God’s Right Hand: How Jerry Falwell Made God a Republican
and Baptized the American Right
By Michael Sean Winters
HarperOne, 440 pages
In the days before the Wisconsin primary, Rick Santorum’s campaign unleashed a robocall campaign instructing listeners not to vote for “Mitt Romney and homosexuality.” The message sounded funny and not just because the former Massachusetts governor doesn’t exactly seem like the great defender of gay sex. The humor came more from the fact that the accusation was so retro. Conservatives still defend traditional marriage, but they generally find a subtler way to discuss the so-called social issues than they did in, say, 1979.
In his new biography of Jerry Falwell, Michael Sean Winters, a liberal blogger at the National Catholic Reporter, chronicles the rise of one of the less subtle contributors to these debates. Readers of God’s Right Hand will get a useful and mostly fair lesson in how the dialogue about these issues has changed in the past three decades.
Jerry Falwell, who was born in 1933, was not raised in a religious home. His father was a relatively affluent businessman, but also an alcoholic and a “second-generation atheist” who was hardly an upstanding member of the Lynchburg, Virginia, society where he raised his family. Falwell himself did not begin his journey to faith until he was almost 20 years old, after a somewhat wild youth. And even then his initial attendance at church was prompted by the fact that he had been told there were some pretty girls there. Indeed, the piano player at that first church would eventually become his wife.
But he quickly took to religion and left Lynchburg College to attend a fundamentalist Baptist college in Missouri on his pastor’s recommendation. Falwell’s photographic memory helped him excel in his religious studies, even though most of his classmates at seminary had been studying the Bible for much longer. Winters combs through Falwell’s sermons and other writings to gain insight into his theological views. He warns that by the time Falwell wrote his autobiography, most of the anecdotes from his youth had been turned into allegories about religion, but they are still mostly considered to be accurate and are often revealing. Winters writes that Falwell determined early on the “two essentials to biblical prayer.” First, “you must bring your requests to God confident that He will deliver them, and second, you must ask for those things that God, in the Bible, has already promised to give.”
The first of these is a fairly standard feature of evangelical Christian prayer, but the second allowed Falwell to chart a different, more traditional course than some of the more flamboyant televangelists of his age, such as James Bakker. Falwell never bought into the so-called prosperity gospel in which pastors simply encourage congregants to pray to God for wealth.
If Falwell was a biblical literalist and traditional in his theological views, he was a tireless innovator when it came to expanding the reach of his ministry. Upon graduating from seminary, he returned to Lynchburg and started the Thomas Road Baptist Church. He mapped out the neighborhoods surrounding his church, marking the 10-block radius “Jerusalem,” the 20-block radius, “Judea,” and then another circle outside of it “Samaria.”
His methodical strategy of gaining converts, which he compared to Eisenhower’s plotting the D-Day invasion of Europe, involved visiting 100 homes per day. If people told him they were members of other churches, he simply encouraged them to visit his instead. Falwell mentioned what the subject of his sermon would be that week and left each person with a card bearing his home and office phone numbers. And then he engaged in meticulous data collection, writing down everything he could remember about the family—how many people there were, how old, what churches they had attended and any personal problems they mentioned. He would mail out copies of his church newsletter to the homes he visited and follow up with a phone call, drawing on his notes. Falwell’s methods were a kind of ComStat for Christianity. By the end of the first year at Thomas Road, he had 864 people in attendance.
Within a couple of years, he expanded his reach with radio and then television, broadcasting a program called the Old-Time Gospel Hour. He achieved “instant celebrity,” he recalled—no other preacher was on TV at the time. He expanded Thomas Road’s ministry in other ways as well, adding a school, a youth camp, a rehabilitation facility for alcoholics, and a home for unwed mothers. Winters points out that Thomas Road began to “look like an urban Catholic parish: church, school, and various ministries providing all the social and religious needs of the parishioners.” He adds, “Falwell also would not have used the term, coined decades later, but Thomas Road Baptist was becoming a megachurch.” And Liberty University, also launched by Falwell, took the reach of his ministry to a point that even few megachurches could claim.
