What shall we do for a bogeyman, now that our grand old monster is dead?
Jerry Falwell has passed away, his death leading news reports yesterday . And nearly all the obituaries this morning remind us that he really was, most of the time, a symbol rather a man. Or not a symbol, exactly, but a place-marker¯a convenient way to name everything that ails us.
From the beginning of his rise to national notice¯with the 1973 meetings that would lead, eventually, to the founding of the Moral Majority in 1979¯Falwell seemed a useful figure. An evangelical preacher who talked about politics? A backwoods hick with a national following? His caricature justified the fear of an impending theocracy at the same time that it confirmed a sense of class superiority. Look at Jerry Falwell, we were told, and be afraid: The Bible-thumpers from the trailer parks are daring to enter national politics and squabble with their betters.
Bah. The open sneer contradicted the claim of terror, but Falwell was too expedient ever to drop. From 1979 to around 1985, he caught the wave¯or helped make the wave, perhaps; let’s not underestimate the man¯that defeated Jimmy Carter and swept Ronald Reagan to two terms in office. As Richard John Neuhaus wrote this morning for National Review :
He exulted in the role of the country cousin, and leader of other country cousins, who crashed the national family reunion.
In the mid-1970s. Jimmy Carter announced that he was an "evangelical," prompting reporters to query the experts about a species that was supposed to have been extinguished, or at least held in captivity somewhere down South, following the "monkey trial" of 1925. After Carter’s election, many, if not most, evangelicals quickly discovered that he was not an evangelical the way that they were evangelicals. They were still strangers in their own land and, like Howard Beale of Network , they were not going to take it anymore.
Thus was launched the "religious right," and in its front ranks the unabashedly boisterous Falwell delightedly playing to stereotype. He had other notable achievements, of course. He was pastor of a megachurch, and then there is Liberty University, which is nothing to sniff at, although that has not stopped the sniffing. In American histories rightly told he will be more than a footnote. As much as anyone, he precipitated a reconfiguration of our public life whereby democracy has been reinvigorated by the inclusion of millions of citizens determined to have a say in how we order our life together. May he rest in peace where the sounds of battle are no more.
But for the right, Falwell’s star was fading fast in the late 1980s¯and not just for the right. By the time George Bush took office in 1988, Falwell was not anywhere near the player¯the kingmaker¯in presidential politics that he had been. In 1990, he retired from the national stage and went back to running Liberty University.
Not that anyone noticed. His symbolic value was too great for anyone to surrender. The left kept his memory alive as the great figure with which to frighten children, and, even on the right, too many seemed happy to use Falwell as the figure against which they could distinguish themselves: Sure, I’m a conservative, but I’m not one of those people.
Unfortunately, Falwell wouldn’t stay retired, and when he returned to public life later in the 1990s he seemed to have become something like a caricature of the caricatures of Jerry Falwell: a bad imitation of the imitations of himself. He stopped being careful; he started spotting off. He would say, from time to time, bizarre and stupid things¯all faithfully reported as the latest lunacy from the Republicans’ religious right, although, in truth, he hadn’t mattered much to that world for a decade.
But then that’s what bogeymen are for: figures with which to instruct and discipline children, regardless of their fiction. All our present-day talk of impending theocracy couldn’t have happened without Jerry Falwell. And yet, all our present-day talk about abortion, and values, and the right of believers to participate in the public square¯much of that couldn’t have happened without Jerry Falwell, either. He made an enormous difference in 1980, and those who now routinely genuflect toward the memory of Ronald Reagan shouldn’t forget it.
Moreover, underneath the symbol, there was a man, and those who knew him all testify to the genuineness of that man¯as a preacher, a sinner, a worker, and a believer. It is enough. Jerry Falwell has gone beyond symbols and caricatures to rest in the judgment of the God of Things As They Are.