Pastoral Musings from Rain City

it's about 'what is church?' it's about whether 'emergent' is the latest Christian trend or something more substantial. it's musing on what it means to live the city, in America, in community, intergenerationally, at this time in history...

Thursday, May 17, 2007

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.


At 18/5/07 10:12, Blogger Soakleif said...

Well said, except for two points.

Falwell, in my opinion, should neither be given credit for helping to bring an end to the Cold War nor should he be eulogized as playing 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."

Reagan would have been elected without Falwell and Christians have been voting their spiritual convictions since the founding of America--from Washington (to Lincoln to Carter) to Bush--without the need for a so-called "Jesse Jackson" (sorry Reverend)-style spiritual leader.

Falwell should be remembered for who he was--nothing more.

At 18/5/07 13:05, Anonymous Lisa said...

I agree with soakleif, Falwell isn't the reason Reagan was elected. It was Carter's failure to secure the release of our hostages in Iran that led to Reagan's presidency. I would also argue that it isn't even to Reagan's credit that the communist bloc in Eastern Europe crumbled. The economy and political system of the Soviet bloc was a teetering wall, any president of the US serving at the time would have pushed it over.

I am sad for the family and close friends of Rev Falwell but I'm not sorry that his voice is silenced. He supported and associated himself with leading proponents of segregation. Supported, even promoted investment in South Africa to prop up the system of apartheid. Proclaimed that AIDS was God's punishment on the US for tolerating gays (imagine what would happen if we actually loved the gays!). Sought to abolish public schools. Sought to destroy the poor, innocent tellie tubbies. And who can forget when he blamed 9/11 on the ACLU, "abortionists", gays and lesbians, etc.

It's true, we need to live out our beliefs, relationally, economically, politically. But doesn't living out our beliefs also mean taking responsibility for the whole body of Christ (we are one body)? And doesn't it hurt the message of Christ on a grand scale when a man with such a wide net of influence promotes a loud and divisive message of hatred? And aren't we failing in our obligation to protect and care for the least of these when we don't stand up en masse as believers to a bully like Falwell? I think we are knowingly and willfully failing at this task.

At 18/5/07 13:36, Blogger Richard Dahlstrom said...

I agree w/ you Lisa that Falwell's theology was largely disastrous, unnecessarily divisive, and had the effect of inflaming hatred between various subcultures, not to mention the effects on the poor that came from, as I noted in my post, his 'nation building' theology.

What I wrestle with is how believers, divided as they are (shall I say, 'we are') on these very issues, can ever stand up 'en masse' to any particular theology. One thinks of lonely Bonhoeffer, opposing the Nazi regime as the Swastika flag flew throughout the churches in Germany, or MLK Jr. pleading for racial reconciliation in the south, while others, in Jesus name, wore the cloth of the Klan.

As I pointed out this past Sunday, people are sheep - quick to follow a loud, charismatic personality, quick to abandon discernment and dialogue in favor of jumping on bandwagons. Many did so, throughout the 80's and 90's, with the result that my friends who live in New York can't call themselves Christians among their fellow workers, because the term has come to mean a political party, and a commitment to stripping away the legal rights of gay people. This bastardization of the word Christian sickens me, as I know it does you... and yet I think that the change comes, not en masse, but like a mustard seeds. So much more to say....

At 18/5/07 21:36, Anonymous donte said...

Those of us who are more moderate in our elucidation of scripture (as it relates to politics and culture) must remember that, like Falwell, we too are incomplete and unfinished.

If we believe that ‘ours’ is a more tolerant and loving faction, we must be willing to love and tolerate those with whom we disagree. We find it easy to love the poor and disenfranchised, but Christ call to love extends even greater. He loved the poor and He loved His persecutors all the same.

Although I did not agree with Falwell’s interpretation of scripture, I am sad to hear that he passed away.

At 23/5/07 15:38, Blogger Kari said...

Everytime I scroll down your blog, the corner of my eyes sees the phrase "out of the closet" and thinks the picture is fallwell leaning in to plant a kiss on reagan.


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