Falwell's Legacy

I watched much of the cable television coverage of Jerry Falwell's death and legacy. And I did a lot of grimacing, in response to the uncritical adulation of his allies (who passed over the divisive character of much of Falwell's rhetoric) and also to the ugly vitriol from some of Falwell's enemies (who attacked both his character and his faith). There were even some who attacked all people of faith. I ended up being glad that I had passed up all the invitations to be on those shows. On the day of Rev. Falwell's death, I was content to offer a brief statement, which read:

"I was saddened to learn that Rev. Jerry Falwell passed away this morning at age 73. Rev. Falwell and I met many times over the years, as the media often paired us as debate partners on issues of faith and politics. I respected his passionate commitment to his beliefs, and our shared commitment to bringing moral debate to the public square, although we didn't agree on many things. At this time, however, what matters most is our prayers for comfort and peace for his family and friends."

Jerry Falwell, in his own way, did help to teach Christians that their faith should express itself in the public square and I am grateful for that, even if the positions he took were often at great variance with my own. I spent much of my early Christian life fighting the privatizing of faith, characterized by the withdrawal of any concern for the world (so as to not be "worldly") and an exclusive focus on private matters. If God so loved the world, God must care a great deal about what happens to it and in it. Falwell agreed with that, and he blew the trumpet that awakened fundamentalist Christians to engage the world with their faith and moral values. That commitment is a good thing. Falwell and I debated often about how faith should impact public life and about what all the great moral issues of our time really are.

But many conservative Christians are now also embracing poverty, HIV/AIDS, Darfur, sex trafficking, and even the war in Iraq as matters of faith and moral imperatives. The Washington Post reported on a survey in conducted February by the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life that found that "younger evangelicals are more likely than their parents to worry about environmental issues; 59 percent of those under 30 said the United States was 'losing ground' on pollution, compared with 37 percent of those over 30." A May New York Times article on "the new breed of evangelicals" declared, "The evangelical Christian movement, which has been pivotal in reshaping the country's political landscape since the 1980s, has shifted in potentially momentous ways in recent years, broadening its agenda and exposing new fissures" and said that "the new breed of evangelical leaders ... are more likely to speak out about more liberal causes like AIDS, Darfur, poverty, and global warming than controversial social issues like abortion and same-sex marriage."

Pastor Rich Nathan of the Vineyard Church of Columbus, Ohio—the second largest congregation in the state—recently said, "I am so grateful that there is a broadening of the evangelical agenda that expands beyond abortion and gay marriage. There are many evangelicals coming out in opposition to global warming. There are more evangelicals speaking out about global poverty and the relief of Third World debt and AIDS. And I'm proud of the fact that evangelicals are taking the lead on some of the world's most pressing issues."

IT WOULD HAVE BEEN nice to hear that Jerry Falwell, too, had moved to embrace a broader agenda than just abortion and homosexuality. Rev. Falwell, who was admittedly racist during the civil rights movement, was in later years honored by the Lynchburg NAACP for his turn-about on the issue of race, showing the famous founder of the Religious Right's capacity to grow and change. But recently on television I saw the pain on the face of gay Christian Mel White, who lamented that despite the efforts of himself and others, Falwell never moderated his strong and often inflammatory language (even if maintaining his religious convictions) against gay and lesbian people. They still feel the most wounded by the fundamentalist minister's statements; that healing has yet to be done.

Ralph Reed said that Jerry Falwell presided over the "marriage ceremony" between religious fundamentalists and the Republican Party. David Kuo, former special assistant to President George W. Bush, wrote, "It is ironic and a bit sad that the man who stood on the sidelines during the civil rights movement—saying pastors needed to preach Jesus, not politics—became the leading person marketing Jesus for political ends in the '70s, '80s, and '90s, and that he will be remembered not as a great spiritual leader but a powerful political one. But that was the choice he made over and over again. Falwell's Moral Majority became synonymous with Christianity in America, so that today many people confuse the particular political stance of the Christian Right with the message of Jesus Christ."

Falwell, Kuo wrote, "helped define Jesus for much of America today, and his definition does not do justice to the Jesus of the gospels. When people hear the word 'Christian,' too often they think not of Jesus and his teachings but of Jerry Falwell and his politics. I know of a lot of Christians who don't like to refer to themselves as 'Christians' because they are afraid of the Falwellian association."

That's still a concern about the Religious Right for many of us, and should be a warning for the relationship of any so-called religious Left with the Democrats. But perhaps in the overly partisan mistakes that Jerry Falwell made—and actually pioneered—we can all be instructed in how to forge a faith that is principled but not ideological, political but not partisan, engaged but not used. That's how the Catholic bishops put it, and it is a better guide than the direction we got from the Moral Majority.

Falwell proclaimed a public faith, not a private one. I am with him on that. God is personal, but never private. So let's pray for Jerry Falwell's family, the members of his Thomas Road Baptist Church, and all the students at his Liberty University. And let's learn from his legacy—about how and how not to best apply our faith to politics.

Jim Wallis is editor-in-chief of Sojourners. Portions of this column appeared on the God's Politics blog (www.godspolitics.com).

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