All three news magazines devoted a page to remembering Jerry Falwell this week, but Time and Newsweek were each obnoxious in their own way. Time ended their article with a dismissive quote from leftist Jim Wallis: "the Evangelicals have left the Right. They now reside with Jesus." Newsweek displayed false generosity in saying sometimes he was a demagogue, and sometimes he was the ringmaster of a circus: "He could be a demagogue, but he was as much a P.T. Barnum as anything else."
Time magazine, in a back-page article titled "Jerry's Kids" -- which could be an insulting reference to Falwell followers, but is probably intended to bless his more palatable, "more moderate" successors -- Michael Duffy and Nancy Gibbs suggested that Falwell thought party labels were more important than the social issues:
Falwell, who died May 15, didn't care that Jimmy Carter was a Bible-believing Baptist if he still had the soul of a Democrat or that Ronald Reagan was a divorced cinemactor, as long as he was a kindred political spirit.
They did not address the idea that in 1980, which party had the audacity to oppose the "Equal Rights Amendment" and abortion on demand? What was "Bible-believing Baptist" President Carter supporting on his party’s platform? Duffy and Gibbs don’t consider that maybe it was Carter chose his politics over his brand of Christianity. In short, they write like offended partisan Democrats.
Duffy and Gibbs note that the religious right didn’t win within the party as much as the corporate community. But would they suggest, after the death of a libertine-left luminary, that they struggled within the Democratic Party and lost a lot? Don’t bet on it. Liberals like those on the Time masthead find it very easy to find the religious right is fading away into a much more moderate – and not so sin-scorning – secular-friendly bunch:
"Movements are born in white heat," says the great religious historian Martin Marty, but once the heat cools, fissures show up. "Leaders make mistakes and have to apologize. You don't get all you dreamed of, and settle for less. To be charitable: you also might mature some." The movement Falwell had helped create grew so large it spilled out in directions no one could foresee or control, encompassing work on global warming and the crisis in Darfur. Young Evangelicals still have their heroes and their causes, but those were less likely to be Falwell and Pat Robertson fighting abortion and gay marriage than Bono and Rick Warren addressing poverty and AIDS in Africa. When Falwell talked of AIDS, it was about God's punishment of homosexuals. When Warren, who also views homosexuality as a sin, talks about AIDS, it's about how to stop its spread and minister to the suffering. When he hosts a global AIDS summit, Warren invites both Barack Obama and Sam Brownback. That has the makings of a real moral majority.
So maturity equals moderating away from conservatism. But this kind of "maturity" also has the makings of suggesting that Obama’s pro-gay, pro-abortion votes and speeches are endorsed by Christian ministers -- or, as most of the "AIDS community" believes, that AIDS just happens to you, like bubonic plague. It isn't contracted through risky personal behavior. These ministers (and musicians) may be Falwell's evangelical successors in some way, but they are not to be confused with a "religious right." Duffy and Gibbs grew more explicit that Jesus is just alright if he’s closer to their ideology:
Falwell practiced the politics of division, flinging damnation at those who resisted his vision of a Godly America. Now a rising generation of Christian leaders is looking to bring people together: the politics of division may be a shrewd electoral strategy but a shallow spiritual one. Their God is bigger than their party, more mysterious, more forgiving and more embracing. It is only partly wishful thinking when a progressive evangelical counterforce to Falwell like Jim Wallis declares that "the Evangelicals have left the Right. They now reside with Jesus."
But can’t it easily be said that Obama’s Christianity "may be a shrewd electoral strategy but a shallow spiritual one"? Can't it easily be said that Obama, despite his sweet talk and the media sweet talk surrounding him like an aura, has endorsed one divisive side of the culture wars -- the If It Feels Good, Do It side? This judgment over who is "divisive" is a very one-way street. Falwell is, the ACLU is not? Pat Robertson is, Kate Michelman is not? Buried inside this "divisive" line is the liberal desire that Christian ministers and priests should either make peace with liberalism or shut up and leave the public square. Go pray in a closet, and stop this "divisive" attack on liberal unanimity.
In Newsweek's article -- illustrated by a shadowy Darth Vader-esque dark picture of Falwell with a cross of light shining into his face -- Howard Fineman began by noting how Falwell loved his Lear jet, and like the Time duo, he suggested Falwell left Jesus behind and worshiped the Almighty Elephant:
With the advice and financial backing of national conservative and GOP activists, Falwell had launched a group he had the chutzpah to call the Moral Majority. The goal was to use the then-new tactics of "independent" grass-roots organizing to draw evangelical and fundamentalist Christians—for decades, reluctant participants in politics—into a Republican crusade.
When we got to Birmingham, I saw what he was up to. He filled the old Boutwell Auditorium with thousands of "Gospel Hour" fans for a rally called "God Save America Again!" It was like a revival meeting—co-written by George Orwell and staged by Lynyrd Skynyrd. With lights dimmed and ominous music echoing in the hall, the stage was framed by giant photos of America's enemies (back then, the Soviet Union). In the spotlight, Falwell warned that Armageddon was at hand, unless God-fearing voters ousted Jimmy Carter (a born-again Christian himself, but never mind) and the rest of the Democrats. Hope lay in only one place: with Reagan and his GOP disciples. When the lights came up, there they were, standing and waving in the audience: not the Gipper himself, but a lineup of Alabama Republican candidates.
Fineman obviously finds this all implausible, even Orwellian. (The strange Skynyrd reference betrays an anti-South bias, no?) It's a little shocking he didn't put the word "enemies" in quotes, which is the way the liberals approached the Soviets, since their rhetoric in Community Party conferences was just rhetorical hot air, apparently. They dreamed of world domination with a godless ideology, so how is it mysterious that American Christians would see them as an enemy? Fineman granted Falwell a large role in bringing conservative Christians into the electoral arena -- and then, as is probably mandatory in "news magazine" publishing -- suggests that was a bad turn for America:
What he did for—and to—America is harder to figure. He believed in the inerrancy of Scripture, and carried that absolutist attitude into politics, which could be a dangerous and divisive thing. Gays had invited the 9/11 attack by turning our country into a Sodom and Gomorrah; the antichrist was on his way—and was a Jew. Falwell could be a bully, lacking in Christian charity.
Yet there was a benign side, too, and a worthy one. There was never an ounce of scandal in his personal life. His large congregation was devoted; Wednesday-night sermons, full of complex diagrams about events in end-times, drew thousands.... He could be a demagogue, but he was as much a P.T. Barnum as anything else...
I ran into him not long ago in Union Station in Washington. He had no entourage, no jet. His always-florid face was fuller than ever. He had come up on the train from Lynchburg, and was having lunch before making the D.C. rounds. Falwell remained in demand as a talking head, eager to mix it up with the heathens in a city he had helped to transform. It was a long journey from Birmingham. Now Falwell is in a Better Place. I'm not sure that's true of the country.
Conservatives didn't endorse Falwell's biggest gaffes -- and they denounced them at the time they were spoken, like the 9/11 line repeated in every obituary. Christian charity is important, but so is Christian preaching. But it's quite clear that social conservatives face a huge obstacle in the libertine left -- and the Falwell "appreciations" underline how firmly entrenched these leftists are in the "news" media.