The death of Jerry Falwell marks a significant milestone in one of the most interesting periods in American Christian history. Falwell was the result of a particular social and religious evolution that greatly impacted faith in America. He also lived long enough to actually contribute to that evolution.
To some extent, this evolution began with the Scopes Monkey trial in 1925. John Scopes was put on trial in Dayton, Tenn., for teaching evolution in a public school. Scopes lost the trial and paid a meager fine. But the fundamentalist vision of science versus faith was thoroughly discredited in the media. For a long time, fundamentalists virtually disappeared from public life.
During the Cold War, the United States found itself falling behind the Soviet Union in science and technology. A major push to increase the teaching of science in America’s schools only served to drive fundamentalists further and further from the mainstream.
In the late ’50s and early ’60s, a series of court cases ended the practice of teacher-led Scripture reading and prayer in public schools. Fundamentalist preachers thundered from their pulpits that the whole country had turned against God and was heading down a path of secularism.
About the same time, the Civil Rights Movement began in earnest. And amazingly, it was led by ministers. Scripture became a regular feature on the nightly news.
Falwell opposed the movement and had harsh words for members of the clergy who used their pulpits for political purposes. In time he would change his mind about the political power of religion.
Ironically, it was the presidential campaign of Jimmy Carter that finally brought fundamentalists back into the political process. After the disappointment of Richard Nixon, Carter’s claim of being “born again,” and his promise to restore integrity to the White House resonated strongly with conservative Christians. They voted for him in droves.
But Carter was not a fundamentalist.
Throughout his presidential campaign Carter had expressed great concern about the needs of families. In fact, Carter can probably be credited with creating the whole concept of “family values” as political fodder.
But what Carter meant by family was not what fundamentalists understood as family. Carter sought to embrace all sorts of family relationships, including gay and lesbians raising children.
Conservative evangelicals were horrified by this. They saw Carter’s willingness to affirm non-traditional family arrangements as a direct attack on traditional families. In the crucible of their anger groups like Focus on the Family and Falwell’s Moral Majority were forged.
With fundamentalists politically re-energized, Falwell and others had little difficulty creating a potent voting block. In fact, Falwell’s Moral Majority is credited with putting Reagan in the White House in the election of 1980.
With lessons learned from the Civil Rights Movement, Falwell forcefully used his pulpit to urge Christians into political action. In fact, being a Christian came to be defined by where you stood on key culture war issues like abortion and homosexuality.
It is strangely ironic that the fundamentalists’ concern with the secularization of America drove them to become thoroughly secularized in their political techniques. The faith once delivered to the saints was set aside for a set of cultural and political concerns. Faithful practice became less about prayer and worship and more about political organizing.
And this will be Jerry Falwell’s legacy. For better or worse, he started off as a preacher, but ended as a politician.
James L. Evans, a syndicated columnist, also serves as pastor of Auburn First Baptist Church in Auburn, Ala.