Forgetting Falwell

The media goes mellow for the culture war’s fallen general, overlooking the casualties he left behind.

By Diane Winston

The spate of obits and editorials painting Jerry Falwell as a devout Dutch uncle—slightly goofy but well-intended—gloss over the problematic legacy of the man and his movement. Jerry Falwell was ambitious. Of all the religious leaders I’ve covered, he was most clearly on a mission. He never lost sight of who he was: the spiritual leader of the Thomas Road Baptist Church whose singular sense of purpose led him to found a national movement and a Christian university. Notwithstanding such God-infused gravitas, Falwell was media-friendly before the term was hatched. He was always good for a quote and rarely censored his words. In fact, he usually meant what he said the first time around (before politically correct pundits forced him to parse his sentiments). He did believe that hurricanes, terrorists and sexually transmitted diseases were God’s judgment on homosexuals, feminists and abortionists. And he eagerly awaited Jesus’ imminent return—with little sympathy for those who questioned divine authority, conservative leadership and patriarchy (more or less in that order).

Falwell credited the Rev. Martin Luther King for his political conversion. A Southern fundamentalist, Falwell initially esteemed heavenly rewards over earthly ones, but by 1970s, he was done waiting for the sweet by-and-by. The Supreme Court’s decisions to ban school prayer and Bible reading had been bad enough—not to mention court-ordered desegregation—but Roe vs. Wade was the final straw. Falwell grokked that the martyred minister had it right: Religious folks had an obligation to remake society according to God’s plan.

Falwell never doubted that he knew that plan, which helped him survive political setbacks, religious controversies and media hostility. Reporters initially poked fun at the pixie-faced fulminator, but Falwell supplied such pithy quotes that it was hard to stay away. Like King, Falwell had a dream—and although one man’s dream was the other’s nightmare, both profoundly influenced how Americans today think about and act on religion and politics.

For King’s followers, religion was a prophetic call to social justice that began with acts of civil disobedience. For Falwell’s, religion came to mean regulating gender, bodies, and relationships—making abortion, marriage and family central to electoral politics.

I’m not positing a religious or political equivalency between Falwell and King. Rather, I’m suggesting they both perceived the utility of turning religious communities into political constituencies. King re-envisioned how we might live in community through non-violence and the acknowledgement of our common humanity. Falwell re-imagined who we are as a community by placing personal morality and a conservative politics that came to be called family values at the epicenter of American Christianity. As the press wonders whether Falwell’s death is a sign of the Christian Right’s decline, it’s worth looking at the country we live in and asking which man’s vision proved more influential.

Falwell’s great accomplishment was derailing the sexual revolution and the political and cultural changes that loomed in its wake. He didn’t do it singlehandedly, but as the public face of political fundamentalism, he played a key role. (Future historians can untangle the links between Falwell and Republican political operatives who, recognizing the untapped electoral clout of religious conservatives, anointed Falwell as their front man.) Battling the notion that individuals are responsible for their own bodies—and, concomitantly, their sexual partners, reproductive choices and commitment decisions—Falwell invoked the Bible to argue that personal morality is a community concern that could and should be legislated. Scriptural accuracy notwithstanding—Jesus said very little about homosexuality or women’s role as homemakers—Falwell preached a gospel of middle-class mores: home, family and country as concentric circles of communal responsibility.

It was an invigorating message for many, but for others, it reduced religion to formulaic notions of good and bad, right and wrong. It constrained women’s choices and opportunities, instilling guilt for working outside the home, limiting family size and sexual autonomy inserting both church and state between the individual and her conscience.

Like the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., the Rev. Jerry Falwell had a dream. Unfortunately the Lynchburg leader lulled many to sleep with him—heads filled with X-rated visions obscuring real world problems of poverty, justice, war and peace. The media, in recounting his life’s accomplishments, continue to snooze.

Diane Winston, Knight Chair for Media and Religion at the University of Southern California, was a reporter for the Baltimore Sun and the Dallas Morning News. She is the author of Red-Hot and Righteous: The Urban Religion of the Salvation Army.