• John G. Stackhouse, Jr.

The Ghost of Jerry Falwell Haunts the GOP Still

The following post was prompted by the recent Pew poll that found churchgoing white evangelicals (otherwise not defined) as supporting Donald Trump in the same proportion as infrequent churchgoers–and a majority of each were on his side. Often, the two cohorts differ, but not this time. 

Nine presidential campaigns ago, Jerry Falwell—Senior—led millions of American fundamentalists out of the political wilderness and into the Promised Land. His son and namesake’s appearance at the Republican Convention this past week in Cleveland marks simply another milestone in the ongoing success story of the elder Falwell’s political agenda.

As the University of Notre Dame’s George Marsden detailed in his magisterial study of Fundamentalism and American Culture (Oxford, 1980), the broad tradition of evangelical Christianity that dominated nineteenth-century American culture fractured into various mutually exclusive streams by the early twentieth.

Social gospel Christianity, led by the Detroit pastor Walter Rauschenbusch, carried on the evangelical tradition of caring for the poor, and especially for the victims of a rapidly changing urban industrial economy.

Pentecostal Christianity, emerging most obviously in the revival on Azusa Street, Los Angeles, in the first decade of the century, carried forward the tradition of intense spirituality going back to the Great Awakening of the 1700’s.

Fundamentalist Christianity, hardening into a subculture in the disputes with liberal Christianity and an increasingly secular society in the 1920’s, maintained a narrow focus upon doctrinal orthodoxy, yes, but also emphasized personal moral purity, evangelistic fervor, and a custodial concern for the nation. When fundamentalism lost out in those controversies, with the Scopes “Monkey” Trial of 1925 being a particular turning point, fundamentalists washed their hands of America and retreated into a parallel culture: their own schools, their own media, and their own mores.

It was Jerry Falwell who brought them back.

Falwell had impeccable fundamentalist credentials. A rock-ribbed Southern Baptist pastor with a burgeoning television ministry, Falwell stood for all the things fundamentalists stood for—with one huge exception: He didn’t want to surrender American culture to non-evangelical forces. He wanted, to coin a phrase, to make America great again.

Fundamentalists on their own, however, could not make that happen. Numerous as they were, they needed to shed their separatist streak, forged in the bitter disappointments of the fundamentalist-modernist controversy. They had to be willing to make alliances not only with non-fundamentalist Christians—a radical enough proposition—but even with non-Christians (as fundamentalists saw them), which category included Catholics and Mormons, as well as Jews and cultural conservatives of other stripes.

The way Falwell helped fundamentalists return to cultural engagement was to play to their most basic concerns: freedom to preach the gospel and to practice Christianity without interference—thus connecting fundamentalism with anti-state political sentiment; promotion of personal purity—thus connecting fundamentalism with moral causes focusing on sexuality; and the return to America’s messianic calling of being a Christian “light to the nations”—thus connecting fundamentalism with American nationalism and fear of foreign elements in American life.

Roe v. Wade (1973) had already aroused fundamentalist ire, coming as it did after the liberalization of divorce laws and other indications of an erosion of what would soon be termed “traditional family values.” It is no surprise that psychologist James Dobson, with his call to “focus on the family,” found a ready audience among fundamentalists who were already feeling that the family—a key social bulwark of fundamentalism against an encroaching world—was under attack.

Dartmouth historian Randall Balmer has traced the fundamentalist coalition not only to the anti-abortion concerns stemming from Roe v. Wade, though, but also to the Bob Jones University case of the same years. However much racism figured among some of the fundamentalist supporters for BJU’s resistance to interracial dating and marriage, the broader fundamentalist movement rallied around this instance of governmental interference in the free practice of its co-religionists.

So when Jimmy Carter, a left-wing evangelical, proved to be a disappointment—“letting” American hostages languish in Iran, failing to restore the American economy, refusing to press hard against those awful Supreme Court decisions of the earlier 1970s, and more—fundamentalists turned to Ronald Reagan.

This paradox of fundamentalists turning to a divorced Hollywood actor who would attend church perhaps less frequently than any American president since George Washington thus begins to come clear. Fundamentalist Christians, like fundamentalists everywhere, are hardest on members of their own tribe who disappoint—or defect. Carter was seen as such a failure.

Reagan, however, could never be mistaken for a fundamentalist, but said all the right things to win fundamentalist support: anti-abortion, anti-government, pro-America. And he said them so well that he remains high in the pantheon of fundamentalist Christianity, a secular saint, despite his decidedly mixed record of actual accomplishment in each of those zones.

Today, then, fundamentalists in particular, and “evangelicals” more generally, are apparently embracing another presidential candidate who is nobody’s idea of a conservative Christian. Like Reagan, however, Donald Trump is (now) anti-abortion, decidedly anti-government, and loudly pro-America.

Bernie Sanders focused on other people’s families. He was thus a non-starter for fundamentalists.

But why is Hillary Clinton not more attractive? She has no record of sexual impropriety, unlike her opponent (and her husband). She is a regular churchgoer and speaks freely of her Christian faith.

Yet Ms. Clinton attends what fundamentalists would see to be a liberal church (United Methodist), and that, for them, can be worse than attending no church at all. She has a record of what many would see to be dissembling, and fundamentalism is all about (ostensibly) straight talk.

As hawkish as she can be compared to other Democrats, she doesn’t stir the blood about American greatness, perhaps because in her considerable political experience convictions about American greatness must coexist uneasily alongside other realities. Such qualified patriotism won’t fly among fundamentalists.

And she refuses to join the pro-life crusade, still a huge factor among conservative Christians generally. Indeed, many supporters of Trump have been saying that the single issue of getting the right Supreme Court appointments on the single issue of abortion is enough to secure their vote.

On the other side of the aisle, Ted Cruz mobilized a lot of evangelical support, but he, like every other Republican candidate, was trumped, so to speak, on the issues that mattered most.

No one ought to have been surprised, therefore, when Jerry Falwell the Younger not only hosted, but endorsed, Mr. Trump at Liberty University, the school founded by his father.

Likewise, no one should have been surprised to see Daddy’s boy at the Republican rostrum this past week.

Indeed, I daresay that, wherever he is now, Daddy beheld the spectacle and smiled.