Jerry Falwell's Paradoxical Legacy

Political victories and cultural failures


The death of televangelist Jerry Falwell in May at age 73 drew the curtain on a paradoxical career. Falwell was a founding father of the Christian right, which has succeeded in uniting religion and politics to a degree unthinkable in the late 1970s. Yet its gains in the political arena have been accompanied by equally impressive losses in the culture wars. He crusaded tirelessly against pornography and immorality in the media, yet the legal battle he fought against pornographer Larry Flynt expanded the boundaries of constitutionally protected free speech.

Falwell started out his career as a TV preacher opposed to mixing religion and politics, but this opposition was never uniformly applied. In the mid-'60s he warned that Christians were called to "preach the word," not "reform the externals," and slammed ministers involved with the civil rights movement. At the same time, Falwell's own Old Time Gospel Hour frequently featured segregationist politicians such as Lester Maddox and George Wallace as guests.

Francis Schaeffer, a fundamentalist champion of "dominion theology," reportedly helped allay Falwell's stated fears of tainting religion with politics. Schaeffer believed that Christians are called to rule America under the guidance of biblical law. His followers include the radical "Christian Reconstructionists" who would impose Old Testament law—requiring the stoning of homosexuals, for example—in America. In a 2005 report for the Southern Poverty Law Center, Bob Moser quotes former Falwell ghostwriter Mel White as saying that Schaeffer "convinced Jerry there was no biblical mandate against joining with 'nonbelievers' in a political cause."

This shift in Falwell's thinking allowed ecumenicism to emerge among fundamentalist Christians, a strangely progressive result of Falwell's reactionary thinking. Evangelical Protestants could work together with conservative Catholics and even Jews to defeat their liberal secularist enemies. This ecumenicism was rooted in shared hatred: of abortion, homosexuality, feminism, secularism, and other bogeymen and bogeywomen of modernity.

Falwell's group, the Moral Majority, helped elect Ronald Reagan in 1980, but his presidency was not an enormous success for the religious right. Reagan paid lip service to Falwell's social agenda but did little to enact it. His administration made no serious attempt to curb abortion; early in his first term, in 1981, Reagan put Sandra Day O'Connor on the Supreme Court despite religious conservatives' misgivings about her stance on reproductive rights. When Falwell said that "every good Christian should be concerned" about O'Connor's nomination, Sen. Barry Goldwater (R-Ariz.) quipped that "every good Christian should line up and kick Jerry Falwell's ass."

Other issues dear to Falwell and his constituency got equally short shrift. Far from seeking to shore up the traditional family with a stay-at-home mom, for example, Reagan reduced the tax burden on dual-earner families, making it easier for middle-class women to enter the work force.

Two decades later, President George W. Bush seems not simply to talk the talk but to care about the religious right's agenda, whether it's "saving marriage" from gays, banning "partial-birth abortion," or curbing federal stem cell research. And yet, 28 years after the launch of the Moral Majority, a reversal of Roe v. Wade seems unlikely, and statewide bans on same-sex marriage are offset by the legalization of civil unions in some states and moves toward full marriage rights for same-sex couples in others. Even Bush has spoken in favor of civil unions.

Interestingly, Falwell was wary about one of the Bush administration's most successful moves to blur the lines between religion and government: the "faith-based initiative" to funnel federal funds for social services to religious organizations. Falwell worried that entanglement with the federal government could subject churches to restrictions—and that funds could also go to liberal churches or, worse yet, to such suspect groups as Scientologists and Jehovah's Witnesses.

Though the movement Falwell helped launch was unable to enact much of its agenda into law, there is no question that it transformed the American political landscape. Even the battles it hasn't won, such as the effort to teach "intelligent design" in schools on a par with evolution, are still battles it was able to force on its opponents.

More broadly, it helped create a climate in which the language of politics is saturated with references to God, a political culture in which a major political magazine (Newsweek) can ask a presidential candidate (Howard Dean) whether he believes in Jesus Christ as the son of God and the path to eternal life.

Despite these political inroads, Falwell's brand of religious conservatism has suffered losses in the culture wars. Feminism, its radical excesses mostly discarded, has become firmly integrated into America's cultural mainstream. (Even, apparently, in Falwell's own family: His daughter is a surgeon.) Acceptance of gays is now at a level that would have been unthinkable in 1980. Sexual content in mainstream entertainment has steadily increased, and adults-only material is more available than ever thanks to new technologies. While divorce rates have dropped somewhat, so have marriage rates; in much of America, sex between single adults is widely accepted as a social norm.

It is perhaps emblematic of the larger failure of Falwell's cause that some of his most personal battles ended up helping the other side. During a TV show in 1984, an audience member who happened to be a former Baptist Bible College classmate of Falwell's, Jerry Sloan, asked him about his statement that the pro-gay Metropolitan Community Church was a "vile and Satanic system" that would "one day be utterly annihilated and there will be a celebration in heaven." Falwell denied making the remarks. When Sloan said he had a tape, Falwell offered to pay $5,000 if he produced it.

When Sloan did exactly that, Falwell refused to pay up. Sloan took him to court and won, and then used the money to launch Sacramento's first gay community center, the Lambda Community Center. According to columnist Deb Price, Sloan wryly calls Falwell "one of our community center's godfathers."

A few years later, Falwell was involved in a far more celebrated legal dispute with Hustler publisher Larry Flynt. Flynt had published an ad parody featuring Falwell describing his first sexual experience—with his mother in an outhouse. Falwell sued for $45 million. While a jury rejected his claim of libel on the grounds that no reasonable person could have believed the parody to be factual, Falwell won damages for intentional infliction of emotional distress. Flynt's appeal went to the Supreme Court, which in February 1988 ruled unanimously that public figures could not sue satirists for damages on the grounds of emotional distress. Falwell's suit turned into a major victory for free speech.

A decade later, after appearing together on The Larry King Show to discuss the 1997 movie The People vs. Larry Flynt, Falwell and Flynt developed a friendship. At Falwell's suggestion, they toured college campuses debating morality and freedom of speech. After Falwell's death, the Los Angeles Times ran a piece by Flynt titled "My Friend, Jerry Falwell." Perhaps not the send-off Falwell would have hoped for, but a fittingly ironic one for a man whose achievements and intentions were always a world apart.
Contributing Editor Cathy Young blogs at