CMI Book Review -- Left-Handed Compliments: A Liberal Assessment of Jerry Falwell’s Legacy
God’s Right Hand: How Jerry Falwell Made God a Republican and Baptized the American Right
Michael Sean Winters
In an election cycle focused primarily on the economy and the creation of jobs, the controversy surrounding Obama’s contraception mandate and the Susan G. Komen Foundation’s funding of Planned Parenthood remind us that social issues can still hold tremendous political force. That this is the case can be largely credited to Jerry Falwell, the fundamentalist preacher who rallied evangelical Christians to end their self-imposed exile from political life, bringing with them the social issues that retains so much power today.
Falwell’s career and legacy are the subjects of Michael Sean Winters new book “God’s Right Hand: How Jerry Falwell Made God a Republican and Baptized the American Right.” In addressing Falwell, the author of “Left at the Altar: How the Democrats Lost the Catholics and How the Catholics can Save the Democrats” turns from Catholics and Democrats to Protestants and Republicans.
While the mantra “Don’t judge a book by its cover” rings in the mind of every book reviewer, but in this case the back cover blurbs offer an indication of what’s inside. With praise from George Stephanopoulos and Reverend Jennifer Butler, founding executive director of the left leaning Faith in Public Life, it’s safe to assume Winters’ appraisal of Falwell isn’t exactly glowing.
Still, in covering Falwell’s personal conversion to fundamentalist Christianity, his founding of Thomas Road Baptist Church and Liberty University, and involvement in the political organization Moral Majority, Winters avoids any ad hominem attacks, even occasionally praises his subject. He admits that the media was not fair towards Falwell, noting that he “was largely correct in perceiving a liberal bias, even animus, against his organization, rooted in opposition to his political agenda. Some of his critics would grab at whatever arguments might stoke the fires of opposition to his organization.”
However, defenses of Falwell notwithstanding, Winters is decidedly critical of Falwell’s main accomplishments and life’s work. Falwell, in Winter’s estimation, was wrong to mix religion and politics, not least because of what the author says were unintended consequences for religion. He writes, “Instead of bringing Christ to the secularists, he brought some degree of secularism to the church.”
Winters highlights the internal battle Falwell had with himself about whether or not to enter politics, and concludes that Falwell’s participation in politics ultimately harmed religion and the cause Falwell was championing: “He did not see, as many still do not see, that by reducing religion to ethics in order to gain access to the public square, he was participating in the privatizing of religion and thereby aiding in the very secularization he sought to defeat.”
For Winters, politics and religion are of two different breeds and the social issues which Falwell focused on tainted religion: “Whether Christianity is reduced to social justice or to conservative sexual practices or to being kind, it is robbed of its core doctrinal claims and loses its power to save”. In fact, Winters claims that it was Falwell’s brand of political Christianity that led to the rise of the “nones,” those Americans who do not associate with any religion. Winters makes this connection multiple times in his book but never substantiates it with any statistical evidence.
Not does he offer an acceptable alternative for conservative Christians. Faced with what he saw as the destruction of the culture, Falwell chose not to remain silent. And why not? Conservative Christians have just as valid a claim to the nation as any other group, and have both the right and responsibility as citizens to speak up or take action when they feel the country is threatened.
Referring to him often as one who “shot from the hip” without thinking through the consequences, Winters accuses Falwell of blindly accepting the policies of the Reagan administration he worked so hard to get elected. He seems bothered that Falwell not only concerned himself with social issues such as abortion and traditional family values that had a clear connection to Christianity, but also advocated for capitalism and strong defense policies.
Winters assumes that Falwell had no moral basis for supporting these policies, and “was unable to make the links between his moral beliefs and his commitment to a more aggressive nuclear posture or aid to the contras.”
That’s an observation that tells us more about Winters than it does Falwell. Not blinded by the left’s moral relativism generally and willful blindness on the particulars of communism, Falwell understood as Reagan (and Pope John Paul II) did the evil of the Soviet system. As a religious leader, he knew, as Catholics are currently learning under ObamaCare, that totalitarianism leaves no room for anything between the state and the individual – least of all religious considerations.
Winters goes further, arguing that if Falwell had thought through his Christian faith he would have seen the contradiction of supporting such a strong free market: “Nor did he acknowledge that the free enterprise system, conjoined with the sins of the flesh, inevitably made those practices more widely and indiscriminately available. One man’s delight in drugs or pornography was another man’s profit margin” He also argues that Falwell, and other “free market zealots” ignore “the degree to which an unrestrained market places enormous economic pressures on families, forces women into the workforce, disrupts local, especially rural, economies, and generally undermines the traditional values that evangelicals celebrate.”
Here, Winters faults Falwell for showing the same restraint he believes the reverend should have exorcised as regards to the intersection of policy and social issues. He doesn’t really object to Falwell’s insertion of religion into other spheres, as long as he, Winters, agrees with the targets.
While disagreeing with Falwell’s decision to become active with politics, Winters does give him enormous credit for the success of his church, Thomas Road Baptist, the outreach programs that stemmed from this church, and especially Liberty University. Obviously impressed with Falwell’s institutions he writes in his conclusion, “they were designed to engage the culture and change it, not to remove Christians from it. Falwell put evangelization back into evangelism, and the institutions he built reflect that change”.
“God’s Right Hand” neither exalts nor persecutes Jerry Falwell. Winters offers a fair representation of his life but cannot refrain from slipping in his own criticism colored by his liberal world view. For those wanting to learn more about how Falwell “Baptized the American Right” it is a good starting point, but readers should be aware that the author is nowhere near unbiased.