Jerry Falwell, who died yesterday at age 73, did more to launch the Christian Right as a major political force than any other figure in the past 50 years, but his career also illustrated the limits the movement ran into as it tried to enact its political and public policy agenda.
Until Falwell came to the helm of Moral Majority in 1979, white evangelical Americans were largely disengaged from American political life, a consequence of the Scopes Monkey Trial of 1925. The trial saw the evangelical movement successfully defend a Tennessee law forbidding the teaching of evolution in public schools. But the event was a public relations disaster for evangelicals, who were ridiculed in press accounts as ignorant and backward.
When the so-called New Right began organizing after Barry Goldwater's unsuccessful 1964 campaign for president, conservative activists in Washington began eyeing evangelicals as potential allies who could supply their movement with millions of foot soldiers for grass-roots organizing and to go to the polls. But New Right activists were unsuccessful in drawing evangelicals into their fold until they recruited Falwell to run Moral Majority, a fledgling political organization.
At the time, Falwell had already founded what would later become Liberty University--originally called Lynchburg Baptist College--in Lynchburg, Va., and hosted a nationally broadcast television show called Old Time Gospel Hour.
Through Moral Majority, Falwell focused his activism on evangelical pastors, telling them that issues like abortion rights and gay rights required them to cast off their decades-long political inhibitions and to stop viewing politics as a dirty business unfit for church people. In the early 1980s, Falwell barnstormed the country, speaking to countless congregations and pastors' breakfasts and logging 250,000 miles a year on a chartered plane.
Falwell's activism seemed to pay off early. While white evangelicals had backed Jimmy Carter--a Southern Baptist who'd taught Sunday school in Georgia--in 1976, they broke 2 to 1 for Ronald Reagan in 1980, providing a major plank of support and establishing themselves as a lasting base of Republican support.
Reagan reached out to Falwell during both terms of his presidency, repeatedly inviting him to the White House. Though such treatment gave white evangelicals a sense of having a perch in Washington after decades in the political wilderness, some activists and political analysts saw Falwell's closeness to the White House as a political seduction that yielded little real policy for the Christian Right.
Reagan's first nominee to the Supreme Court, for example, Sandra Day O'Connor, was a social moderate who wound up casting crucial swing votes to advance gay rights and uphold abortion rights. Though Reagan invited Falwell to the White House to announce support for a constitutional amendment enshrining a right to prayer in public schools, his administration did little to build support for the measure in Congress, and the amendment went nowhere.
Falwell's Moral Majority was most active in the early years of Reagan's first term, closing its doors in 1987. Two years later, Pat Robertson would launch Christian Coalition, the next major Christian right organization, which built on Falwell's work by going beyond pastors to build a true grass-roots network populated by political professionals. That organization would go on to be eclipsed by still more sophisticated Christian right outfits, including James Dobson's Focus on the Family.
By Dan Gilgoff