The Accidental Modernist

The real legacy of Jerry Falwell


One of the great jokes of Jerry Falwell's career was that the TV program that made his name was called The Old Time Gospel Hour. Was there really anything old-time about that show? Television itself was young when the series debuted, and even the radio preachers had been around for only a few decades; the idea that you might get some or all of your weekly dose of the Lord from an electric picture-box was a fairly radical idea. To many old-time devotees of the gospel, TV itself was a suspicious export from the secular world, best kept outside the home. As far as they were concerned, the revelation would not be televised.

Not so for Falwell, who died May 15 at age 73. He and his fellow televangelists overturned those old assumptions, and in the process radically transformed American media, American politics, and American religion. Like so many alleged reactionaries, they actually functioned as fierce modernizers, turning isolated, apolitical, denominationally diverse religious communities into a national and increasingly ecumenical political movement. Like earlier generations of conservative Christians, Falwell's audience was alienated from the modern world, especially the government and the mass media. Unlike those earlier generations, Falwell's audience dealt with this alienation by plunging headfirst into the modern world, including the government and the mass media.

That shift required intervention from above, in this case from the FCC. The Federal Communications Commission had long required TV stations to devote a certain number of hours a week to public service programming. In 1960 it ruled this requirement could be met with paid religious programs. Falwell, Pat Robertson, and other TV preachers rushed to fill the Sunday-morning void, buying time that had previously been donated to more mainline churches that tended to eschew commercialism. As cable and satellite TV emerged, they moved into those new channels as well, building new media networks right under the nose of the mainstream press, which barely noticed the change until the preachers started having a political impact in the late '70s. In 1977, the fugitive yippie Abbie Hoffman stopped by Pat Robertson's headquarters in Virginia Beach and watched as a show was taped. He wrote afterwards that he "was sure I had just witnessed the counterrevolution to the sixties. They, like us, were armed with a cultural-political program and knew how to mix the two effectively. They had mastered television and modern organizing techniques. Unlike us, they had millions of dollars behind them." Over the course of the '70s, the historian Frances FitzGerald notes in her 1986 book Cities on a Hill, "the annual expenditure of TV ministries for airtime went from around $50 million to $600 million; by the end of the decade, there were thirty religiously oriented TV stations, more than a thousand religious radio stations, and four religious networks—all of them supported by audience contributions."

The programs on those stations were an odd mix of the old and the new, like someone had crossed an Elmer Gantry tent revival with the Johnny Carson show. Ecstatic spiritual outbursts rubbed elbows with jovial celebrity interviews; angry political rants mixed with constant pleas for the viewer's money. (For the benefit of my liberal readers: The latter resembled a PBS pledge drive, except you didn't collect your tote bag until you died.) Falwell ran one of the quieter shows. It would almost merit the "old time" label in its title, if it wasn't being broadcast over a strange new medium, if it wasn't using that medium to build a strange new sort of a congregation, and if it wasn't using that congregation to flex Falwell's political power.

At the beginning of his career, Falwell shunned politics. "As far as the relationship of the church to the world," he said in a 1965 sermon, "it can be expressed as simply as the three words which Paul gave to Timothy—'Preach the Word.' We have a message of redeeming grace through a crucified and risen Lord. This message is designed to go right to the heart of man and there meet his deep spiritual need. Nowhere are we commissioned to reform the externals. We are not told to wage wars against bootleggers, liquor stores, gamblers, murderers, prostitutes, racketeers, prejudiced persons or institutions, or any other existing evil as such. Our ministry is not reformation but transformation."

It's easy to read this as nothing more than Falwell's excuse for opposing the civil rights movement—notice the phrase "prejudiced persons or institutions"—and it's easy as well to be alarmed at the thought that even the apolitical Falwell could casually lump murderers and gamblers together, as though running numbers sat on the same moral plane as running a knife through someone's chest. By 1980, at any rate, he was calling his old sermon "false prophecy" and urging his fans to give their money and votes to the conservative wing of the Republican Party. Not just the culturally conservative wing, but the faction that favored the arms race, dumping the Panama Canal Treaty, and siding stridently with Israel.

