The death of Jerry Falwell is doubtless bringing dancing and celebration in the bath houses and bars that liberals hang out in (to say nothing of the left-wing blogs.) For our part, we extend our condolences to his family, Liberty University and the Thomas Road Baptist Church.
There is no question that Falwell’s move into politics with the Moral Majority was a bold one, one that helped to change the course of American history and paved the way for the Reagan era. There’s also no question he made mistakes; he was only human. But, in spite of his own rhetoric and those of his opponents, his movement of evangelical Christianity into politics was one of necessity more than one of desire.
Almost twenty years ago in my piece Public Education: A Christian Perspective, I noted the following:
To buttress their belief in the inevitable course of society, activists on the left spend quite a lot of time discussing the Scopes trial. Instead of breaking Christian people on a wide scale, the reality of the aftermath of this event and others like it in the 1920’s is that many fundamental Christians, encouraged by their pretribulational theology, went into retreat from public life, sticking to evangelistic and educational work to propagate the faith. This was largely true through the 1970’s, an era when dropping out of all kinds was popular in this country.
The impetus to change all of this, and the emergence of such groups as the Moral Majority and its approach to Christians in public life, came mostly from the secular realm. The Supreme Court decisions of the 1960’s and 1970’s concerning such issues as school prayer and abortion created a world where the legal system promoted values hostile to fundamental Christianity. Moreover, the ever expanding role of government made it possible for this legal and philosophical climate to be forcefully projected into Christian institutions through such vehicles as anti-discrimination statutes, education regulations, and just the sheer indoctrination of people in schools and other avenues of governmental dissemination.
The entry of large segments of fundamental Christianity into the public arena to challenge these trends was delayed by the basic reluctance of Christians to get involved in this way. Most of these churches had been successful — and many still are — in supporting the idea that Christians have no business getting involved in the dirty business of politics, that the separation of church and state — and thus the purity of the former — was somehow guaranteed by the non-involvement of Christians in the political process.
This is not to say the Christians were totally inactive. In education, for instance, many Christian schools were set up, in reaction to the eradication of the public affirmation of faith, the breakdown of basic discipline, and the mediocre academic quality in our public schools. This took a large segment of fundamental Christians out of the public schools.
This was not enough for some; during the Carter administration, regulations for these schools were proposed at the federal level. All the while, the situation for those Christians left in public schools became even more unfavourable. Trapped between expensive private school tuitions and taxes being spent to propagate thinking and policies diametrically opposed to theirs, in the early 1980’s Christians finally began to move towards a more activist response through such organizations as the Moral Majority. This has continued to the present time.
Falwell’s "crusade" was a necessity forced on a reluctant group of people. Real Christianity was faced with either getting involved in a democratic process or being squeezed out of its legal status on a practical level. Many evangelicals at the time objected to Falwell’s strategy, in strange concert with liberals. From a political standpoint, the Moral Majority was a good example of the maxim that "the best defence is a good offence."
The need to stay in the game is, if anything, greater than it was when Falwell started out on this journey. It’s never been a pleasant business, but it is, as it was, a crusade of necessity. As long as we have liberals whose goal is to finish the job, political activity will have to continue.