A recent article by Reuters presents an interview with Jerry Falwell, the aging but still influential figure of the theocratic religious right, and his views on the 2008 American presidential election and other issues of concern. I found some of Falwell’s remarks worth commenting on.
The article does not shy away from mentioning some of Falwell’s more idiotic proclamations, such as a few days after September 11, 2001 when he blamed homosexuals, civil rights groups and non-Christians for the terrorist attacks of that dreadful day. For reference, here are Falwell’s own words:
“I really believe that the pagans, and the abortionists, and the feminists, and the gays and the lesbians who are actively trying to make that an alternative lifestyle, the ACLU, People for the American Way, all of them who have tried to secularize America. I point the finger in their face and say, ‘You helped this happen.'”
It’s worth noting that Falwell never actually apologized for these remarks, though some media groups reported otherwise. Instead, he issued the standard religious right non-apology – “I’m sorry if anyone was offended by what I said” – which stops short of expressing any genuine regret for his words, and instead implies that the people who were angered were at fault for being too thin-skinned. Hateful words such as this, which make it clear both that Falwell’s god is a sadistic, tyrannical psychopath and also that Falwell has invented this god in his own image, should render him utterly unworthy of consideration by any rational or moral person.
However, that is not the case in our world, and though Falwell is less influential than he once was, he still commands the allegiance of thousands of conservative Christians through organizations such as the laughably misnamed Liberty University, a bastion of right-wing indoctrination where young-earth creationism is taught in science classes, aspiring theocrats are trained in politics and law, and professors are deliberately never granted tenure, so they can be immediately fired if they ever express views that the college administration does not approve of (which is, of course, the very purpose of tenure).
Most of the article is about American politics, and Falwell’s ruminations on his past victories and defeats.
Despite his years in the trenches of America’s culture wars, Falwell… said a major victory in his broader crusade to restore the country’s moral righteousness has so far eluded him.
Ironically, this is one point where I agree with Jerry Falwell. Despite decades of increasing influence and a recent (now recently over, thank goodness) several-year period in which they had almost total control of the media and government, the religious right has largely failed in their goal to turn America into a Christian theocracy. Though the religious right has unfortunately made significant gains, such as the “faith-based initiative” which is a blatant attempt to pay churches for their members’ votes, many of their most cherished issues have ended in defeat for them. Creationism and its offspring, intelligent design, have been dealt a decisive blow by the courts; organized school prayer and other forms of coercive religious proselytizing by government remain unconstitutional; homosexuals continue to make progress, however laborious, toward full equality; abortion, though very difficult to obtain in some places, remains legal. It is a testament to the wisdom of America’s founders that the system of laws they created has largely withstood the assaults of a determined minority. The safeguards they put in place to thwart just such a takeover as the one the religious right attempted to carry out have held firm.
But Falwell, unlike me, sees victory ahead for his side. He has his eye on the 2008 presidential elections, the winner of which may appoint a potentially decisive vote to the Supreme Court. In contrast to other prominent religious right figures such as James Dobson, who have pointedly refused to endorse Republican primary candidates such as John McCain and Mitt Romney, Falwell says he “like[s] every one of them”. However, he says he will not officially endorse any before the primaries – not even McCain, who has by now thoroughly thrown off his “moderate” costume and has been obsessively genuflecting to the lovers of theocracy, even delivering an address at Falwell’s own Liberty University last year. Surprisingly, Falwell even comes close to praising Hillary Clinton, whom he considers the likely Democratic nominee, calling her a “formidable opponent”.
The divisions among the religious right’s leaders promise a very interesting Republican presidential primary season. George W. Bush, in the brief period before his popularity plummeted into the chasm it now inhabits, was the last politician who accomplished the difficult balancing act of both appeasing extreme Christian fundamentalists and appealing to the general public. None of the current crop of Republican candidates have that ability, I think, and that is a severe problem for Republicans, because the religious right controls the party and its primaries.
While they could break away en masse to support a third party, I think the more likely scenario is that the religious right will fragment and split their support among the major Republican candidates. Until now, they have been an impressively monolithic voting bloc, and though this probably isn’t a great achievement, coming from a belief system that values conformity as highly as theirs, it has given politicians an enormous incentive to take them seriously. But if they prove unable to get behind a single candidate next year, as I expect, this may go a long way toward convincing outside observers that the era of their political domination is over.
In short, 2008 may well be the start of a long-lasting decline in the political influence of right-wing fundamentalists, and that is a consummation devoutly to be hoped for. The sooner Jerry Falwell, Pat Robertson, and their ideological comrades in hate begin the slide into irrelevancy, the better. It is beyond the pale that views as factually false, oppressive and dangerously medieval as theirs carry any sort of weight in a prosperous, advanced First World democracy.
America has long been a unique contradiction: a modern society, founded on the rational principles of the Enlightenment, is still heavily influenced by dangerous, destructive superstitious beliefs from thousands of years ago. In a country with a proud tradition of secularism, human rights, and other reason-based innovations of the modern era, millions of voters still operate under the paradigm of a dictatorial divine-right monarchy where forgiveness is achieved through a magical ceremony involving the ceremonial shedding of blood. In a country that has the Constitution, the Declaration of Independence, and the writings of Thomas Jefferson, James Madison and Thomas Paine to its credit, a book containing the collected myths of ancient nomadic tribes of the Middle East is still held up as the supreme repository of ethics and wisdom. It would be a grand irony if it were not so tragic. We have so much better things to our credit than being one nation allegedly under God!
Falwell says his ultimate goal is to preserve “the kind of America that I grew up in”. But the days that Jerry Falwell longs to return to, that bygone era when America was conservative, Christian and conformist, are a fantasy of his idealized imagination. We have never been as homogeneous as he desires, and we never will be. And the past was hardly an idyllic time, as even Falwell acknowledges:
“I was born in 1933 in Virginia. I didn’t know anyone who wasn’t a segregationist. My father was an ardent one. It wasn’t until I became a Christian as a sophomore in college that I got past that,” he said.
“I wasn’t changed by any politician; I was changed by the Lord,” he added.
Falwell’s attempt to sweep the ugly truths of the past under the rug only makes him foolish to anyone who knows about history. For centuries in America and elsewhere, Christianity was not the enemy of racism, but one of its most ardent sources of support. The many Bible verses which exhort slaves to obey their masters were used to justify the shame-filled centuries of the colonial trade in human beings, and even after slavery was abolished, Christianity and the Bible regularly turned up to defend the racism and segregation that persisted for decades afterward and still linger today. Consider the rationale employed by Judge Leon Bazile in 1958, prior to the landmark Loving v. Virginia decision, in sentencing that interracial couple for violating antimiscegenation laws:
“Almighty God created the races, white, black, yellow, Malay, and red and placed them on separate continents, and but for the interference with his arrangement there would be no cause for such marriages. The fact that he separated the races shows that he did not intend the races to mix.”
The irony is no doubt lost on Jerry Falwell that, although he repudiates racism now that that position is firmly established and safe, he is now the establishment figure using almost identical arguments against gay marriage. In all likelihood the religious right leaders of a few decades hence, when freedom to marry has become the norm, will be talking about how they grew up in places where everyone was against civil rights for homosexuals, but once they converted to Christianity, God changed their hearts and caused them to recognize the sense of it. Regardless of what era they live in, Falwell and his ideological brethren are always on the wrong side of the issues of the day.