in the South, whether preacher or politician, has as one of its necessary motifs "the enemy" who is condemned harshly and made fun of. (Think George Wallace and the "pointy-headed intellectuals who can't even park a bicycle straight.") Falwell did not overcome this aspect of his background.

2) His initial comments following 9/11 that God was punishing our nation. While offensive to many people, Falwell was in the direct line of preachers going back to New England Puritans and beyond them to English Divines who interpreted historical events in light of the actions of a righteous God. Disaster, to these preachers, always called for self-examination to see what sins God was punishing. Days of Prayer and Fasting following setbacks always included confession of sins, individual and corporate. Cotton Mather would have made comments similar to Falwell.

3) His involvement in the PTL ministry after the fall of Jim Baker. I am unaware that a full and unbiased accounting has yet been made of Falwell's actions in what may have been an attempt to "save" PTL. Baker himself remains bitter over Falwell's involvement and thinks it was a power play over assets. Perhaps a biographer in 40 years can sort it all out.

More on Falwell and race here.

Earlier post on Falwell and history.
Jerry Falwell is dead. Story here.

Pastor Falwell was an old-fashioned evangelical. By that description I do not mean your grandparents' conservative Christianity. No, he was a throwback to the evangelicalism of the mid 19th century. Evangelicals 160 years ago were busy founding congregations and gathering a growing America into them. Falwell founded a new congregation in an old bottling plant in Lynchberg, Virginia, and grew it into the 20,000+ member Thomas Road Baptist Church. Evangelicals 160 years ago were founding institutions to improve and Christianize America, such as schools and colleges and orphanages. Falwell founded a college, now the 7000+ student Liberty University, Christian schools, a treatment center for alcoholics, and a home for unwed mothers. Evangelicals 160 years ago were politically active, pouring lots of energy into partisan politics, mostly on the side of Whigs and later Republicans, hoping to create a Christian America. Falwell helped found the Moral Majority and was its spokesman as it helped Ronald Reagan win the presidency.

Perhaps his most noticable contribution to U.S. history was the way he led Southern evangelicals into politics. The 19th-century evangelicals I described above were overwhelmingly northern. Southern evangelicals, succumbing to the social pressure to preserve slavery and later segregation, tended to preach an individualistic, heaven-when-you-die salvation, and leave the social order and politics alone. (Most Southern Baptist deacons of old put their political energies into the Klan and the Democrat Party, but the churches as churches were not political.) Falwell changed all of that. Alarmed by secularization, free-speech turned into a defense of pornography, and elites hostile to traditional values, southern evangelicals rallied to Falwell's banner. He helped change things.

Rest in Peace, Brother Falwell.

See also my later post on Falwell and controversy.
The Pope recently reaffirmed traditional Roman Church teaching that certain actions disqualify one from receiving communion. Among these actions are support for abortion. The context of his remarks is the practice of some politicians trying to be both pro-abortion and Roman Catholic at the same time.

My view. You belong to the club, you abide by its rules. If your bowling league says you have to make 14 out of 16 Thursday nights to remain a member, then that is what you do. If the Lodge says you must wear an apron, memorize esoteric jargon, and be regular at the ceremonies, then that is what you do. If you want to belong to a Baptist Church they will put you under water for baptism and will not baptize your infant son. If you want to be Roman Catholic, you may not support abortion.

If you don't want to abide by the rules of the organization, then quit and find a more congenial group. Kennedy and Kerry, have you checked out the UCC?
This succinct and insightful Tocqueville comment from a recent thread merits attention:

Guest Blog: Tocqueville

People of faith should acknowledge that the countervailing force of secular thought has been an important corrective to the excesses and blindnesses of religious believers. But ardent secularists have their own blindnesses and excesses, among which is their failure to see how much their own conceptions of justice and human dignity rely upon the very religious traditions they reject. Secularism alone cannot suffice to address the largest questions about human existence.

Accordingly, secularists should aim at a reasonable modus vivendi with the believers around them, rather than to invest themselves in pointlessly polarizing struggles over the Pledge of Allegiance or faith-based initiatives and in complaining, absurdly, that America is becoming a theocracy. If they save their criticisms for the things that matter, they will be heard.

