Falwell and the muddled majority

FalwellTIMELet's not bury the lede: I have been surprised and pleased by the excellence of the mainstream media coverage of the Rev. Jerry Falwell's death. I think it is crucial that, because his power has faded so much, journalists were able to step back and evaluate his life with less venom. Quite a few people have asked me why I didn't write about Falwell in my Scripps Howard column this week (I went ahead, as planned, and wrote about the Mitt Romney visit to Regent University). I write on Tuesday nights, edit on Wednesday mornings, and the column does not come out in most daily newspapers until Saturday. So I had only a few hours on Tuesday afternoon to try to come up with a unique angle that I thought would still be unique three or four days later, after oceans of ink would already have been devoted to Falwell. I passed.

Truth is, I have never written that much about the Moral Majority, because the poll data have always made it clear that strict, traditional forms of religious faith make up a solid, vital, moral minority in this culture. If you are looking for a religious icon to symbolize the vast, complex, emotional middle of the American religious marketplace it would have to be Oprah. However, the "Muddled Majority" isn't a zippy phrase for a bumper sticker.

I buy the whole argument that Falwell was actually a leader in the modernization of fundamentalism (I wrote a grad-school term paper in 1981 titled "The Electric Tent Revival: Computers in the Ministry of Jerry Falwell") and that his greatest legacy is the role he played in lowering the wall of separationism between faith and public life. The rise of the Religious Right forced all kinds of religious people to mobilize and was a crucial factor in the emerging coalition of secularists and religious liberals -- the so-called anti-fundamentalist voters. Falwell was a great demon, although not as good as the Rev. Pat Robertson. Falwell has always been a preacher, more than a media/political pundit.

So I was glad to see that the editors at the Lynchburg News & Advance (click here for a multimedia sample of that local coverage) thought to check back through the recordings of his recent sermons to see what he said in the pulpit. That yielded this insight:

It was like any other sermon that the Rev. Jerry Falwell preached from his usual spot behind the pulpit of Thomas Road Baptist Church on April 29. But the title, "The Indestructibility of God's Servant," was an indicator -- a little more than two weeks before his death -- that he was ready.

"God's man or woman is indestructible until he has finished the work God called him to do," Falwell said during the sermon. "We have no reason to fear anyone or anything."

At the end of the service while giving an altar call, Falwell told attendees he was at peace with death.

If you are looking for one story from a major newsroom that gets the essence of Falwell's legacy, I would point you to Hanna Rosin's "For New Generation of Evangelicals, Falwell Was Old News" analysis in The Washington Post. That headline contains more snark than the story itself.

It hits some of the crucial notes. Falwell was a fundamentalist and that is not all that strange, in American life and culture. It is normal for religious believers to be active in the marketplace of ideas. It is impossible to talk about the rise of the Religious Right in the late 1970s without talking about the moral revolution in the 1960s. Here's a crucial section of her essay:

The new breed of evangelical leader does not have the temperament of a protester. He is a consummate professional who speaks in modulated terms and knows his way around Washington. "We evangelicals have learned to collaborate, to cross the aisles and religious barriers or whatever, in order to pass bills," Rich Cizik, vice president for governmental affairs at the National Association of Evangelicals, is quoted as saying in the new book "Believers."

Featured prominently on Time's list was Rick Warren, pastor of Saddleback Church in California and author of mega-bestseller "The Purpose Driven Life." If they took a political poll on the usual culture war issues, Falwell and Warren would end up in exactly the same place -- antiabortion, against gay rights. Both have written books saying that Jesus is the only way to salvation. But Warren's public style is entirely different.

A Warren is a Southern Baptist, although the convention's name is not on his church sign. Falwell began as an independent Baptist (the Southern Baptists were too liberal) and his megachurch eventually joined the Southern Baptist Convention (because it moved back in his direction theologically). I do not know if the church sign says "Southern Baptist."

But that's the key. There are millions of Americans out there whose beliefs echo those of Falwell. But they are a minority. There are millions more who agree with Falwell on many or most of the hot-button issues. And there are millions more who can't make up their minds. It's America.

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