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Rev. Ron Stief Headshot

Thanks, Jerry Falwell . . . for Making Me Go to Seminary!

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I could have lived a life of leisure in a pastoral setting in rural Montana, far from the hectic lifestyle of urban Christian political activism. Instead, in 1979, as a personal reaction to Jerry Falwell's announced Moral Majority Christian crusade against everything I believed to be true about the world, I made my decision to go to seminary. The untold story of Falwell's impact on society is that he unknowingly recruited many of us to claim our Christian roots - not an easy thing to do in the secular left - and join the political battle for the soul of America as Christians with a different view of the Bible.

I distinctly remember how it began. One of the students ran into our senior Philosophy seminar at the University of Montana interrupting what was undoubtedly an exciting discussion of Kant or Hegel or someone and with wildly waving hands proclaimed "They've declared war on us." They being Jerry Falwell and the Moral Majority, he explained, and the we, well, we weren't sure. "Who is the 'we' they are declaring war on?" we asked. All of us. And he went around the room. A philosophy professor, a couple of women, a gay man, a Jew who was one of the few UM students that owned a yarmulke, let alone knew what it was, long-hair environmentalists, and me, a student government official with vague and undefined ties to my United Church of Christ upbringing. Yes, clearly we were now what was officially wrong with this country in Falwell's new vision for America.

Our Paul Revere immediately anointed me the head of a new organization, Christians for Wilderness (a title I respectfully declined). Everything had to be dropped to counter this threat to American civic values. And that's exactly what I did. I abandoned my plans to go to law school and headed to the Pacific School of Religion in Berkeley to earn my Divinity degree. From the day I arrived -- and even before on my application -- my purpose in life was now to organize the counter-force in progressive religion that would stop the Moral Majority from distorting the Biblical message.

The decade of the Moral Majority (1979 to roughly 1989, when Falwell disbanded the Moral Majority with the words "our mission is accomplished"), helped to spawn a parallel religious movement in response to their attempt to capture faith, flag and family all under one banner. They had television empires (Bakker's Praise the Lord and Robertson's Christian Broadcasting Network) and we didn't. They had Ronald Reagan and we didn't. These dynamics, and the media's attraction to these otherwise unattractive figures, forced the progressive Christian movement to be more of an outsider movement. A vibrant Christian left movement developed in the seminaries and the religious community from 1979 to 1989 with anti-war roots in the protest movements of the 1960s, with civil rights roots in Black, Feminist and Latin American liberation theologies, and with political roots in our resistance to the nuclear war economy and legislative advocacy to end the wars in Central America. Many in Congress, both Republicans and Democrats, were sympathetic to our claims that peace with justice and care for the poor are in fact the dominant religious values on the hearts and minds of the majorities in the culture.

One of the most poignant quotes from Jerry Falwell that points to what he did accomplish was from a conversation with CNN's Christiana Amanapour just a couple of years ago, when he reflected back on those early years of the Moral Majority. He observed that when he started his movement you could fit the number of pastors "who knew how to work on public policy into a phone booth."

But to this day I have never given Jerry Falwell and the televangelists all the credit they thought they deserved. Having grown up in a very conservative part of rural Montana, I was aware that they had simply figured out how to tap into a native conservatism that is already there in American society. The laziness of keeping things the way they are. He channeled the insecurities of the working class into a movement to denigrate women and gays, two easy targets that have long been the fodder for absolutist theologians. Organizing with a progressive Christian message is far more difficult, it is inherently counter-cultural. You have to ask people to be more than they think they can be with their values. It forces a reading of scripture based in solidarity with the poor and the prevalence of peace over war. This doesn't fit the mainstream, and it is especially difficult under the "pull yourself up by your own bootstraps" philosophies like Reaganomics or the values explicit in the "you're either with us or against us / my way or the highway" worldview of President George W. Bush.

Despite the political legwork that has been done by Jerry Falwell, James Dobson, and few of the fallen heroes along the way like Jimmy Bakker, Ralph Reed, and Ted Haggard, and despite the numerous successes of the fundamentalist Christian movement, they have missed their chance to build the permanent right-wing Republican majority of Karl Rove's dreams. And they have ruined the Republican Party in the process. There are no majoritarian aspects to this movement anymore, if there ever was. A Supreme Court decision and a few hanging chads birthed the Bush presidency, not a national conversion to the worldview of Christian conservatives. A lingering fear of security after 9/11 barely squeaked the President into his second term, not Jerry Falwell's statement blaming 9/11 on "the pagans, and the abortionists, and the feminists, and the gays and the lesbians who are actively trying to make that an alternative lifestyle, the ACLU, People for the American Way."

Poll after poll shows that the conservative Christian movement is losing the struggle for the hearts and minds of American on key issues like gay rights, even though they have had a lot of victories in passing anti-gay marriage initiatives. People are awakening from their long slumber. The culture is recovering from a dangerous period ushered in by the Moral Majority of equating Christianity with gay-bashing. The religious right has splintered, as many, in the National Association of Evangelicals and others, see the dangers of global warming, Darfur, the global HIV/AIDS crisis, and poverty in America as Biblical issues that trump the obsession of the far right of keeping women in their place in the home and the doctor's office. A contemporary Christian identity is being birthed from both the left and the right that meets somewhere in the middle on setting a new public policy agenda that meets the real needs of our society, not some mythological strategy of gathering personal power by vilifying the most vulnerable.

There will be plenty of policy disagreements among Christians, to be sure. On abortion. On separation of church and state. On certain aspects of foreign policy. But it's too bad Jerry Falwell won't be around to see the next 28 years of American Christianity. It will look nothing like the last 28 years. And for that, you can thank God, your neighbor and even your lucky stars.

As for myself, I won't regret walking this planet with Jerry Falwell. In a personal, spiritual sense, I will miss him, but, well, I just hope for the sake of his own soul that he was wrong in believing that the Bible is the literal word of God. If it is, his period of judgment will be long and harsh, possibly worse than he ever imagined for the many categories of good Christians and good non-Christians he vilified and condemned to a life of eternal damnation. For the one thing the God of the Bible doesn't tolerate, regardless of who is behind it, is the persecution of the vulnerable and the marginalization of the innocent.