The Okie Gardner notes that today is the National Day of Prayer. He offers an instructive scholarly summary of how Christian a nation we are (here).

Recently, in my Sunday School class at Church, we have been discussing the proper role of the Ten Commandments in the life of the church, the nation, and in our own personal spiritual journey. Here are some thoughts from that discussion:

I have two basic assertions in re the Ten Commandments:

1. In reality, public deference to the Ten Commandments as a symbol does not pose a significant danger to our national political-legal culture.

2. In reality, fidelity to the Ten Commandments within our Christian community and individual lives does not deter us from reaching our potential as Christians in God’s service.

Part I: History and Politics: The United States of America has always been a very Christian place. While it is true that the Constitution is one of the most secular public documents ever written, the secular government hammered out in that famous compact has always rested upon a very Christian culture. There has always been a tension in this arrangement. For example, the Bill or Rights forbade the establishment of a national religion, even as the national politicians understood that local entities would continue to support state-sanctioned churches for presumably generations (the last state with an established church, Massachusetts, disestablished of its own accord in the 1830s).

Back to the tension: We (the people) are responsible for preserving a healthy balance between secular government and American culture with its heavy Christian influences. We (the people) must take care that the church never hijacks the government, but it is also in our interests to prevent the government from sanitizing the culture of its religious underpinnings.

Where are we now? Are the nutty fundamentalist theocrats really a threat to take over?

W. Lee “Pass the Biscuits, Pappy!” O’Daniel ran for governor of Texas in 1938 on the platform of “the Ten Commandments, the Golden Rule and increased old-age pensions.” With the help of God and the "Light Crust Doughboys," O’Daniel won comfortably.

However, with all due respect to the historical impact of “Pappy” O’Daniel, rarely has the Decalogue played a prominent role in American politics. Currently, there is no significant movement on our national political scene that seeks to impose a Christian version of “sharia” law on the public square. That is, even the most radical proponents of displaying the Ten Commandments in public spaces do not advocate implementation of the Decalogue as public law. For example, even the famous Alabama Ten Commandments judge, Roy Moore, does not propose to sentence adulterers, coveters, idol worshippers, and Sabbath breakers for crimes against God’s law.

So, let us be clear; a campaign to install the Ten Commandments as a binding code of public law is not a surging political movement on the march. To insinuate otherwise merely clouds the issue with scary hyperbole.

Then, what is this discussion about?

Consider the two most celebrated Ten Commandments cases in recent years:

1) Van Orden v. Perry, a ruling hailed as a great victory for the Ten Commandments, in which the Texas State Capitol won the right to keep its monument to the Ten Commandments on public grounds;

and 2) McCreary County [Kentucky] v. ACLU, in which the Court held that display of the Ten Commandments in two county court rooms violated the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment, ordering two Kentucky counties to remove the display.

Writing as a dissenter in the Texas (Van Orden) case, Justice John Paul Stevens wrote:

"The adornment of our public spaces with displays of religious symbols and messages undoubtedly provides comfort, even inspiration, to many individuals who subscribe to particular faiths. Unfortunately, the practice also runs the risk of "offend[ing] nonmembers of the faith being advertised as well as adherents who consider the particular advertisement disrespectful" (full opinions available here).

We are back to a balancing act: inspiration, comfort and acknowledgement for the majority versus offense and alienation to a minority.

This is a significant question. As Americans we are dedicated to protecting the rights of minorities. As Christians, we ought to be sensitive to the feelings of others. The question (to paraphrase Justice Stephen Breyer in the aforementioned cases) becomes one of judgment.

How much injury does a monument to the Ten Commandments on the grounds of the Texas State Capitol do to citizens who are not Jews, Christians or Muslims?

It is a public discussion very much worth having. Let’s have it at some point.

Part II: The Ten Commandments as Profitable Moral Precepts:

Within our own community (church, Sunday School class, my home), I further suggest that we should have a discussion framed around questions like these:

• Do these injunctions conflict with or support our sense of what Christ wants from us?

• Do these principles of conduct conform to the Sermon on the Mount?

• Do these exhortations flow toward making us better citizens and neighbors?

• Do any of these commandments do us harm?

Below is the inscription on the celebrated monument on the Texas State Capitol grounds:

» Read More