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.

23 Responses to “The Ghost of Jerry Falwell Haunts the GOP Still”

  1. Dave Jorgensen

    …And the pharasaical gymnastics for Falwell Jr. to endorse Trump are beyond astounding – but they were also unbelievable in 1980 when Falwell Sr, Buchanan, Jones and the rest of their rabble abandoned Carter – leaving a faithful, humble, and intelligent man in favor of a witless, philandering, and smiling third-rate actor. Your point, Dr. Stackhouse, is well taken – why isn’t Mrs. Clinton’s background as a Methodist and her obvious faithfulness taken seriously? And why will her VP’s demonstrated Catholic commitment [with a year out of university taken on a Jesuit mission to teach kids welding – sounds a bit like the work of a carpenter we know a little bit about…] also certainly be brushed aside. As Jon Stewart so brashly and eloquently pointed out the other night, American evangelicals don’t own Christianity, nor do they own the political process. And if, upon Trump’s demise, they merely become another noisy and lamentable subculture, well then so much the better for the rest of us.

    • Steve Wilkinson

      “why isn’t Mrs. Clinton’s background as a Methodist and her obvious faithfulness taken seriously?”

      Obvious faithfulness?!?!? To what?

      • John

        Sorry, Steve, but you have exceeded your allowance of terminal punctuation. Thus, no reply is warranted. 😉

      • Dave Jorgensen

        You’re suggesting that a Methodist can’t be a faithful Christian? Or that Trump’s ‘sipping my little cup of wine’ is a better indication of faithfulness and acceptability to the American evangelical movement? Does it not bother you that Trump couldn’t name a single passage in either Old or New Testament that spoke to him? Or that twice he shagged his next wife while he was still married to his previous wife? Or that he has refused to release his tax returns? You can say that you dislike Clinton on political grounds – that’s fair game, and that’s what democracy is all about. But do not ever say that Jesus is the one leading you to vote for Trump. If you’re talking about a ‘Christian” politician, Clinton has demonstrated a quiet and persevering Christian faith for over 30 years of public service. American evangelicals seem offended that she hasn’t talked about a ‘come to Jesus’ moment or that she doesn’t kowtow towards Lynchburg. Fortunately, Dobson, Fawell Jr., Graham Jr, et al, do not comprise an American version of The Inquisitorial, and the American voters will have a chance to judge the two candidates on their merits in November. You can vote for Trump as a politically-motivated choice – but do not fool yourself into believing that a vote for Trump will bring either you or the USA any closer to a resurrected and sanctified society. Democracy is a messy and muddled affair, and a good many faithful people will vote Democrat because they feel it’s the best way through the muddle. But make no mistake – that’s a political decision, and one’s faith does not turn at the pulling of the lever in the ballot box.

        • Steve Wilkinson

          I’m suggesting nothing of the sort. I’m saying that neither Clinton or Trump display or represent much of anything such that one should consider them Christian.

          On the other hand, Jesus might just inform my stance on certain issues, which one candidate/party might better align with. The problem with Trump (IMO) is that those positions seem held only for political alignment purposes, and come with too much risk/baggage. So, don’t worry, I won’t be supporting Trump.

          My shock (and response) came after reading that you seem to be seriously suggesting Hillary represents some kind of ‘obvious faithfulness’… to Christianity of all things. To liberal ideologies, certainly. To winning via lying and cheating, certainly. To same-ol, same-ol foreign policy that has ruined the USA’s reputation around the world, for sure. To supporting corrupt corporate interests, check. Selfishly putting the USA at risk for her own personal gains/interests, bingo.

          Again, while I won’t be voting for Trump, I find it surprising that so many liberals fear from Trump many of the things for which Hillary already has a proven track record. I suppose I’m puling for Trump a bit, just to see the reaction of the liberals and the press. But, since many have vowed to move to Canada if that happens, I don’t want that either. We’ve got far too many already.

          • Dave Jorgensen

            We’ve all been pilgrims, Mr. Wilkinson – fortunately, someone set a table for me in the wilderness though I was neither looking for it nor deserved it. Perhaps American liberal democrats, worried about their fates, might also deserve a quiet voice at the Canadian border that says “come ye, all who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest.” Or does your charity only extend to those conservatives who are washed in the blood of the lamb?

            Liberalism and social democracy are not antithetical to mere Christianity, Mr. Wilkinson, and I rather doubt that Mrs. Clinton is in league with Lucifer, as Dr. Carson so quaintly suggested in Cleveland last week. Of course we could can talk of Bengazi and Whitewater and emails and Monica, as could also speak of length of Trump’s multiple bankruptcies, his philandering, his planned abandonment of NATO, or his lying to the American people. But those are political conversations and need to be judged within the multiple political and social contexts in which they have arisen. Those are not spiritual or theological discussions, however, and I have no more reason to believe James Dobson when he so cutely says that Trump is a ‘baby Christian’ than I have to believe Dr. Carson’s riff about Satan being in charge of the Democratic party.

