Falwell’s failure

Falwell’s failure

Jerry Falwell justly deserves credit as one of the individuals who most brought religious values to mainstream American political discourse. Prior to Falwell, religion was often treated as something that belonged in the church or the synagogue, not in party conventions and certainly not in the halls of Congress. One of the most insulting attitudes toward religion is that it be treated as an ethereal, celestial thing that speaks to the heavens but never to the earth. Falwell ensured that the voice of religion was heard. Prior to Falwell many believed that religion should whisper. Falwell ensured that it thundered. People of faith like myself are indebted to him for making sure that religion in America carries real influence.

But Falwell can also be justly criticized for dividing America. He would be the first to admit it and perhaps even proudly. He fought the religious wars that he felt were necessary against the secularists. He styled himself a religious barricade against the atheist barbarians at the gate. The religious/secular wars that have become so prevalent in modern America are among Falwell’s enduring legacies. Disunity was the price of creating a more moral America. It was no accident that Falwell called the organization he founded in 1979 "the moral majority," implying that he would stand up to the immoral minority.

But could not a universal morality have been promulgated that even secularists could have signed on to? Don’t non-religious people also believe in ethics?

Falwell’s main error, and that of many of my Christian evangelical brethren, was to so narrowly define morality that it came to mean, principally, opposition to abortion and gay marriage. He could easily have given morality a far more universal definition that would have had much broader appeal. For example, rather than speak of abortion, he could have spoken of the modern culture of male womanizing which is the principle cause of abortion, men selfishly and irresponsibly using women for their own pleasure and abandoning them when they get pregnant. Even left-wing radical feminists agree that a society that portrays women as the libidinous man’s plaything has seriously lost its way. Abortion is the direct product of the misogyny in our culture that encourages young men to use women to indulge their hormonal urges without the commitment of marriage. Falwell could have reasoned with secularists and told them that even if we can’t agree on a woman’s right to choose, we can surely agree that a woman shouldn’t be put into a situation where she is forced to choose. Women need to be educated to value themselves and demand commitment from a man whose claim to love them is all words and no action.

The same is true of gay marriage. Falwell and other evangelical leaders argued that this is the defining moral issue of our time and, if allowed, would destroy the institution of marriage. But with a 50 percent divorce rate in nearly every Western country, how much of marriage is there left to destroy anyway? Heterosexuals need no help from gays in eviscerating marriage. We have done a fine job on our own. If the intention was to save the American family, Falwell could have created a broader and more meaningful tent by making the enemy divorce rather than gays, and in the process he would have united both religious and secular to strengthen families rather than divide a nation.

I understand how passionately opponents of abortion and gay marriage feel. When it comes to abortion, they believe lives are being destroyed, and they are. But then why don’t we see the same fanatical opposition to genocide? Where, for example, is the religious outcry over Darfur where hundreds of thousands of innocent people are currently being slaughtered? Why open religion up to charges of hypocrisy by crying out for fetuses but remaining largely silent to the slaughter of grown human beings?

The answer, of course, is that all too often religion grows on the basis of bogeymen. When it comes to launching a great "crusade," many religious leaders take the easy way out and galvanize their flocks not by inspiring them to love the good but by identifying an infidel that has to be battled. Suddenly, the crusade is not about spreading godliness but about fighting the immorals who are poisoning society’s wells. It’s the oldest trick in the book, and it launched the very first Crusade when Pope Urban II identified the faraway infidel, the Muslims in the Holy Land, as the bogeyman that had to be battled. But in recruiting Crusaders it became even more effective to find an enemy at home. The Jews fit the bill and were slaughtered en masse.

Identifying the enemy within is the most sure-fire way to create a following. Liberal radio hosts boost ratings by vilifying George Bush, just as conservative talk radio hosts label Hillary Clinton the anti-Christ.

Now, it’s one thing when politicians drive a wedge in society. But when religion uses the same tactics it’s sacrilege, because God, above all else, desires love and unity among His earthly children. Islam, a religion that once illuminated large portions of the earth with learning and tolerance, is losing its way by identifying an endless number of enemies responsible for its decline when really it should look internally to stem rot and corrosion.

America needs unity, and who better than religious leaders to provide it. Rather than choosing the most divisive moral issues to tear our country asunder, what is needed are religious leaders who use logic, persuasion, and inspiration to argue for a universal morality that even secularists promote. That moral code is the Ten Commandments. Don’t the religious and secular both agree that respect for parents and elders creates order in a chaotic society? Do we not also agree that living in jealousy of another’s possessions or success is the quickest way to destroy one’s life? Do we not also agree that society is becoming too consumer-oriented and money has become a currency by which people purchase self-esteem? And if so, should we not create one day a week, a Sabbath, devoted to family and community rather than shopping malls and impulse purchases? The Ten Commandments’ demanding sexual faithfulness means respect for women, the desexualization of children, teenagers, and other vulnerable people. The code demands love of truth, a commitment to family, a respect for others’ property, and a devotion to a cause higher than ourselves. Why we ever needed to create an alternate code is beyond me.

America needs unity, now more than ever, and religion should lead the way by creating a universal morality that guarantees shared values. We religious people have seen the enemy and it is not the secular. Often, it is ourselves. And when we fail at motivating people to lead moral lives we should not blame their sinfulness but our own lack of persuasiveness.