Jerry Falwell, the 73-year-old Christian televangelist and founder of the Moral Majority, died Tuesday in Lynchburg, Va.
The Rev. Falwell forged an alliance between the Republican Party and the “Christian Right” that is credited with the historic shift of the South into the Republican column for the first time since Reconstruction.
In doing so, the Rev. Falwell challenged a church tradition that had long foresworn political activism.
“From the failure of Prohibition on, many people who belonged to the conservative evangelical tradition withdrew from trying to reshape society,” David Holmes, a professor of religious studies at the College of William and Mary, told McClatchy Newspapers.
As late as 1965, the Rev. Falwell himself had preached that ministers should stay out of the civil rights movement. “Preachers are not called to be politicians but to be soul winners,” Falwell said at the time.
But, appalled by the social and sexual upheaval of the late ’60s and ’70s — legalized abortion, increased divorce rates, the end of the America portrayed in “The Donna Reed Show” and “Leave It To Beaver” — the Rev. Falwell began seeking ways to counter what he regarded as a decline in the country’s moral values.
By 1976, he was preaching from a new playbook, declaring, “The idea that religion and politics don’t mix was invented by the devil to keep Christians from running their own country.”
The Rev. Falwell founded the Moral Majority — which over the next decade attracted 6 million members — in 1979.
Movements that attempt to shift the moral tone of an entire nation aren’t likely to achieve their goals in a single campaign, or a single decade. A ground swell of popular opinion now appears to share some of the Rev. Falwell’s concerns over the way government “programs” and other institutions stripped of moral guidance can damage and undercut the traditional American family, leading to vast social pathologies.
But on any balance sheet of concrete political attainments to date — other than serving as a bogeyman to help the secular left raise billions in contributions to stave off a supposed “puritan theocratic takeover” — what is most remarkable about the Christian Right in politics is how poorly they have fared.
Oh, Democratic politicians heading south of the Mason-Dixon line are now coached to wear their faith on their sleeves. And on the fringes — in areas little dependent on Washington — Christian home-schoolers may find government bureaucrats less intrusive these days, while the movement to lend state sanction to gay marriage seems largely derailed.
But on the major defining issues of abortion, prayer to the public schools, the curbing of illegitimacy and promiscuous sex, the Rev. Falwell and the movement he helped birth could pretty much look back on three decades of marginalization, lip service and failure.
In fact, the Moral Majority disbanded in 1989. And the Rev. Falwell proceeded to make himself a virtual caricature of all that those on the left ridicule in religious conservatism as he criticized the children’s show “Teletubbies” because he thought one of the nonhuman characters (Tinky Winky, the purple one) might be gay.
Then, after the Sept. 11 attacks, the Rev. Falwell sat down with the Rev. Pat Robertson and told their television audience, “I really believe that the pagans and the abortionists and the feminists and the gays and the lesbians … all of them who have tried to secularize America, I point the finger in their face and say, ‘You helped this happen.’ “
“It’s a very different game” today, concludes Luis Lugo, director of the Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life. “His relative importance declined.”