• John G. Stackhouse, Jr.

Jerry Falwell, Father of the Religious Right

The Reverend Jerry Falwell has gone to his reward. He departs this life with a significant résumé in public life. And if it weren’t for him, people like him wouldn’t have such résumés.

For in the 1970s Jerry Falwell led American fundamentalists out of their self-imposed seclusion from the mainstream of American culture. Since the 1925 Scopes evolution trial, fundamentalists had withdrawn from major American institutions, or lost battles over them, and devoted their considerable energies henceforth to forming their own parallel institutions: schools, colleges, seminaries, missionary societies, magazines, publishing houses, congregations, denominations, and more.

Jerry Falwell changed all that. Much as the indubitably right-wing politician Richard Nixon could open doors to China, the indubitably right-wing clergyman Falwell could open doors to American public life. And fundamentalists have surged through those doors ever since.

They have done so, furthermore, in strange company.

Since the Scopes debacle, fundamentalists had not just withdrawn from public life, but from everybody else. They came to make a virtue, in fact, of separation, and many fundamentalists excoriated Billy Graham for failing to keep himself properly isolated from those of other religious stripes. When Graham hosted mainline Protestants and even (!) Roman Catholics on his crusade platforms, fundamentalists believed he showed his true colours as a compromiser. The various Bob Joneses called him one of the two greatest threats, in fact, to true, safe Christianity in the world–the other being the Pope, of course.

But Jerry Falwell formed the Moral (note: not “Christian”) Majority, an alliance of what we now would call “social conservatives” as well as political conservatives that included not only non-fundamentalist Protestants and, yes, Roman Catholics, but also Jews, Mormons, and others beyond the Christian ambit.

The last three decades of American public life have arguably been dominated by those carrying forward his legacy and those fighting against it. The “culture wars” motif has been overdrawn, of course, just as the red/blue maps of the United States exaggerate American polarization and understate consensus. Nonetheless, there simply was no significant voice in American politics and culture for the concerns of Falwell and the millions of Americans who have since fallen in behind such leaders as Pat Robertson, Ralph Reed, James Dobson, and Charles Colson–and George W. Bush.

Ironically, however, just as Billy Graham and the “neo-evangelicals” of the 1940s (those who gave us the National Association of Evangelicals, Christianity Today, World Vision, Fuller Theological Seminary, and other such institutions) distanced themselves from fundamentalism for thirty years, with the ascendancy of Jerry Falwell and the Religious Right, many evangelicals have been desperately trying to distinguish themselves from this new kind of fundamentalism for the last thirty years.

For Falwell and Co. skillfully wove together a seamless garment of causes and views, such that if you said you were pro-life, you were presumed also to be against evolution, for the death penalty, against condoms in the schools, for the Republican Party, and so on. This “package,” to change the metaphor, became simply identified with orthodox Christianity, even though many traditional Protestants and Catholics disagreed with many parts of it.

Here in Canada, this situation was worse. Falwell’s kind of Christianity and politics was demonstrably unattractive to most evangelicals, let alone the country at large. Yet because Canada has grown no evangelical celebrities and power players like Falwell (Brian Stiller would have the highest profile, I suppose, and he has never exerted anything like the clout Falwell had), into this vacuum of readily-recognizable figures was easily put Americans such as Falwell.

Indeed, Falwell was one of those fundamentalists whom Canadian liberals (and Liberals) loved to hate. They conjured up his spectre to frighten Canadian voters against the Reform Party, the Canadian Alliance, and the Conservatives. “Give any attention to evangelicals,” the received wisdom went, “and you’ll have to deal with the likes of Jerry Falwell.”

So in a country in which he exerted almost no direct influence (epigones of Falwell’s such as Charles McVety lack standing even among most evangelicals), Jerry Falwell exerted considerable indirect influence as a political and cultural bogeyman.

But in his own country, the country that influences the rest of the world as none other does, Jerry Falwell deserves to be numbered among the most important Americans of the last fifty years.