Jerry Falwell liked to credit the Rev. Martin Luther King for his political conversion. A Southern fundamentalist, Falwell initially esteemed heavenly rewards over earthly ones, but by the 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 the two men stood on opposite sides of the religious and political divide, 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. Their crusade changed race relations in American schools, neighborhoods, workplaces, and also enfranchised millions of African-Americans. Falwell focused on religiously conservative white voters who believed in old time religion and the Ten Commandments. Their campaign politicized gender, bodies, and relationships--making abortion, marriage and family central to electoral politics.
I am not positing a religious or political equivalency between Falwell and King. Rather, I am suggesting they both perceived the utility of turning religious communities into political constituencies. As a result, both men were able to refashion the American social landscape. King re-envisioned how we might live in community through non-violence and the acknowledgment of our common humanity. Falwell re-imagined who we are as a community by placing personal morality and family values at the epicenter of American Christianity.
Simply put, Falwell derailed the sexual revolution and the political and cultural changes that loomed in its wake. He didn't do it alone 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, allegedly 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 show that 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 exercising sexual autonomy. True enough, the sexual revolution was not an all-round excellent idea, but inserting church and state between the individual and her conscience reduced the potential for ethical development and conscientious decision-making.
Now that Falwell has passed, the spate of obits and editorials painting him as a devout Dutch uncle--slightly goofy but well-intended--gloss over the extensive impact of the man and his movement. Jerry Falwell was ambitious; of all the religious leaders I ever interviewed, 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 sense of purpose led him to found a national movement and a Christian university. Notwithstanding his personal 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 more conservatively). He did believe that hurricanes, terrorists and sexually transmitted diseases were God's judgment on homosexuals, feminists and abortionists. He eagerly awaited Jesus' imminent return--with little sympathy for those who questioned His authority, the President's leadership and the head of their household (in that order).
If you have any doubt that one man can make a tremendous difference, consider Falwell's legacy. Conjure culture wars, values voters and moral majorities. Consider how social programs have languished as Americans have fought over women's bodies and the rights of gay people. Remember when invoking God was not a qualification for elected office.
The Rev. Jerry Falwell, like Martin Luther King Jr., had a dream. Unfortunately we all fell asleep with him.
Diane Winston is the Knight Chair for Media and Religion at the University of Southern California.