Fundamentalists had once been one of the American subcultures least likely to register, let alone vote. Now they were participating in primaries and caucuses, taking over school boards and local party groups, and establishing themselves as political players. In the process, they were making common cause with people they would have rejected as demonic just a generation earlier.

At the Scopes trial of 1925, William Jennings Bryan, astutely aware that the fundamentalist/liberal divide might transcend the old divisions between Protestants and Rome, invited a prominent Catholic and a prominent Jew to join the prosecution team. In Summer for the Gods, his Pulitzer-winning account of the trial, the historian Edward Larson quotes the local anti-evolutionists' reply: "We some what doubt the advisability of having a Jew on the case." Nor did they think it wise to include a Catholic.

Fifty years later, by contrast, Falwell and the New Right would throw their support behind Phyllis Schlafly's crusade against the Equal Rights Amendment. Schlafly is a Roman Catholic. "It was very funny at our Eagle Forums," Schlafly would tell Richard Viguerie and David Franke in their 2004 book America's Right Turn. "These people had never been in the same room before, and I'd say, 'Now, the person sitting next to you might not be 'saved,' but we're all going to work together to stop ERA.' Getting the Baptists and the Catholics to work together, and getting them all to work with the Mormons—this was something!" Ecumenicism is supposed to be a bete noir of the Christian right. But in practice, the tent Falwell and his colleagues built has been big enough to include not just conservative Catholics, Protestants, and sometimes Mormons, but even Jews. (Who does Michael Medved have more in common with, Pat Robertson or Harvey Weinstein?) It even seemed to be opening, just a crack, to allow some Muslims into the coalition, before 9/11 slammed that particular door shut.

That wasn't the only effect 9/11 had on Falwell's ministry. Right after the attacks, he infamously suggested that it was "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, all of them who have tried to secularize America" who "helped this happen." He later apologized, but the remarks still alienated much of the public, Christians included. Not long afterward, another product of the movement he'd helped to build—Ralph Reed, the former executive director of Pat Robertson's Christian Coalition—was caught in a political scandal, using his influence to manipulate conservative activists on behalf of corrupt gambling interests. While Falwell trumpeted an increasingly cracked political message (in 2004 he wrote a column for WorldNetDaily headlined "God is pro-war"), other Christians were reconsidering the virtues of the old approach, of shunning politics and withdrawing as much as possible from the sinful American mainstream. The same alternative media that allowed Christians to make their mark on politics (or, perhaps more accurately, to let politics leave its mark on them) also made it easier to build a parallel pop culture that somehow both resembles and rejects the mainstream.

Falwell fulminated til the end against homosexuality, feminism, and the other alleged evils of modernity. But it's hard to escape the impression that his cohort not only lost the culture war, but perhaps did more than anyone else to usher Hollywood's America into Christian homes. In the early days, Pat Robertson's Christian Broadcasting Network refused to air reruns of Bewitched on the grounds that it promoted witchcraft. Today the outlet is owned by ABC, which calls it the ABC Family Channel and happily broadcasts not just The 700 Club but Sabrina, the Teenage Witch, not to mention the frequently ribald humor of Whose Line Is It Anyway? As intensely intolerant as Falwell could be, it's harder than ever to imagine America reembracing his views about gender relations or the sinfulness of homosexuality. The one cultural war he may have won, perhaps without even meaning to wage it, was the battle against Protestant hatred of the Roman Catholic Church. Despite his illiberal platform and rhetoric, Falwell's long-term legacy might be one of tolerance.

That could depend, of course, on whether the centralized, politicized fundamentalist community he helped create survives the next media revolution. Television tends to smooth over our differences; the Internet allows diversity to bloom. The next Jerry Falwell might be sitting in a church basement right now, pointing a camcorder at himself and preparing to upload his homilies to YouTube. He might even call his little films The Old Time Gospel Minute. Don't let the title fool you.

Jesse Walker is reason's managing editor.

CORRECTION: This article originally mistated the year that Abbie Hoffman attended a taping of The 700 Club.