            Do not conflate adherance to a liberal social ideology and ungodliness. Similarly, do not think that conservative [or Conservative] values are a panacea for Christian commitment or a path to a more godly society. Both are broken – as we are all broken – and the best we can do is see through a glass darkly. You do not agree with Mrs. Clinton’s politics – that is your right – the democratic process is fraught with tension. What I am saying, however, is that when you read Mrs. Clinton’s writing, when you listen to her interviews, you find kernels of faith and Christian commitment that you will recognize. Jesus loves even liberals, Mr. Wilkinson – and much to your surprise you will find that many liberals even love Him.

            • Tim Callaway

              You seem unconvinced, Dave, that fundagelicals are just a little bit “more saved” than all the other brands of Christianity. 😉 It’s how the movement was birthed, so to expect either its implicit or explicit arrogance to wane any time soon is likely wishful thinking.

              • Dave Jorgensen

                I don’t think that smugness on either side of the evangelical divide will serve us well, Mr. Callaway – a urinary competition on the relative godliness of competing doctrines of repentance and salvation does not serve a larger discussion on the common good, particularly in an election year. Though commitment to the social gospel is an anathema to most inside the American evangelical subculture, it may be that Mrs. Clinton and Mr. Kaine can successfully incorporate broader notions of equality and social justice – something that has been notably absent in the Republican/Evangelical trope of the past 30-odd years. I can only hope that the ghost of Dr. King may yet rise.
                Michael Gerson [a speechwriter for Bush/43 and an astute intellectual evangelical in his own right] in this morning’s Washington Post has said it much more succinctly than me:

            • Steve Wilkinson

              Christianity is something. It has beliefs and boundaries. Some ideas don’t fit, despite cute Christian platitudes. And, there are ideas within both liberal and conservative parties that run afoul of those Biblical beliefs and boundaries… some more than others.

              I don’t believe there is such a thing as religion over here, and politics over there. And, I don’t know why you think my views are so black and white. (If I were a raving Trump OR Clinton supporter, I could see how you might correctly think that.)

              But, I do know that a number of Mrs. Clintons core commitments (as far as I can tell) are antithetical to Christianity. So, if she is indeed a Christian, she’s a pretty ignorant or obstinate one.

              I’m sure Jesus does love many liberals. But part of loving Jesus is paying attention to his teachings. When don’t see that, I question a bit.

              • Dave Jorgensen

                Let us continue, Mr. Wilkinson, with a quotation upon which both of us can agree: “’Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength and with all your mind’; and, ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’”

                Let’s compare that to what Mrs. Clinton said last Thursday night – that her credo has been, like John Wesley’s, to “Do all the good you can, by all the means you can, in all the ways you can, in all the places you can, at all the times you can, to all the people you can, as long as ever you can.”

                Now talk is cheap, and Mrs. Clinton’s words could easily be dismissed as vapid electioneering, so let’s examine small part of her record: a] in the late 1960’s, she went to work for the Children’s Defense Fund, an organization that lobbied for marginalized children’s medical and educational welfare; b] she worked with a bipartisan committee to build the Children’s Health Insurance Program – a federal program that gave uninsured families a way to look after their children’s health; c] as a senator, she helped to expand the scope of Family Medical Leave Act – a program that gives civilian family members a chance to stay home to look after their wounded and convalescing family members who are American Armed Forces service personnel. d] Her book ‘It Takes a Village’ [1996] has as its thesis: “No government can love a child, and no policy can substitute for a family’s care. But at the same time, government can either support or undermine families as they cope with moral, social, and economic stresses of caring for children.” What portion of any of this is antithetical to Christ’s admonition to ‘love your neighbor as yourself’? What part of this earns her the reputation of being an ‘obstinate’ Christian? Is she not, in fact, an example of the much-maligned Samaritan who Christ talks about in Luke 10?

                So is your opposition to her based on her adherence to the Methodist denomination rather than an evangelical sect? Or perhaps that she’s pro-choice? I realize that abortion is a hot-button issue for the evangelical community, but Roe v. Wade is now 43 years old and is settled law, and no amount of promising by the Tea Party or Ted Cruz will ever re-open the abortion debate at a constitutional level. ‘The pursuit of life and liberty’ has been held by the Supreme Court to apply to a woman’s right to make choices about her own medical condition – that discussion is finished, and shaking your fist at Mrs. Clinton will not make it otherwise. The First Amendment to the Constitution makes it clear that America will never be a ‘Christian’ country – The Framers were decidedly and studiously anti-theocratic. Yet paradoxically, it’s Mrs. Clinton’s commitment – particularly to the children of America – that bears witness to her faith in action.