Falwell’s real celebrity came with his foray into politics. Prior to the 1970s, fundamentalist Christians were not inclined to engage with the culture at all. They were supposed to remain apart from the political fray, lest they be corrupted. And Baptists, as a denomination, were not particularly suited to politics either, having, as they do, a decentralized leadership in which each church may largely choose its own path. This group would not be easy to organize.
Falwell himself had preached against the involvement of churches in politics as late as 1965. “Preachers are not called to be politicians but to be soul winners.” According to Winters, he told his congregation that he would “‘find it impossible’ to fight Communism or to participate in civil rights reform because such tasks would take him away from the time he needed to go out and win souls for Christ.”
There were a number of issues that prompted Falwell to launch the Moral Majority in 1979—abortion, pornography, and the threat of Communism chief among them—but Winters argues that the final straw for Falwell was the IRS ruling in 1978 that required Christian schools that had no black students to prove they had not engaged in efforts to consciously segregate themselves. “The IRS assault confirmed the fear among evangelicals that their separationist stance vis-à-vis the ambient culture was no longer able to protect them from that culture,” writes Winters.
On social issues, Falwell found ways to form alliances not only among different evangelical Christian churches but also with Jews and Catholics. The efforts were not without their hiccups. At a meeting of the Southern Baptist Convention at which Ronald Reagan addressed the crowd, the newly installed president of the SBC said it was strange to find Catholics, Protestants, and Jews praying together during “great political battles.” He explained: “With all due respect to those dear people, my friends, God Almighty does not hear the prayer of a Jew….It is blasphemy. It may be politically expedient, but no one can pray unless he prays through the name of Jesus Christ.” When Falwell was asked if he agreed, he told a reporter, “I believe God answers the prayer of any redeemed Jew or Gentile.” He didn’t clarify what one had to do to be redeemed. Ultimately, though, Winters credits him not only with being one of the first and strongest evangelical supporters of Israel but also with doing much to remove the taint of anti-Semitism from conservative politics.
The Moral Majority was supposed to exist as a separate entity from Falwell’s church ministry. Winters suggests that this was hard to accomplish, both as a practical matter and as a principled one. It proved difficult to satisfy concerns of federal regulators about how the two enterprises were divided. And as Falwell became more involved in politics, there were instances when his desire to remain influential in political circles seemed to outweigh his religious convictions. His support of Sandra Day O’Connor’s nomination to the Supreme Court was probably the best example. Noting O’Connor’s support of the Equal Rights Amendment and other feminist causes, Falwell originally came out strongly against Reagan’s first Supreme Court pick, saying that “either the president did not have sufficient information about Judge O’Connor’s background in social issues or he chose to ignore that information.” Reagan telephoned Falwell, and by the time of her Senate hearings, Falwell did not oppose O’Connor’s confirmation.
Falwell’s capitulation on this issue led the evangelical leader James Dobson to say, “I think the Moral Majority moved from a prophetic role into more of an adviser role and lost some of its ability to speak against the administration.” Winters suggests that Falwell fell into the same trap with his unwavering support of Reagan’s foreign policy. It is not hard to see that Winters himself probably would have agreed more with liberal religious leaders on nuclear armament or with Catholic bishops on El Salvador. But he criticized Falwell for not drawing a more direct line from his faith to his views on Communism. In contrast to Pope John Paul II, Falwell “instead of making an argument based in his faith…took steps to separate his moral views from his political views,” Winters says. “These steps…actually undermined the distinctive contribution that the Moral Majority made to public discourse.”
Nonetheless Winters is clear that Falwell and the Moral Majority were hugely influential. Even if many of the organization’s goals—such as overturning Roe v. Wade—were not achieved, he credits Falwell with leading a movement that registered and motivated millions of voters. His embrace of media—appearing on shows like Donahue and Nightline and launching one of the first direct-mail campaigns— made his message even broader and more appealing.
It is safe to say that Jerry Falwell, who died in 2007, will be remembered by many for his outrageous statements, such as when he suggested that the attacks of September 11 were God’s punishment for the “pagans, and the abortionists, and the feminists, and the gays and the lesbians who are actively trying to make that an alternative lifestyle, the ACLU, People for the American Way,” etc. (He eventually apologized for these remarks.) But his real legacy will be bringing a vast group of religious citizens into the voting booth. It is already hard to imagine our political landscape without them.