The American Vision: A Biblical Worldview Ministry

Jerry Falwell (1933-2007): Leaving a Legacy

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I never met Jerry Falwell. We did do a live interview together, he in Lynchburg and me in an Atlanta studio. In 1979 Jerry Falwell started the Moral Majority. To counter the influx of Christians into the public arena through this burgeoning organization and dozens of other activist groups inspired by the Moral Majority, especially in the area of politics, Norman Lear countered with his People for the American Way. The Moral Majority shut its doors in 1989. Falwell returned to full-time ministry at Thomas Road Baptist Church, Liberty University,[1] and his correspondence school, content with the fact he has “raised up a generation of fighters and leaders and activists.”[2] Liberty University afforded him the opportunity to train “Champions for Christ,” a work that will have greater long-term impact on the kingdom of God than the Moral Majority could ever have hoped for. Liberty’s new law school, with its replica of the United States Supreme Court and its excellent staff, will also give liberals fits.

Remarkably, the Moral Majority weathered quite a few storms without being washed away in a sea of indiscretion, scandal, or corruption. Falwell was no ranting and raving stereotypical “fundamentalist.” He knew how to handle his opponents.

How effective was the Moral Majority during its ten-year history? Falwell told us, “The purpose of the Moral Majority was to activate the religious right.” He concludes that his “mission is accomplished.”[3] Was the “religious right” activated? Only time will tell.

The ambiguity of the story is that we will never be able to assess empirically the degree to which the Moral Majority was responsible for stimulating political action by conservative Christians in America. One of the oldest propositions in sociological lore is that when people believe something to be real, it becomes real in its consequences.[4]

In addition, one would be hard pressed to define the “religious right” since there were a lot of people who agreed with much of what the Moral Majority was saying, but they would not dare to stand with the organization on particular policies for fear of getting the negative media image dumped on them.

But these politically active Christians who were mobilized by Falwell and other similar organizations are still around even if the Moral Majority is not.[5] This is a healthy sign since organizational diversity and decentralization are key biblical concepts (Exodus 18). There is no longer a single target for the liberals to hit. This will work to the advantage of future activist groups that seem to be adopting a grassroots emphasis rather than a Washington-based strategy. John Buchanan, then chairman of the liberal lobby group People for the American Way, voiced his concern over this change from solidarity to diversity: “It is certainly easier to do battle with a nationally televised prominent person . . . than it is to fight state-by-state and locality-by-locality battles, which is where I think the battles are going to be.”[6]

Numerous currents were coming to a head in the late seventies that few people could have foreseen, the catalyst being the 1973 pro-abortion decision.[7] Jerry Falwell became the point man for an already growing number of Christian activists and organizations. His visibility allowed the numerous and less prominent groups to gain a constituency without the attendant publicity and hassle. No one predicted the development of this burgeoning Christian coalition, a coalition with no formal denominational ties. Neither was it specifically “fundamentalistic.”

Dr. Falwell will be missed, but he has left a legacy of faithfulness and action.

Footnotes:
[1]
. When has a university decided to take on the world? Answer: When it decides to have a nationally ranked football team. “Falwell said he wants Liberty football to become to Baptists what Notre Dame is to Catholics and Brigham Young is to Mormons. The sooner the better. He even removed a football coach, Morgan Hout, who finished 8–3 last season [1988].” (Gary Pomerantz, “Rutigliano’s Born Again at Falwell U.,” The Atlanta Constitution [September 15, 1989], F1).
[2]. Jerry Falwell quoted in R. Gustav Niebuhr, “Why ‘Moral Majority,’ A Force for a Decade, Ran Out of Steam,” The Wall Street Journal (September 25, 1989), A1.
[3]. “Scrapping the Moral Majority,” Time (June 26, 1989), 26.
[4]
. Jeffrey K. Hadden, Anson Shupe, James Hawdon, Kenneth Martin, “Why Jerry Falwell Killed the Moral Majority,” The God Pumpers: Religion in the Electronic Age, eds. Marshall W. Fishwork and Roy B. Browne (Bowling Green, KY: Bowling Green State University Popular Press, 1987), 103.
[5]. “[A] few years back, Mrs. Norman dropped out of the Moral majority. Deluged by appeals from conservative causes, she decided instead to help a local Christian school train the next generation of fundamentalists. ‘It just seems like the need is greater here,’ she says.” (Niebuhr, “Why ‘Moral Majority,’” A1).
[6]. Quoted in Kim A. Lawton, “Whatever Happened to the Religious Right?,” Christianity Today (December 5, 1989), 44.
[7]. Other evangelicals entered the political arena for additional reasons. For example, Ronald Nash explains “that one of the reasons he got involved in the political process was his own growing anger at what he saw as the unfairness of the ‘evangelical left’s’ attacks on conservatism.” See Richard John Neuhaus, gen. ed., The Bible, Politics, and Democracy (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1987), 120–121.
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