The son of an agnostic bootlegger, Jerry Falwell found Jesus at age 18 but didn't find politics until much later--and when he did, he was no fundamentalist. His great American invention was not the marriage of religion and politics, since they hadn't lived apart in the first place. It was that he married political friends with religious enemies in pursuit of a common goal. Falwell, who died May 15, didn't care that Jimmy Carter was a Bible-believing Baptist if he still had the soul of a Democrat or that Ronald Reagan was a divorced cinemactor, as long as he was a kindred political spirit. At a time when you couldn't always get two Baptists of different stripes to work together on a bake sale, Falwell founded the Moral Majority on the argument that fundamentalist Christians, Orthodox Jews, conservative Roman Catholics and Mormons had so much in common politically that they should overlook their theological differences. It was no good attending only to the Kingdom of Heaven, he argued, when a culture war was raging and the Supreme Court was in favor of abortion but not prayer in school.
Falwell founded the Moral Majority in 1979; at its peak it had 6 1/2 million members and a budget of $10 million. Falwell's power got him access all over Washington--but that didn't always lead to action. For all his public fire breathing, White House aides found him low-key and respectful in private; he did not march into the Oval Office with a to-do list. Falwell backed Presidents whose Supreme Court nominees chose to uphold Roe v. Wade rather than overturn it. Even as the bookstores filled with alarmed accounts of the rise of a new American Theocracy, what many conservative Christians saw was that the boardroom, not the sanctuary, remained the real Republican hallowed ground. When the Christians' interests clashed with the G.O.P. business wing, the money talked. Disgust with pornography, distaste for women working outside the home and concerns about religious freedom in China would not translate into policies that might inconvenience corporate America.
Falwell did push for greater restrictions on abortion and looser tax treatment for parochial schools. But again and again he overreached. He railed against feminists and homosexuals, denouncing in the most divisive terms all those who he believed would undermine traditional family values--including, most notoriously, the purple, purse-carrying Teletubby Tinky Winky, whom he accused of corrupting children. When Falwell suggested that God had withdrawn his loving protection from America on 9/11 because of the offenses of gays and feminists and the A.C.L.U., he was not saying anything new--but many in the audience were now listening in a new way.
"Movements are born in white heat," says the great religious historian Martin Marty, but once the heat cools, fissures show up. "Leaders make mistakes and have to apologize. You don't get all you dreamed of, and settle for less. To be charitable: you also might mature some." The movement Falwell had helped create grew so large it spilled out in directions no one could foresee or control, encompassing work on global warming and the crisis in Darfur. Young Evangelicals still have their heroes and their causes, but those were less likely to be Falwell and Pat Robertson fighting abortion and gay marriage than Bono and Rick Warren addressing poverty and AIDS in Africa. When Falwell talked of AIDS, it was about God's punishment of homosexuals. When Warren, who also views homosexuality as a sin, talks about AIDS, it's about how to stop its spread and minister to the suffering. When he hosts a global AIDS summit, Warren invites both Barack Obama and Sam Brownback. That has the makings of a real moral majority.
It will be tempting to call Falwell's passing the end of an era; but the movement he helped lead was never as tidy as its critics imagined--or solely obedient to earthly powers. In every generation, Christians have wrestled with the questions of whether their efforts are better spent changing laws or changing hearts, and how to proceed when those goals seem to conflict. Falwell practiced the politics of division, flinging damnation at those who resisted his vision of a Godly America. Now a rising generation of Christian leaders is looking to bring people together: the politics of division may be a shrewd electoral strategy but a shallow spiritual one. Their God is bigger than their party, more mysterious, more forgiving and more embracing. It is only partly wishful thinking when a progressive evangelical counterforce to Falwell like Jim Wallis declares that "the Evangelicals have left the Right. They now reside with Jesus."