Monday, July 9, 2012

GOP = God's Own Party

It's a couple of years old now, but I just read Daniel K. Williams' God's Own Party: The Making of the Christian Right. It is an enlightening read, all the more so for being a serious work of scholarship rather than a polemic. Williams does not take sides. The prose is bland, and I mean that in the best sense of the word, because his narrative is dispassionate and balanced. He is not fretting about whether the influence of the Christian Right is good or bad; he is out to tell the story accurately and leave you to draw your own conclusions.

And because of that, it's a more powerful indictment when, after reading such a bland and nonjudgmental narrative, you are left with contempt for many of the Christian Right leaders. God's Own Party, more than anything else I've read, explains the full range of issues and events that gave rise to the Christian Right. Yet we're still left wondering, what in the world were these people thinking? How could people who were so serious about Christianity be so unchristian?

Take Jerry Falwell, for instance. Megachurch pastor, televangelist, founder of the Moral Majority and Liberty University, he was a staunch supporter of segregation. In the 1950s he preached a sermon at his church (which had already grown to 900 members by this time) that included these nuggets of wisdom: "The true Negro does not want integration...He realizes his potential is far better among his own race. Who then is propagating this terrible thing?...We see the hand of Moscow in the background." Indeed, not just Moscow, but the "Devil himself" was behind the push for racial integration. In 1958, he said this in regard to Brown vs. Board of Education: "If Chief Justice Warren and his associates had known God's Word and had desired to do the Lord's will, I am quite confident that the 1954 decision would never have been made."

Let's be clear about what this means. In the 1950s, Jerry Falwell was a mature, fully grown man. He had had the time to think things through and develop his own opinions. He was the pastor of a megachurch. And Jerry Falwell stated explicitly that it was God's will for black children to be treated worse than white children. It was God's will for black children to get less education than white children. It was God's will for black children to attend dilapidated, crowded schools while white children attended new schools. It was God's will for black children to use outdated and worn textbooks after the white children finished with them and got their shiny new ones. It was God's will for black children to have less opportunity in life. This is what Jerry Falwell believed in 1958.

Well, says the devil's advocate, "lots of people believed that in the 1950s but thought better of it later." But did Falwell? He joined those who favored "massive resistance" in response to Brown, believing the state should close its public schools rather than comply with the Supreme Court. He battled against a prominent coalition of local elites and business leaders in his own community who feared closing the schools would be bad for the economy. He founded his Christian school in 1967 (a grade school, not the college), with an all-white student body, the very year in which the immediate desegregation of all Virginia public schools was ordered. Williams generously notes that Falwell's rhetoric at this time focused more on the problem of secularization and the lack of prayer and Bible reading in schools, but the timing of the school's founding, and its racial exclusiveness, seems telling.

Perhaps, you say, "that was the '60s, and lots of people were still reconciling themselves to the changes. He moved on later." But my question, and it's not rhetorical, is this: did Falwell repent of his racial hatred, or did he just lapse into silence? Does anyone know of any public statements Falwell may have made that reflected true repentance and a change in his thinking? And how does Liberty University address its history and that of its founder? Is there an open acknowledgment of its sinful past, or is it swept under the rug? Again, these are not rhetorical questions. If anyone has any insight into Falwell's later career or Liberty University in the present day, I would appreciate hearing from you.

Williams relates one other little episode that makes me question whether Falwell truly had a change of heart. When Pat Robertson ran for president in 1988, he was subjected to a lot of ridicule. As Williams tells it, a lot of evangelicals took exception to this. Rather than seeing media scrutiny for what it obviously was (if you have a history of saying stupid and false things and then put yourself out in public, you'll be made fun of for saying those things), some evangelicals increasingly saw themselves as a persecuted, beleaguered minority. Williams writes:
Consciously drawing parallels between their own experience and that of African Americans, evangelicals began claiming that they were victims of "religious persecution" and discrimination, just as Robertson had claimed in his presidential campaign. "We are the last minority," Jerry Falwell said in 1988. "You can no longer attack a man's color, but right today you can refer to fundamentalists as Bible-bangers." 
Isn't this remarkable? As late as 1988, 24 years after segregation was struck down by law, Falwell's resentment drips off the page. For people not blinded by racism or a persecution complex, the obvious rejoinder to Falwell's claim was that there is no good reason to attack a person's color, but fundamentalists' well-deserved reputation for ignorance and bigotry warranted criticism.

Okay, so Jerry Falwell has hijacked this post. The book is not about Falwell, and I have more thoughts about the broader narrative that I'll share later. For now, does anyone know anything that might shed more light on the arc of Falwell's life? Did he repent? Did he ever realize that his Christianity was an arbitrary cultural construction that had little to do with the scriptures?


  1. I do know someone at Liberty. I'll share this with her and see if she replies with any thoughts.

  2. Hey Jesse, I'm Esther. I don't know if you remember me from Amy and Joe's wedding but I was super close with Amy back in the day. I am a student at Liberty and so, perhaps, I can add some thoughts of value.

    Based on what I have seen and heard of Jerry Falwell, he was intense. Everything he thought, said or prayed was intense in nature. Some of his prayers even sounded demanding towards God and, honestly, I get uncomfortable when the story of Liberty's launching is accredited mostly to Jerry's faith and not blessing from God (this, sadly, happens quite often). I don't know if Jerry ever repented of his judgmental comments towards homosexuals, blacks or abortionists and have found no evidence yet that he did. Honestly, I think that, as much kindness and passion for God that was in his heart, he was very unwise with his words. Proverbs talks about desire without knowledge (or wisdom in some translations)being dangerous. This can certainly apply to someone desiring something good like justice and purity! I'm sure that Jerry did want those things because he knows they please God but he left wisdom out of it and alienated people instead of showing the side of God that grants abundant grace. It's saddening because of how much public influence and attention he attained. A man at the forefront of Christian publicity couldn't give the balanced representation of God's judgment of sin AND His love for people's souls.

  3. Esther, thank you so much. That's very helpful. And since you're at Liberty, I do want to make clear that I am sure you and thousands of others are getting great educations there and I don't doubt that God is using that place. That said, I grieve over its horrible public witness.