National Commentary

Nicholas F. Benton: Falwell Antagonistes

Death should be wished upon no one. It, after all, takes away the greatest gift imaginable, life itself. But alas it appears inevitable, as it came to be for a delicious foe, the Rev. Jerry Falwell, this week.

In this column, I boxed Mr. Falwell’s ears plenty of times while he was living. Among other things, I enjoyed associating his name with the Biblical Pharisees, calling their modern counterparts, “Falwellisees.” But there is no need to continue such a verbal spar now, but to reflect, as others have, on the impact of his life.

In a way that he undoubtedly did not intend (the Lord working in mysterious ways), he served the cause of a religious awakening quite different than what he had in mind.

His death comes at a point when this new and more compassionate, inclusive awakening is starting to come of age. That could not have been illustrated more forcefully than by the historic defeat suffered by conservatism at the polls last November, something that fundamentalist evangelicals like Falwell and other right wingers were convinced would never happen until, maybe, the rapture itself.

Undoubtedly the November election, and the pivotal role his own state of Virginia played in shifting the control of Congress to the Democrats, took a powerful emotional toll on Falwell. It was compounded by the spectacular gay sex scandal which broke around the same time involving one of his highest-profile evangelical fellow travelers, Ted Haggard, head of the National Association of Evangelicals.

That one-two punch had to knock a lot of moral stuffing out of the overall evangelical movement, and all signs now are that the momentum of a fierce fundamentalist backlash is growing.

But it is in the consideration of such a backlash that the interesting element of Falwell’s influence can be found.

This push-back is not of a pagan, atheistic or nihilistic nature, perhaps as was more the case a half-century ago. It is, itself, religious, moral and derives values from a consideration of ultimate things.

 There is no doubt that the towering giants of religious liberalism, who arose in the late 19th century to temper the industrial revolution with compassion and with a zeal to turn its benefits to the good of all, including the world’s poor, fell strangely silent at some point in the 1970s.  

The pinnacle of their influence was embodied in the Rev. Martin Luther King, arguably the greatest orator on behalf of God’s passion for progress and equality whose voice has ever been preserved. But there were others, too, such as the great William Sloan Coffin.

Somehow the orchestrated rise of the religious right in the late 1970s struck this tradition dumb.

While in the 1980s, evangelical conventions in Washington, D.C., sported huge exhibit sections of oversized hotels with samples of communications hardware, designed to start up TV stations and clog airwaves of all types, those of the liberal current retreated into a shell.

Buying into some notion that the “medium is the message,” they perhaps felt a gentler, non-aggressive approach was preferable. Meanwhile, the religious right was cutting them to ribbons, dragging them through the mud of every alleged unhappy social shortcoming and blaming them for it.

It took until only a few short years ago for this to begin to change. A lot of credit goes to the Rev. Jim Wallis of Sojourner magazine. He finally got the attention of the media to put someone on the air representing faith other than Falwell’s. In a historic debate on “Meet the Press” between him and Falwell three years ago, he engaged in a titanic verbal struggle and won hands down on behalf of a more compassionate and inclusive interpretation.

Since then, candidates such as Virginia Gov. Tim Kaine have begun to stake out a moral high ground away from the religious right.

Next month, on CNN, Wallis will appear with three major Democratic presidential contenders, Hillary Clinton, Barak Obama and John Edwards, to further strengthen a new bond between progressive and compassionate values on the one hand, and faith and tradition on the other.

Ironically, had Falwell not been so successful in peddling his own brand of religion, the impetus for this new revival might not have been there.