The recent passing of Jerry Falwell, the so-called founder of the Religious Right in America, raises a few issues that need to be addressed. Having just done an interview about him with a secular radio station, it might be worth making a few general observations about the man and the movement around him.
Of course one’s take on Falwell will depend on where one stands on the political and religious spectrum. To the secular left he was a thundering theocrat who was about to usher in a police state in the US, with all dissent squashed and all unbelief punished. Such gross caricatures tend to be representative of the left, unfortunately.
But to those of a more Christian and conservative bent, he was simply someone trying to stand up for biblical values in an increasingly hostile culture. As such, he founded Liberty University in 1971, and the Moral Majority in 1979. He also was pastor of the Thomas Road Baptist Church in Virginia since 1956.
He certainly helped to mould a generation of Christian activists, and helped to show evangelical Christians the need to engage in the social and political arenas.
But the question must be asked as to why he moved in this direction. To the secular left, it was simply to turn America into some fightin’ fundie theocracy, where homosexuals would be stoned to death and church attendance would become mandatory for all.
But the truth is, Falwell in particular and the so-called Religious Right in general were really simply a response – a response to a growing secularism, leftism, and anti-Christian bias. For years the rise of the secular left, as represented by such groups as the American Civil Liberties Union, had resulted in an open season being declared on biblical Christianity. Whether it was banning prayer in schools, legalising abortion, deconstructing the family, or pushing radical secularist agendas, the growing anti-Christian sentiment demanded a response.
And that is what happened. Alarmed at the threats to religious freedom, the moral free-fall of American culture, and the attempts to relegate religion to the purely private realm, Christians realised that they must organise and stand up for their rights.
The truth is, believers witnessed a shift from a largely Christian society to a post-Christian society to an anti-Christian society in a very short period of time. To many, the vast legacy of Christianity and its beneficial results should not be abandoned so readily, but at least should be defended in the public arena.
And the public arena was the sphere in which much of this battle took place. For decades, the secularists had been warring against religion, but in a subtle fashion: they argued that it was fine for religious people to practice their faith, as long as it was a fully privatised faith.
Christians were free to pray at home, or worship at church on Sunday, but woe betide any believer who tried to suggest that their faith might actually have any social or political implications. The secular, leftist elite in the US sought to contain religion, and keep it a very privatised and personal affair. That would be tolerated, but a faith that actually spoke to the great moral and social issues of the day would not be tolerated.
Thus due to the ever-encroaching role of secularism, often aided and abetted by an activist judiciary, a partisan media, and an anti-religious elite, there was born the religious right, as an attempt to hold on to past victories, and to challenge the moral and religious downward spiral that was gaining momentum in America. It was simply a reaction to a pre-existing secular offensive.
This has all been carefully documented in various places. See especially the 1984 volume by Richard John Neuhaus, The Naked Public Square. Also well worth consulting is Yale University’s Stephen Carter’s important 1993 volume, The Culture of Disbelief.
So this was not some offensive movement to turn America into something which it was not. It was an attempt to stand up for biblical Christianity, and the freedom of Christians to speak out on issues of concern to them. Given that the overwhelming majority of Americans are Christian, it should not be seen as unusual or sinister for them to have the freedom to be able to speak out, vote, and rally for those things which impact on them, their faith, and their families.
For too long, any time a religious person sought to defend faith and family values, the secular left has gone into hysterics, shouting about fundamentalist theocracies being established, and so on. The truth is, what we really should worry about is the establishment of fundamentalist secular theocracies. For as American philosophy professor Brendan Sweetman argues in his valuable 2006 book, Why Politics Needs Religion, that is exactly what secular humanism is: an ideology, a worldview, and a religion.
In the eyes of many, it seems religious conservatives must simply shut up and sit down, while the secularists should be given free rein, and remain unopposed. Many believers, including Falwell, thought otherwise. Whatever else may be said about the Falwell legacy, he certainly correctly saw the threat of the secular left, and he rightly realised that Christians have every right to stand up for what they believe in, even in the public arena.