NEVER SPEAK ill of the dead, goes the old saying. But in the case of conservative evangelical Rev. Jerry Falwell–who died last week at the age of 73–his lengthy record of bigotry and intolerance speaks for itself.
Even the mainstream media coverage of Falwell’s death couldn’t avoid sounding like a “worst of” list of his narrow-minded prejudice–from his proud embrace of anti-gay, anti-feminist and anti-choice bigotry, to his avowed hatred of public education, the ACLU and, of course, a certain purple Teletubbie.
Falwell came to prominence with the rise of right-wing Christian evangelicals during the 1980s.
Earlier on in his career, Falwell was an ardent segregationist, preaching against what he called the “civil wrongs movement.” Calling segregation the “Lord’s will,” he said of the 1954 Brown v. Board of Education case outlawing segregation, “The facilities should be separate…When God has drawn a line of distinction, we should not attempt to cross that line.”
Falwell would later lend his support to the apartheid regime in
As for the idea of having compassion for his fellow man, Falwell preferred an Old Testamant “fire and brimstone” approach. At the height of the AIDS crisis, he famously declared that “AIDS is the wrath of a just God against homosexuals…[I]t is God’s punishment for the society that tolerates homosexuals.”
His paranoia about gays and lesbians “indoctrinating” children into a “gay lifestyle” was so extreme that he famously warned that “Tinky Winky,” the purple Teletubbie on the popular PBS children’s show, was gay–because of his color and the triangle-shaped antenna on his head (a supposedly surreptitious symbol of gay pride).
Falwell was also, of course, virulently opposed to abortion, and he didn’t bother to hide his hatred of women who disagreed with him. Most feminists, he said, “are failures. They’ve blown it…Most of the feminists need a man to tell them what time of day it is and to lead them home.”
Falwell was also adamant that workers should accept their lot in life. “Labor unions should study and read the Bible instead of asking for more money,” he said. “When people get right with God, they are better workers.” He was also favored taking “the shackles off business” by eliminating the Occupational Safety and Health Administration.
He was an ardent supporter of Bush’s “war on terror,” arguing that what “we need to do is take the battle to the Muslim heathens, and do unto them before they do unto us.”
Falwell was notorious for appearing on television with Pat Robertson shortly after September 11 to announce that the attacks were a punishment from God for
“God allows our enemies to give us what we deserve,” he said. “I believe the abortionists, feminists, gays and lesbians trying to make that an alternative lifestyle, the ACLU, People for the American Way and all who have tried to secularize America–I point the finger in their face and say, ‘You helped this happen.’”
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PREDICTABLY, REPUBLICAN politicians praised Falwell after his death. Among them were 2008 presidential hopefuls John McCain and Mitt Romney–even though in 2000, McCain called Falwell and Pat Robertson “agents of intolerance,” and Romney, as a practicing Mormon, was almost certainly seen by Falwell as a “non-Christian” who would spend eternity in a lake of hellfire.
That these two felt obligated to laud Falwell is a testament to the prominence that Christian conservatives today occupy as the base of the Republican Party–something Falwell himself was instrumental in shaping, as one of the most prominent of a number of evangelicals who surged into public consciousness beginning in the 1980s.
Prompted in part by the 1973 Roe v. Wade Supreme Court decision legalizing abortion, Falwell and others set out to make the Christian Right a driving force in politics. In 1979, after a meeting with top
Falwell helped pave the way for the rising prominence of other Christian conservatives like Focus on the Family’s James Dobson.
But the conventional wisdom that the Christian Right is an indomitable force, firmly in control of the Republican Party and successful in imposing its political agenda on mainstream politics, is proving to be false.
Today, the Democrats–who only a few years ago were certain that they had to reach out to right-wing swing voters–are in control of both houses of Congress, on the strength of a congressional election in 2006 that kicked out many of the Religious Right’s favorites. Meanwhile, among Republicans, the openly pro-choice Rudolph Giuliani is viewed by many as the best chance the party has in the next presidential election.
The truth is that the prominence of the Christian Right is less a result of socially conservative values becoming mainstream, and more because Christian conservatism has been a useful tool historically for the business and political establishments.
In the late 1970s and early 1980s, the Christian Right’s ideological agenda dovetailed with the start of a decades-long employers’ offensive to drive down working-class living standards, cut back on government spending and erase the legacy of the social movements of the 1960s against racism, sexism and more.
The brand of Christianity preached by Falwell and others–often privately bankrolled by major corporate contributions to right-wing Christian institutes and think-tanks–included a brutal “survival of the fittest” mentality that viewed poverty as a moral failing, rather than a product of society.
The emphasis on a doctrine of “personal responsibility” helped give ideological justification for the dismantling of the social safety net over the past 30 years. And it provided a treasured catchphrase to politicians–both Republicans and Democrats–looking to rise to the top of the Washington political system.
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THE REPUBLICANS–particularly the Bush administration, with its plummeting popularity–still rely on Christian conservatives as a key component of their base. Bush, for example, recently met with a group of more than a dozen prominent evangelicals like James Dobson to ask for support on U.S. policies against Iran and the “war on terror.”
But the wave of scandals that have crippled the Bush administration have also affected the Christian Right.
Former Christian Coalition head Ralph Reed, for example, watched his dreams of a political career in Georgia go up in flames when he was implicated in allegations last year involving his close friend, lobbyist Jack Abramoff–a scandal that also brought down former House Minority Leader Tom DeLay.
And, of course, the hypocrisy of the Republicans and their Christian Right backers was exposed by revelations before the 2006 election about Rep. Mark Foley’s behavior toward congressional pages, and the party leadership’s cover-up to limit political damage.
But these various scandals all stem from a more important source–the fact that the values the Christian Right professes to uphold are out of step with the vast majority of Americans.
In reality, the so-called “moral majority” was never very “moral,” nor was it anything approaching a real majority.
On any number of issues–gay rights, public education, even abortion–the position of Christian conservatives remains at odds with a majority of people in the U.S.–and increasingly with politicians worried about holding onto office.
As New York Times columnist Frank Rich commented on Falwell’s death: “Though Mr. Falwell had long been an embarrassment and laughingstock to many, including a new generation of Christian leaders…the timing of his death could not have had grander symbolic import. It happened at the precise moment that the Falwell-Robertson brand of religious politics is being given its walking papers by a large chunk of the political party the Christian right once helped to grow.”
As Rich concluded, “What a difference a midterm election has made. The Karl Rove theory that Republicans cannot survive without pandering to religious-right pooh-bahs is yet another piece of Bush dogma lying in ruins…The agents of intolerance are well on their way to being forgotten, even in those cases when they, unlike Jerry Falwell, are not yet gone.”