The so-called Moral Majority was roaring to life in the early ’80s.
Its loudest mouthpiece, Jerry Falwell (the original version), was bringing his show to metro Atlanta where I served as a young campus minister.
Conservative pastors and other church leaders were abuzz with excitement. I was offered tickets to the big breakfast event so many times that the generosity and curiosity led me to accept one of the invitations.
A retired pharmacist who was doing volunteer mission work also received a complimentary ticket, and I offered him a ride. En route, he asked what this event was all about, and I offered my prediction.
Based on what I had seen and read about Falwell, I prevised it would be a morning of bacon, eggs and civil religion topped with unfounded alarmism.
“He will contrast what he considers to be the good old days of the ’50s with the evils of the ’60s and ’70s,” I said as we crept along in traffic. “And he will blame all of society’s woes on two Supreme Court decisions while ignoring a lot of history in recent decades.”
A few miles and a hearty meal later, Falwell was introduced following comments by grandstanding politicians and big-steeple preachers. Right on cue, he followed the predictable script.
He swooned over a romanticized version of the ’50s in which life was orderly and full of joy. Everyone knew their place and was content to be there. Only a white male of his generation could so portray that decade with a straight, though pudgy, face.
Then the scowl appeared as he moved into the demonized 1960s and ’70s, calling them “the Dark Ages of the 20th century.” He told of how unruly behavior, social disorder and disrespect for leaders and institutions arose within those soulless years – threatening all that was good and holy, especially “the family.”
The blame was placed squarely and fully at the feet of two Supreme Court decisions: Engel v. Vitale (1962), forbidding government sponsored prayer in public schools, and Roe v. Wade (1973), that protected a woman’s right to choose an abortion without excessive government restriction.
Overturning those two decisions would right all the nation’s wrongs, the original Jerry Falwell bellowed. The political marching orders were issued.
No keen observer of history, Falwell made no reference to three rather significant events from that same time period that shaped American society far more than the cited court decisions: the civil rights movement, the Vietnam War and the Watergate scandal.
With his narrow focus, Falwell ladled out fear after fear of what would happen if “we” (and everybody knew who “we” were) don’t protect our cultural dominance from the rising threats.
There was nothing about the rights of all Americans; no concern with long absent justice for all. And there was nothing about Jesus’ compassion, inclusion and sacrifice that his followers are called to emulate.
Just a push for retaining power – so America will be safe for nice, white, church-going people like us.
Falwell concluded his message to thunderous applause and a standing ovation – except for a young campus minister and a mission volunteer who had accepted a free ticket and ride to the breakfast.
As historian Randall Balmer has well noted, the Religious Right started in defense of racial discrimination but found its political chops by focusing on abortion and stirring fears about rising calls for equality.
The political strategy worked. Falwell’s words resonated that morning and beyond with millions who have bought into his false history and unfounded fears.
As a result, an Americanized version of Christianity emerged with a driving, narrowly focused religious/political ideology that has little to no regard for the life and teachings of Jesus.
An overriding allegiance to a naïve perspective on abortion – that ignores its complexities and political realities – and aggressive efforts to deny equal rights to women, LGBTQ persons and others became the defining marks of this Americanized Christianity.
Personal morality of political leaders, once enmeshed into the formula, became an expendable value in recent years, when conservative Christians decided honesty and integrity are no longer that big of a deal if they can keep a grasp on power.
Today, the Christian witness is badly tarnished by this movement and is continuously sacrificed on the cheap altar of self-interest, discrimination and fear.
Ol’ Jerry and those who aligned with his misguided call – including many who still carry his polluted water even now – have greatly harmed this nation and the church.
Jesus has been reduced to little more than a lesser mascot, edged out by a hardened and exclusive version of a baptized Uncle Sam. These Americanized Christians want Jesus to rescue them from hell but ignore the hellish ways they act out in his name.
Executive editor / publisher at Good Faith Media.