Jerry Falwell: Bringing God into the Public Square

Falwell changed the role of religion in U.S. history because he concluded that his own theological ancestors were wrong.

BY: Steven Waldman

 

To understand the historic significance of Southern Baptist leader Jerry Falwell, one must flash back to colonial-era minister John Leland and his 1,235-pound cheese. It was 1802 and Rev. Leland, an evangelical pastor, sent a giant cheese to Thomas Jefferson in gratitude for the new president's work promoting religoius freedom. Painted on the red crust was the inscription: "Rebellion to tyrants is obedience to God."

Leland, a Baptist who lived for years in Virginia, supported Jefferson not in spite of Jefferson's support for separation of church and state but because of it. Leland and his fellow Baptists opposed government involvement in politics for practical and theological reasons. As members of a minority faith, they knew that religoius involvement in government usually favored the dominant denominations.

But their reasons were also based in scripture. They believed that Jesus had clearly stated that his was a different kingdom and that the quest for God was personal, not political.

For evangelicals, an individual's personal relationship with God was more important than church and clerical authority. "Every man must give an account of himself to God," wrote Rev. John Leland, "and therefore every man ought to be at liberty to serve God in a way that he can best reconcile to his conscience." Leland believed Christians should remember who will provide the final assessment of a life well-lived: "If government can answer for individuals at the Day of Judgment, let men be controlled by it in religious matters; otherwise, let men be free."

Evangelicals (including Southern Baptists) kept to this view, with a few exceptions, all the way up until the late 20th century. And that's where Rev. Falwell comes in.

In 1962, in Engel v. Vitale, the Supreme Court ruled that school officials in New York State could not compose a prayer to be recited by students. The next year, in Abington Township School District v. Schempp, the same court ruled that schools could not sponsor or lead Bible readings or the recitation of the Lord's Prayer.

These were the decisions that evangelicals felt "kicked God out of the schools." And in 1973, in Roe v. Wade, the court ruled that there was a right to privacy that included the right to an abortion. Though Roe was not a church-state case, many religious Americans viewed it as tragically connected to the earlier rulings. When God was ejected from the public sphere, morality plummeted--the most egregious example being the legalization of abortion. That this period also saw higher crime, drug use, divorce and out-of-wedlock birth only convinced many Christians that God had been so affronted by the ejection of his word from school that God had withdrawn his protection from the United States.

In came Jerry Falwell. Born in Lynchburg, Virginia--about a two-hour drive from where John Leland preached--Falwell helped lead a fundamental shift in the way that Baptists, evangelicals, and ultimately all conservative Christians viewed the role of politics and religion. Whereas the 18th-century Baptists said Jesus wanted the religious and temporal worlds separated, this 20th-century Baptist, and the movement he helped create, believed that society had become so degraded that God would want believers to take back the political sphere to re-assert biblical values. "Any diligent student of American history finds that our great nation was founded by godly men upon godly principles to be a Christian nation," wrote Falwell.

Religious conservative leaders convinced millions that the wall separating church and state was not only too high but illegitimate and without historical precedent. Now, among conservative evangelical Protestants, the dominant view is one that John Leland would have rejected: that serving God means putting Him--his words, his scriptures, his prayers--in the public sphere as much as possible.

Meanwhile, significantly, the relationship between conservative Protestants and Catholics improved. For much of the 19th and 20th centuries, separation of church and state was sustained in part as a way of reducing the power of immigrant Catholics. Conservative Protestants enthusiastically supported the "Blaine Amendments" that prohibited state support for Catholic parochial schools. But as Catholics became more mainstream and politically conservative, evangelical Christians in the 1970s and 1980s came to focus more on what the two groups had in common--opposition to abortion and secularism, for instance--and became less concerned about the possibility that government would aid Catholicism. This ecumenism on the right led to a larger and more potent coalition demanding less separation of church and state.

This coalition--often called "The Religious Right"--elected two or three presidents (Reagan, George W. Bush, and possibly George H.W. Bush). It made Congress Republican, elevated abortion as an issue, and became a dominant force in American politics. Falwell is a profoundly important figure in modern American history because he concluded that his own theological ancestors were wrong. He believed that to create God's kingdom here on earth, Christians would have to depart from the 100-plus-year Baptist tradition and follow a dramatic new path.

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