The Book of Jerry Falwell: Fundamentalist Language and Politics
by Susan Harding
Princeton, 328 pages

Susan Friend Harding is a professor of anthropology at the University of California at Santa Cruz. After cranking out dry studies of rural life in Spain, she became curious about the rise of the religious right in the U.S. and lit upon the idea of applying the research methods of her field to it. She went to Lynchburg, Va., in l982 to observe Jerry Falwell and his followers, as though they were Hottentots or Bedouin tribesmen.

There Harding had an identity crisis--a common enough experience among anthropologists who work in the "participant-observer" tradition: They have to blend in with the strange groups they plan to study and, like method actors, often lose touch with their former selves. Harding's crisis was unusual, in that it came upon her involuntarily and in a faintly sinister way.

She first went to Falwell's headquarters, she writes, "naive enough to think I could be detached." Then she tried to interview the Rev. Melvin Campbell, a Falwell protege, and found herself under his power: "He knew there was something bombarding my life beyond my power to see"; "he was refashioning me"; "Campbell's language emptied my life, my personality, and erased my past." She went native, it seems, under a kind of hypnosis.

Or did she? Harding is cagy--or perhaps just confused--about how fully she surrendered her soul. She says she inhabited the thin "membrane between belief and disbelief." Harding thinks that playing at faith gave her unique insights into Falwell and his fellow travelers. Remaining in limbo allowed her access to the secrets of the temple without entirely giving up her critical distance.

What does Harding, the halfhearted convert, add to the vast literature on the religious right? A halfway useful book. The descriptive sections of her chapters on fund-raising, the anti-abortion campaign, creationism, and the Jim Bakker and Jimmy Swaggart "telescandals" are lively and informative. She shows how Falwell tied himself in rhetorical knots over his signature issue, abortion. Though Falwell claimed to draw all authority from Scripture, his anti-abortion tracts were strikingly "free of biblical citations." The curator of Falwell's "Creation Museum" told Harding that he not only fabricated evidence for a museum display but that he intended the fabrication to be so obvious as to make a mockery of "creation science." Nobody got the joke.

By themselves, the descriptive sections of Harding's book are useful. But when she tries to weave all the descriptions together, indecision about her own beliefs comes back to haunt her. She gestures, often grandly, at a general explanation of the religious right's power: that "language," particularly Biblical language, has the power to move masses of people to believe in absurd things.

There are two things wrong with Harding's argument. First, she only makes this point glancingly and occasionally. It sits suspended in her introduction as an apparent attempt to establish the academic bona fides of the adventure she had among the Fundies and the storytelling she wants to engage in. Harding never shows how the meat of her book--the descriptions of fundamentalist fund-raising tactics and so on-- bolsters, or even relates to, this overarching analysis.

Second, her simplistic argument about language cannot answer Harding's larger questions--why many Americans embrace fundamentalism, and why American culture shifts to the right. Language, after all, has no independent power--Harding doesn't tell us why people respond to fundamentalist language instead of, say, communist language. Harding seems never to have considered other plausible answers that present themselves--in the early '70s, Americans faced rising crime, loss of international prestige because of Vietnam, changing sexual mores. Opportunists like Falwell stumbled along, dishing up something that sounded like clean-cut, patriotic tradition and order, and his message, not his language, attracted followers.

Here is where Harding's own quasi-conversion comes in. By the end of her research, she concludes that she cannot abide Falwell's faith in a pro-life anti-welfare God. But she still hungers for an overarching explanation for all the strange things she has witnessed--Harding is rather like a cult survivor who needs something to fill the vacuum of her once all-encompassing delusion. So she turns to the postmodern creed that language is everything and embraces it with all the unthinking zeal of the fundamentalists about whom he writes.

Had Harding been content with reportage and memoir, her book would be more satisfying. Her deification of language does not prevent her from providing a vivid series of snapshots of politicized religion and an instructive parable about what fundamentalism can do to those who approach it with innocent curiosity. But it doesn't help her say anything new about why the religious right rose up in the l970s and remains so powerful today.

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