At the start of the Fox News–sponsored Republican presidential debate last week in South Carolina, Brit Hume made a disappointing announcement: that because many of the candidates had already issued statements of “regret and condolence” concerning the expiration of Jerry Falwell, the moderators would seek no further comment on his life and legacy. I say “disappointing” because I was eager to hear what Rudy Giuliani, John McCain, and Mitt Romney had to say about him. Not that there was much doubt about what the gist would have been. But it would have been nice to have their acts of ritual self-abasement captured on video for future YouTube-able reference.
As it was, one had to make do with the candidates’ written encomiums, among which McCain’s—which lauded Falwell as “a man of distinguished accomplishment who devoted his life to serving his faith and country”—was typical, if comparatively muted in its degree of obeisance. (Mike Huckabee, for instance, declared Falwell “a great man and a great influence for America and for Christ.”)
The view of Falwell among most sensible Americans is, of course, quite different: He was a hater, a lard-assed charlatan, an ostentatiously deranged clown. (What other conclusion could possibly be reached after l’affaire Tinky Winky?) That the GOP wannabes differ from this indisputable assessment owes largely to political calculation—to the perceived imperative not to get crosswise with the party’s vast Evangelical wing. No news there, I grant you. What interests me, however, is the cluster of assumptions lurking behind the calculation: that Falwell, having been among the progenitors of the religious right, continued to have great sway with it; that the movement he created still reflects his predispositions and temperament; and that, therefore, even in death, Falwell will continue to cast a long shadow over the 2008 campaign.
It’s not just the Republican candidates who share these assumptions, by the way, but liberals, moderates, and the mainstream media. They were embedded in most of the obituaries and commentary that flowed in the days after Falwell punched his ticket. The only trouble is that, on closer inspection, nearly all of them turn out to be wrong—and wrong in ways that may have important implications for the campaign that lies ahead.
A good place to start is with the Evangelical movement itself. Accounting for more than a quarter of the American population, it’s certainly a force to be reckoned with, not least politically. In 2004, Evangelicals accounted for fully 40 percent of the votes cast for George W. Bush. (Another 8 percent each were provided by traditionalist Catholics and traditionalist mainline Protestants). But unlike in Falwell’s heyday, the center of gravity of the Evangelical world is no longer the rural South; it’s the suburbs and exurbs of the West, Southwest, and Midwest. The movement is younger, better educated, and richer than it was at the height of the Moral Majority. And it’s centered increasingly around the burgeoning megachurch phenomenon.
The face of that phenomenon plainly isn’t, and never was, Jerry Falwell—or Pat Robertson, James Dobson, or any of the other superannuated Elmer Gantryesque boobs whom the press typically paints as such. The face of the modern Evangelical movement belongs instead to Rick Warren, the pastor of Orange County, California’s Saddleback Church (regular attendance: 20,000) and the author of The Purpose Driven Life, which has sold more hardback copies (over 25 million) than any nonfiction book in history.
Now, on many social issues, Warren is just as conservative as Falwell. Abortion, bad. Gay marriage, bad. Etc. But whereas Falwell described aids as “the wrath of a just God against homosexuals,” Warren has donated millions of dollars to fight HIV in Africa. Whereas Falwell bemoaned the emerging strain of Evangelical environmentalism as “Satan’s attempt to redirect the church’s primary focus,” Warren declares, “The environment is a moral issue.” And regarding his pro-life stance, Warren says, “I’m just not rabid about it.”
Not surprisingly, Warren is at pains to distance himself from Falwell and his cohort. “I’m just tired of having other people represent me and represent the hundreds of thousands of churches where the pastors I’ve trained would nowhere, no way, relate to some of the supposed spokesman of a previous generation,” he told a Pew Forum gathering in 2005. Among Evangelicals, in fact, there was widespread horror and disgust with Falwell’s comments after 9/11, when he blamed the attacks on “the pagans and the abortionists and the feminists and the gays.”
“The plate tectonics are shifting,” says Bill Galston, a Brookings Institution fellow and author of Public Matters: Politics, Policy, and Religion in the 21st Century. “Many younger Evangelicals are uncomfortable with what they regard as a narrowing of the religious agenda. They regard some of the older leaders as extreme, embarrassing. Meanwhile, some of the more conservative Evangelicals are rethinking their abandonment of the traditional Protestant mistrust of salvation in the public sphere. I think all this represents a slow shift in the direction of a broader and more centrist discussion.”