In 1981, as a university freshman, I wrote a paper on Jerry Falwell and the Moral Majority. For the most part it was a positive assessment—you have to put yourself back in time to understand why. In the late-70s conservative groups in the US were fractured, impotent and directionless (think Democrats now). They'd been out of the White House since Nixon (and Ford) and the Democrats ran everything. The Democrats in the US back then were bloated, cynical and insufferable (think Republicans now), and so an opposing voice with a marginally religious emphasis was, believe it or not, a welcome change of pace.
My positive critique stemmed from Falwell's ability to transcend some old enmities and form a coalition across faith lines that was based on issues rather than doctrine. To bring conservative evangelicals into a working group with Roman Catholics, Jews and Mormons was no mean feat in 1979—Falwell's strongest critics then were on his right, not his left. I didn't care about some of the issues he promoted—I still think that state-mandated prayer in schools is a ridiculous idea—but what mattered was a united faith-based voice in a political climate that completely ignored Americans of faith.
Like most people who get drunk on power, Falwell descended into a Pope-like role, ‘excommunicating’ those with whom he disagreed and making pronouncements about who should and should not be elected to public office. At times he sounded as though what he really wanted to do was issue a fatwa—an Islamic death sentence—against his enemies, real and perceived. By his later years he was a parody of himself, as Pat Robertson continues to be, ignoring the commands of the Bible in the name of the American Jesus. What a shame.
In the end, what I thought in the beginning was the achievement of the Moral Majority—building coalitions around issues rather than doctrine—turned out to be the foundation for the heresies of the Religious Right. By focusing on issues rather than the essentials of the faith, Falwell made winning the end goal rather than living as a witness to the gospel of Jesus Christ. And that emphasis on winning led many conservative evangelicals into unholy alliances with people who used them cynically to accumulate votes.
What was lost in the process was an opportunity to demonstrate the relevance of Christ's message to a culture just coming out of the Cold War, getting fabulously wealthy on technology investments, and finding itself as the richest and most powerful nation on Earth. If there is any judgment ahead for how we have lived our lives in these crucial times, we might as well start repenting now for how we have behaved—on both sides of the various theological and political lines—during the last quarter-century.
I'm sorry, as we all should be, for the loss to the Falwell family of a husband, father and grandfather. But on the other hand I'm long past ready for a new generation of Christian leaders to be our ambassadors in the public eye. May God raise them up and give them wisdom—and also the ability to learn from the mistakes of the recent past.