The general consensus in the day-after coverage of the passing of the Rev. Jerry Falwell has been that he ignited the political movement that is today known as the religious right. Here's Stephanie Simon of the Los Angeles Times:
A genial man in person, with a heart for the quiet, humbling work of a small-town pastor, Falwell made his public name with blistering attacks against what he saw as the moral decay gnawing at American society: legalized abortion, homosexuality, pornography, godless liberalism.
He poured that outrage into creating a new model for Christian engagement with the world. The result was the Moral Majority, which Falwell founded in 1979 after consultations with theologians and political strategists.
The group was credited with helping to elect Ronald Reagan president and a slate of Republicans to Congress in 1980. In the next two years, Falwell claimed to build a mailing list of about 7 million religious conservatives determined to express their faith at the ballot box.
Today, in an era when the religious right is an acknowledged force in American politics, the Moral Majority seems unremarkable.
Falwell's greatest effect on America was undoubtedly the political movement he baptized as the "founder of the religious right," as USA Today reporters Susan Page and Cathy Lynn Grossman put it. But in a page A6 story from The Washington Post's Hanna Rosin, the theme is that Falwell's movement had moved beyond him like Russia did with Mikhail Gorbachev.
Reaction to Falwell's death has produced an avalanche of statements from President Bush to Al Sharpton to Larry Flynt. Who was the last person, other than former presidents, whose death received this level of attention? And what could be the level of polarization in the statements?
The Post/Newsweek On Faith has posted comments from its panel of distinguished religious figures, including Rick Warren ("A Real Compassionate Conservative"), Diana Eck ("A Good Person with Bad Theology"), Anthony Stevens-Arroyo ("The Wolsey Moment") and Jonathan Sarna ("Friend to Israel; Enemy to Anti-Semites").
One angle that has been neglected was Falwell's genuine attempts to bring conservative Christianity into modern times.
Here's Jesse Walker at Reason:
Falwell fulminated til the end against homosexuality, feminism, and the other alleged evils of modernity. But it's hard to escape the impression that his cohort not only lost the culture war, but perhaps did more than anyone else to usher Hollywood's America into Christian homes. In the early days, Pat Robertson's Christian Broadcasting Network refused to air reruns of Bewitched on the grounds that it promoted witchcraft. Today the outlet is owned by ABC, which calls it the ABC Family Channel and happily broadcasts not just The 700 Club but Sabrina, the Teenage Witch, not to mention the frequently ribald humor of Whose Line Is It Anyway? As intensely intolerant as Falwell could be, it's harder than ever to imagine America reembracing his views about gender relations or the sinfulness of homosexuality. The one cultural war he may have won, perhaps without even meaning to wage it, was the battle against Protestant hatred of the Roman Catholic Church. Despite his illiberal platform and rhetoric, Falwell's long-term legacy might be one of tolerance.
That could depend, of course, on whether the centralized, politicized fundamentalist community he helped create survives the next media revolution. Television tends to smooth over our differences; the Internet allows diversity to bloom. The next Jerry Falwell might be sitting in a church basement right now, pointing a camcorder at himself and preparing to upload his homilies to YouTube. He might even call his little films The Old Time Gospel Minute. Don't let the title fool you.
It's easy for the press to get caught up in the left-right divide that tends to dictate the direction of public statements issued to remember Falwell's passing. But taking a longer perspective on Falwell shows that for all his dramatic pronouncements and controversies, he changed the American religious landscape, and subsequently America, in rather significant fashion. The political spats that made Falwell famous will pass away, but the rise of the religious right and his influence on the use of technology (think television) in religion will be his lasting legacy.