                I understand, Mr. Wilkinson, that you don’t like Mrs. Clinton. You are not alone in this – almost 40% of Americans seem agree with you. But that’s what politics is all about. And it is this very tension that makes democracy work – unless there a push and pull of ideas, then a democratic political dialectic will never be successful. But when you contend that she’s and ‘ignorant’ or ‘obstinate’ Christian – well, the facts just don’t bear this out. Is this a political discussion? Absolutely. Is it a discussion where Mrs. Clinton’s faith can be seen to be compromised? The evidence does not support that contention.

                • Steve Wilkinson

                  I didn’t say she has never, ever done anything that might be considered positive or good.

                  Do you really want me to start listing out all the really, really bad things she’s done or been involved in, and much more recently than your list?

                  re: abortion, done, finished… Eric Metaxas (author of Bonhoeffer) had a perfect tweet recently:

                  ‘What if Tim Kaine had said: “I’m personally opposed to the Holocaust, but it’s the law of the land! Who am I to stand against the Fuehrer?”‘

                  IMO, anyone who holds Hillary’s position on abortion, and keeps the kind of allies/company she keeps from that vile industry, shouldn’t be leading/running anything, let alone a country. (It shows she is 1) incapable of sound thought/reason, or 2) so committed to other issues, she’s willing to make that level of moral trade to accomplish he goals.)

                • Steve Wilkinson

                  In other words, it isn’t just a hot-button issue… it speaks volumes about character, morals, abilities, etc.

  2. Todd Cleek

    Hey John thanks again! My sense is that younger American Evangelical (I think this catagory/label might be dying) aren’t as pro trump as they are portrayed. In fact my crystal ball say as the Baby boomers become less significant this landscape will change. Than again it might just be wishful thinking.

  3. Jim

    Oh John, come on…Hillary is a women…that is enough to cause a fundamentalist to jump to the dark side.

  4. Steve Wilkinson

    “But why is Hillary Clinton not more attractive?”

    That’s a rhetorical question? She kind of embodies the worst of Democrat, Republican, Big government, secret government, personal corruption, dishonesty, above-the-law, bad foreign policy, etc. AS WELL AS a liberal, anti-conservative stance on about every issue that a Christian conservative might hold.

    My gosh, she’s even despised among a lot of liberals, as is Trump among conservatives. It’s all about how many will hold their noses and vote for awful to oppose what they see as evil.

  5. Jim

    What is unnerving about the Trump rhetoric is the apparent paralleled anti-establishment distain, egocentric perception of the self (“I alone can fit it”…..sounds a lot like “my struggle”) and theological support that was also present in 1930 Germany. Much of Hitler’s speeches had Christian overtones sustained by anti-semitism. In this instance, it would appear that the Muslim’s and Mexican’s are the peril…rather than “ The Jewish Peril”. The force awakens or history is about to repeat itself…let’s hope not.

    • Steve Wilkinson

      In that regard, I think Trump is simply the opposite ditch to the current administration’s (and much of the press), ‘we don’t know what his motivations where, but he was yelling Allah Akbar.’

      Most people aren’t well enough informed to give a meaningful response, so we get this equally insane stuff.

  6. Lynn Betts

    Thanks for the succinct historical overview.
    You might be right about Jerry Sr’s approval of Jr’s stance (and involvement), but I thought I had read that Sr swore he’d never again attach his religious/moral hopes to a politician, nor get directly involved? This, following the Right’s disappointment with Reagan after his 2 terms of promises to the Right, with no results, I believe. (Maybe this came from comments by Balmer or Ed Dobson in a PBS documentary?) If true, he might not be smiling about Jr’s involvement, but face-palming.

  7. Dave Jorgensen

    Dr. Stackhouse: An article from yesterday’s ‘Sojourners’ on the DNC platform and how it dovetails [or doesn’t] into faith-based communities; a push for the ethos of civil religion and civil society is very much in evidence. Of course, it also underscores the massive gap between DNC/liberal and RNC/conservative visions of the US. Clearly some bipartisanship and graciousness will be needed after November if the country is going to get anything done – filibusters play well on the 10:00 PM news, but don’t do much else.

  8. Dave Jorgensen

    I envy your moral certitude, Mr. Wilkinson. November 8th will leave you with three options: a] vote for a candidate who already has experience in national and international governance, yet who in your opinion is incapable of sound thought and reason; b] vote for a braggart and bully who so far has demonstrated absolutely none of the knowledge, skills, or attitudes necessary to take on the mantle of commander-in-chief; or c] stay home and leave the responsibility of democracy to others. The first two choices are a reflection of Churchill’s observation that democracy is the worst form of government – except for all the others. To make the third choice is to abrogate your responsibilities as a citizen – yet if you do that, you cannot possibly complain about the outcome where either a fool or a moral bankrupt becomes President of the United States. At some point in time, the issue ceases to be fodder for a theological debating society and becomes an issue of citizenship. Once we are beyond glib moralistic or theological slogans, citizenship often demands answers to very difficult questions. I trust that by the first week in November, you will have been able to find a righteous answer in the midst of a broken and bent society.


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