Tuesday, May 15, 2007

Jerry Falwell, RIP

While certainly a fallible man, Rev. Falwell merits respect from all conservatives for his dogged willingness to cling to his convictions and stand athwart Progressive Liberalism shouting "Stop!" This writer extends his condolences to Rev. Falwell's congregants, the students and faculty of Liberty University, and all those who found a path towards truth in Falwell's defence of Christianity and traditional Christian morality.

An irony no doubt appreciated by Rev. Falwell was that his meteoric rise to prominence in the late 1970's was as much the result of the mainstream media seeking a public face to embody the populist resistance to the midcentury cultural revolution in social and especially sexual norms as it was due to Falwell's own success in presenting his traditionalist message through his Old Time Gospel Hour.

While Falwell became the public face of politically active Evangelical Christianity in the first few years after the movement finally reached the critical mass to force the mainstream media to notice, the long prehistory of Evangelical activism prior to the launch of Christian Voice and the Moral Majority in the late 1970's remains poorly understood by most. The caricatures of the agitprop play Inherit the Wind are the extent of most people's education on the issues involved in the collision of Progressivism, which became the official ideology/religion of the American ruling class of the 20th century, with the varied forms of American Christianity, most dramatically in the South.

While Falwell often implied that the Moral Majority grew in a few short years into a national clearinghouse of traditionalist activism, in fact the majority of his support remained regional and confessional, operating predominantly in the Southern communities with politically active Baptist churches. What catapulted Falwell to national attention more than anything was his fortunate ability to goad champions of bien-pensant progressivism or modernism into personal denunciations, which gave him media credibility far out of proportion to the actual organisational strength of the Moral Majority.

While tracing the complete trajectory of the Progressive movement from its post-Unitarian, transcendentalist origins in New England through its triumphant march, led by such men as Woodrow Wilson and John Dewey, through the institutions of culture in the bloody first half of the 20th century, to its nihilist exhaustion in cultural revolution in the 1960's, is beyond the scope of this essay, a brief tour of its great mid-century triumphs is necessary to appreciate Rev. Falwell's position in the media's estimation in the late 1970's and early 1980's.

Progressivism did not set out to make an enemy of Evangelicals. Indeed, they were long-time allies on many issues in American politics, two of the main pillars of the Democratic Party throughout the second half of the 19th century. Prohibition, it must be remembered, marked the last great accomplishment of the alliance of Progressivism and Evangelicalism. As Social Gospel thinking became predominant among mainline Protestant denominations at the beginning of the 20th century, though, the main currents of Progressivism fell out of dialogue with Evangelicalism, satisfying itself with the more like-minded religious allies it has maintained to the current day in such activities as the World Council of Churches and Call to Renewal.

The great drama of the breach between fundamentalist Evangelicalism and Progressivism was played out throughout the first half of the century, in such episodes as the Scopes Trial, the propaganda campaigns of Progressive writers such as Sinclair Lewis and H.L. Mencken, and the apparent triumph of the Progressives in the face of the crisis of the Great Depression. The thorough institutionalisation of the Progressive, technocratic style of governance brought about by the New Deal ultimately entailed the rationalisation of all aspects of public society, including education. The initial response of most Evangelical communities was introspection and advocacy of Christian withdrawal from the corruptions of the worldly, coupled with a proportionate alienation from the increasingly secularist mainstream organs of culture.

As the Progressive spirit matured into the received wisdom of the American ruling elites and into a majority on the Supreme Court at the end of the Roosevelt era and beginning of the Truman administration, though, the series of Supreme Court decisions which precipitated the complete rupture of the Evangelical-Progressive alliance drew increasing attention within Evangelical circles to the gap between the Evangelical worldview and the one which increasingly dominated American culture, politics, and the increasingly imperial judiciary.

Beginning with Everson v. Board of Education (1947) and McCollum v. Board of Education (1948), the Supreme Court embarked upon a series of decisions redefining the traditional relationship between religion and government throughout the United States. The flashpoint of most of the early Court rulings were educational questions, and while the Evangelicals resented the summary dictates of a distant body on these questions, the traditional Baptist suspicion of government involvement in questions of conscience moderated the Evangelical reaction.

When the Supreme Court moved beyond education into matters actively destructive of traditional public standards of morality, though, in such decisions as Eisenstadt v. Baird (1972) and Roe v. Wade (1973), the Evangelicals were finally goaded into political action.

This long-simmering resentment and sense of betrayal of the populist alliance between Progressives and Evangelicals figure largely in the energy and urgency with which Evangelicals reentered the political arena in the 1970's. The spectacle of their reemergence after nearly a half-century of quiescence increased the media interest in their causes, and Rev. Falwell, for better or worse, found himself the spokesman best able and most willing to attempt to frame the political concerns of Evangelicals for a media audience almost completely ignorant of the community.

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