The Complex Legacy of Jerry Falwell

Depending on which publication his obituary appeared in, Jerry Falwell was either the savior of American civilization or the devil himself — but Falwell the man was, in fact, far more complex and not easily summed up in a soundbite or obit.

Where one stands on Falwell likely depends on where one sits, but there were elements of Falwell's life and impact on American political and social culture that should alternately please liberals and conservatives, the religious and the irreligious.

There's little doubt that he was influential. Shortly after the pivotal 1980 presidential election, pollster Louis Harris estimated that without the influence of Falwell and the Moral Majority, Jimmy Carter would have defeated Ronald Reagan by one point.

Falwell's message to millions of American Christians in the late 1970s was simple: They needed to get over their notion that because politics was dirty, they should show their disgust by not voting. Falwell turned that argument on its head, making the case that politics was so dirty that it begged for involvement by such voters. Cleverly calling his group The Moral Majority (after all who wouldn't want to be moral or part of a majority), Falwell promptly reorganized American political life.

Even Walter Mondale, Reagan's opponent in his 1984 re-election, recognized the preacher's impact when he charged that Reagan was going to appoint judges "picked by Jerry Falwell." Mondale may have been exaggerating Falwell's sway with Reagan, however, since Reagan had ignored Falwell's advice when he appointed Sandra Day O' Connor.

But the point was made and understood: Falwell had influence, and Reagan was likely not unaware of what he had done for him in 1980. He understood that if not for Falwell, a thrice-defeated 69-year-old Reagan would likely have retired to his California ranch or become the host of “Unsolved Mysteries.” Four years later, a Mondale administration might very well have been elected, and there might never have been Clinton, Bush I or Bush II presidencies.

But what Falwell will likely not be remembered for is the contribution he made to the desegregation of churches. Like many Southern churches in the 1960s, Falwell's didn't allow blacks to worship with their white brothers and sisters. But as Falwell recounted the story in his autobiography, "Strength For The Journey," he felt he heard God telling him that the practice was sinful and that he was to open up his church to all, regardless of race. Despite pressures from some in the congregation who objected and in a move that caused something of a church split, Falwell heeded the voice and took one very small step toward rectifying America's great sin.

Here's how liberals benefited from the life of Jerry Falwell: To the chagrin of many younger, more telegenic true believers, he was often invited on television shows where he seemed to reinforce every media stereotype that was used to create caricatures of those with Falwell's views. It wasn't uncommon to have the white, overweight, Southern-twanged Falwell complete with non-telegenic jowls facing off against the likes of the gorgeous, articulate, sophisticated, African-American head of Planned Parenthood, Faye Wattleton. In far too many such cases, not unlike the Nixon-Kennedy faceoff in 1960, the debate was over before it had begun, courtesy of the visuals and the personalities involved.

But it wasn't just the visuals; Falwell also handed his enemies victories with the things he said, which were more akin to a boxer (which he had been) than a minister. Calling comedian Ellen DeGeneres "Ellen Degenerate" might have been funny were he a right-wing Bill Maher, but it didn't exactly follow the biblical injunction to "Let your language be always seasoned with the salt of grace."

Then there was Falwell's final shot — his much repeated suggestion that 9/11 was the result of God lowering barriers of protection around America because of homosexuality, abortion, feminism and other extra-biblical activities. What seemed to many to be a slur was actually a fairly common theological debate that rages among Christians: Are we still in an Old Testament era when God punishes nations collectively for the sins of some, or a post-Christ era in which the individual is responsible for his or her own conduct?

Falwell, inarticulately and without context, was making the case for the former, but if he were doing so he might well have added other sins more common to Christians such as gossip, gluttony or the soaring divorce rate, the last which the Bible says God hates.

Some traditional conservatives fear they've lost a great lion of the right, while liberals are celebrating the death of a man they loathed and whom they rightly see as having charged the course of the nation's political life over the last 30 years. What they may not quite understand is that they've also lost a favorite target, and that the next generation of Falwells — like the telegenic “Purpose Drive Life” author Rick Warren or Franklin Graham, the son of Billy Graham, will be far more difficult to marginalize and demonize.

But there are at least three things that all Americans — left, right, gay, straight, religious, irreligious — should be able to agree upon with regard to Jerry Falwell.

First, he encouraged voter participation among a formerly disenfranchised group of Americans.

Second, he renounced the kind of racism that had kept millions of blacks from participating in American church life.

Finally, he taught all Americans that in order to advance one's beliefs, one must have the courage to get into the arena and the fortitude to stand for one's convictions, no matter how unpopular.

And for these things at least, all Americans should be able to salute Jerry Falwell.

Mark Joseph is an author and media producer and the editor of "Pop Goes Religion-Faith In Popular Culture." He has written on politics and popular culture for National Review, Beliefnet, Townhall and the Huffington Post.

Mark Joseph is a film producer and marketing expert who has worked on the development and marketing of 25 films. His most recent book is The Lion, The Professor & The Movies: Narnia's Journey To The Big Screen.