The name of the Rev. Jerry Falwell tends to excite and/or rile the emotions of American Christians in a way that few other 20th-century clergymen can claim. Michael Sean Winters provides an even-handed and insightful biographical exploration of the legendary pastor, who began with meager resources but built a fundamentalist juggernaut that influenced and shaped American political life in the late 20th century and set the stage for the divisive political battles of the early 21st century.
Describing Falwell’s somewhat dysfunctional family and childhood in Lynchburg, Va., Winters traces his transformation from the son of an angry, drunk father who professed atheism, into a charismatic minister who used biblical literacy and a parochial theology as a weapon against the evils of social change and pluralism that exploded in the 1960s. As Americans wrestled with their social and cultural demons of race, sex and class inequalities, Falwell watched with horror and disdain as mainstream Christianity reinforced calls for social justice, while the more homogeneous aspects of Chris-tianity—personal piety, patriotism and traditional social mores—seemed in decline. In his view, it was time for fundamentalism, historically isolated from the public realm, to enter the political fray to successfully influence the process to bring God back into the civic discussion.
Conciding perfectly with the conservative resurgence in the Republican Party, the marriage of traditional conservative Republicans and social/religious conservatives, Falwell built a local, regional and national movement, the Moral Majority, that eventually had influence in the White House, beginning with the Reagan administration. It embedded itself into Republican politics, serving as a model for like-minded conservatives and clergy who hoped to save the nation from perceived ruin and liberal policies.
Falwell became a master of the sound bite, whose media savvy made him the “face of televangelism” and a popular guest for a variety of radio and television talk shows and news programs. Winters provides a nuanced account of how Falwell built his evangelical empire, which eventually welcomed political alliances with conservative Catholics and conservative Jews. Besides his media and political influence, Falwell created a generation of well-educated adversaries to challenge the “liberal elites” by founding Liberty University, an institution that produced some of the first conservative legal experts. These began to challenge the courts and eventually influenced the judicial system directly when they won judicial appointments to state and federal courts.
Using and promoting his brand of biblical and moral certainty, Falwell never lets facts or logic impede his analysis or evaluation of the social or political arena. The author refers to Falwell as “morally rigorous but not intellectually curious.” Falwell seems to have been immune, for example, to the knowledge that the American nation and its Constitution were created and written by deists who were highly influenced by the ideas of the Enlightenment and saw reason as the epitome of the new republic. For Falwell, patriotism and evangelicalism draw from the same well, and one cannot exist without the other.
Upon final assessment, Winters believes Falwell’s legacy is “mixed.” Falwell “created a platform for engagement,” and provided a generation of conservative Christians with talking points and national logistics to engage and make changes in the American political system. But Winters also credits him with transforming the Republican Party but being too successful, “succeeding so thoroughly... they are seen as too white, too southern, too conservative, and too Christian.” Although Jerry Falwell died in 2007, one has to ask, in light of current national dialogues and debates that seem to be throwbacks to issues that appeared resolved generations ago, if Falwell’s legacy isn’t more long-lasting and powerful than Winters believes.