By Caitlin Yoshiko Kandil
Jerry Falwell “stamped out” anti-Semitism in the Republican Party, said Michael Sean Winters, a reporter for the National Catholic Reporter—and no Falwell sympathizer—at the Center for American Progress in Washington, DC earlier this week.
By making Israel a concern for conservative Christians, Falwell ensured anti-Semitism “has no political currency,” Winters explained. “Although he himself and many people in his pews had some anti-Semitism, there’s no political oxygen for those kinds of attitudes to reach any expression—and I think that’s undeniably a good thing.”
Winters, author of the new book, God’s Right Hand: How Jerry Falwell Made God a Republican and Baptized the American Right, appeared at CAP on Monday with Washington Post columnist E. J. Dionne to discuss how the controversial figure has shaped both Christianity and politics in America.
Falwell, who grew up in a non-religious household in Lynchburg, Virginia, converted to Christianity shortly after starting college, and six months later, enrolled in seminary. As a fundamentalist Southern Baptist, Falwell was initially resistant to politics. “Fundamentalists have a long tradition and teaching called the spirituality of the church, that the church should not be involved in moral reformation,” Winters explained. “This obviously has its roots going all the way back to the Reformation and the discussion between faith and works, but was also a direct response to the social gospel movement.”
Even though he condemned Martin Luther King, Jr. for “politicizing Christianity,” by the 1960s and 1970s Falwell had started to engage with politics—first with the Roe v. Wade decision in 1973, and later with gay and lesbian rights and the 1978 IRS guidelines that determined whether a school had sufficiently desegregated. The next year, in 1979, a group of Republican operatives came to Falwell, asking that he “galvanize the base” on behalf of the Party, and in the same year he established the Moral Majority, which became one of the largest lobbying groups for evangelical Christians.
With his jump into politics, Falwell created a new brand of Christianity, Winters said. “In the 1950s and 60s, as Jim Crow was being pulled apart, you see the first explicit ideas about Christian nationalism and American exceptionalism coming to the fore,” he explained. “If they were no longer going to be racially superior, they had to feel that need to feel superior elsewhere—and that gives rise to the real hyper-patriotism and the sense of American exceptionalism that you didn’t find in the South previously…Southerners were not always too proud to be part of the Union.”
Bringing fundamentalist Christianity also brought new attitudes to conservative politics. “Republicans now tend to view all issues in terms of this absolute, fundamentalist view,” said Winters. While politics used to be about competing interests, now “it’s about ideology, and if you disagree, you’re not just wrong or have a different interest or have a different perspective—you’re a heretic, you’re a Republican in name only. And you just don’t see that attitude before Falwell.”
This development has been evident throughout the Republican primary season. Speaking on Fox Business Network Monday night, Mitt Romney argued that he is even further to the right than fellow Republican candidate Rick Santorum. “Rick Santorum is not a person who’s an economic conservative to my right,” Romney said. “His record does not show that he has the fiscal conservative chops that I have.”
Santorum hit back just hours later, telling voters in Alabama—which handed Santorum a surprise win in its primary yesterday—“If you look at the state that just voted on Saturday, Kansas, there’s no more rock rib solid conservative state in the country than the state of Kansas, it’s about as red as they get. Oklahoma, about as red as they get. And who won Kansas and Oklahoma?”
“This really is his contribution to the Republican Party, and in that way, shaped it more than Reagan,” he said. “I do think that today’s Republican Party is more heir to Falwell than it is to Reagan.”
Although Falwell may have brought the notion of conservative orthodoxy to the Republican Party, he also helped “get evangelicals over the idea that they could not be ‘yoked’ with non-believers” if they were pursuing a common cause. It is this development, Winters added, that may actually be helping Mitt Romney with evangelical voters.
“I think that Romney not only relies upon the idea that it’s okay to do business with Mormons, who they would consider heterodox in religious matters,” he said. “But I actually think Romney’s Mormonism helps him with evangelicals, because without that, he’s just a moderate former governor of Massachusetts…What evangelicals know about the Mormon Church is it’s conservative and it underwrote the campaign in California against Proposition 8. I’m not sure that it plays the way current narratives sense that it plays.”
Winters, a self-proclaimed progressive Catholic, said studying Falwell was like “waking up in a photographic negative,” but also credited the late pastor for two important political developments—“stamping out” anti-Semitism on the right and enfranchising millions of Southern voters. “I do think Falwell gets credit for bringing millions of Americans into the political process,” Winters said. “I don’t like the way that they vote—but that’s a different issue.”