Falwell - taking faith out of the closet
The passing of Jerry Falwell has resulted in a great deal of ink spilled both demonizing and eulogizing him. Both his style and content were such that this isn't too surprising. But it seems important to step back from these comments about his bombastic style, and often ridiculous declarations (remember the Teletubbies?), and instead consider the seismic shift he brought to the political landscape among people of faith.
A split had occurred in the American religious landscape over the course of several decades either side of the 20th century. When the smoke and dust had settled from the ecclesiastical storm, there were two main expressions of faith in Christ marking American Christianity. Mainline denominations were to become the bastions of progressive social causes, while their more conservative counterparts, often believing in a view of history's end which foresaw the eventual destruction of all social, economic and political systems, stressed the need for personal renewal, 'getting right with God', and 'accepting Jesus as your personal savior'. A split thus occurred, whereby those interested in social reform had little concern for personal piety or salvation, and vice versa.
Falwell changed all that with his founding of the Moral Majority. It was this group that, ironically, brought faith, 'out of the closet', claiming that Jesus did care after all about the social mores of a culture, especially when such mores were considered destructive or threatening to a culture's stability. Thus did Falwell work hard in order to preserve 'family values', 'traditional marriage', and much more. This movement helped elect Ronald Reagan. It was under Reagan's reign that, with the help of a Polish Pope and a progressive Soviet Premier, the grip of totalitarianism was toppled in Eastern Europe and Russia. I was sitting with a student from Moldova just last week in Colorado who wouldn't be in Colorado, were it not for that strange sequence of events in history, which led to her freedom. When the conservative Christians took their faith out of the closet, it shook the world. We're still feeling the effects.
That I don't agree with Falwell's interpretation of Jesus' politics is both a huge and insignificant matter at the same time. It's huge because Jesus cares about a lot more than sexual purity, and a lot less about nation building than Falwell seemed to teach. Contrary to Falwell's narrow interpretation of things, Jesus is interested in whether marginalized people are granted dignity, whether the rich are oppressing the poor, and whether we're willing to make the character of Jesus visible by working hard at loving our neighbors, and even our enemies, and even by caring for the environment. That Falwell's narrow view of what Jesus cared about became such a large part of American Christianity has had the effect of misrepresenting Christ. As a result, what many people have been rejecting over these past decades has not been Jesus, but a petty, sad, caricature. All of us who are call ourselves evangelicals are, in my opinion, the poorer for this caricature having become such a part of our fabric.
But that I don't agree with his interpretations is, at a different level, not that important. I find it most disheartening to meet followers of Jesus who, whether from the left or the right, articulate their belief systems, but fail wrestle with what it means to live those beliefs out in the marketplace, the voting booth, and the shopping mall. Falwell played a major role in bringing the faith of millions of people out of their private spiritual closets and into the public arena, so that now, increasingly Christians are linking their political and economic choices with their spiritual convictions. And that, I believe, is a good thing.