For New Generation of Evangelicals, Falwell Was Old News
Wednesday, May 16, 2007
In January 2005, Time magazine published a cover story on the 25 most influential evangelicals in America. Jerry Falwell did not make the list.
Neither did Pat Robertson and Bob Jones III. These leaders live on in the public imagination because they embody a certain flamboyant style, and because culture war is more interesting than consensus.
In reality, they represent a small fraction of evangelicals, and a fraction that is dying out. Some great figures die at the prime of their movement, such as the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. and Mahatma Gandhi. Others, such as Mikhail Gorbachev, live on for years after their movement has morphed into something completely different, and it takes their deaths to make us realize how much things have changed. That is likely to be the case with Falwell.
"Evangelicals will think of him as part of the family, an elder relative who they might not agree with who died," says John Schmalzbauer, a professor of religious studies at Missouri State University who studies the recent mainstreaming of the religious right.
"An elder relative" who could be a little embarrassing sometimes. Who could go on (loudly) about "the gays and lesbians" and "the pagans" and the "ACLU" and how they helped cause the Sept. 11 attacks despite the fact that modern evangelicals have learned in the past decade how to "speak in the appropriate language," as Sen. John Thune, a Republican from South Dakota and a member of the evangelical establishment, once put it.
In the days ahead, Falwell is likely to be described as an influential evangelical leader. But in his own time, "evangelical" was entirely too gauzy and modern a word for him. He was a fundamentalist, trying to urge his fellow fundamentalists out of hiding, trying to get them to make their voices heard on the national stage.
For Falwell's generation of conservative Christians, political power came as a giddy surprise. Falwell barreled into politics in the 1980s and early '90s with the Moral Majority, delighted by rocking the world of politics.
Falwell famously used to set off firecrackers down the aisle of his private jet, or knock on random hotel doors and disappear, giggling. The phrase "evangelical establishment," the subject of much research over the past five years, was not part of his vocabulary.
"In those early days, it was like, if you got a mayor of a major city to talk to you it was a really big deal," says Michael Farris, who ran the Washington state branch of the Moral Majority in the early '80s. The organization was not the big, professional monolith that it, and later the Christian Coalition, became. Its style was more "run and gun," recalls Farris -- show up where you weren't wanted, throw the bomb and get out, pleased by the stink you'd caused.
The new breed of evangelical leader does not have the temperament of a protester. He is a consummate professional who speaks in modulated terms and knows his way around Washington. "We evangelicals have learned to collaborate, to cross the aisles and religious barriers or whatever, in order to pass bills," Rich Cizik, vice president for governmental affairs at the National Association of Evangelicals, is quoted as saying in the new book "Believers."
Featured prominently on Time's list was Rick Warren, pastor of Saddleback Church in California and author of mega-bestseller "The Purpose Driven Life." If they took a political poll on the usual culture war issues, Falwell and Warren would end up in exactly the same place -- antiabortion, against gay rights. Both have written books saying that Jesus is the only way to salvation. But Warren's public style is entirely different.
For the most part, Warren keeps a low political profile. When asked which presidential candidate he supports, he praises both Sen. Barack Obama of Illinois, a Democrat, and Sen. Sam Brownback of Kansas, a Republican and religious conservative. Warren donated the proceeds from his book to help combat AIDS in Africa. He associates himself with "creation care," a movement of evangelical environmentalists. To ensure wide distribution, Warren makes sure he goes down easy: "You were made by God and for God, and until you understand that, life will never make sense," reads a quote from him printed on millions of Starbucks cups.
Young evangelicals came of age with George W. Bush as their president, reaching out to them, speaking their language, identifying "Christ" as his favorite political philosopher in a 1999 campaign debate. These days, one-third of Congress members identify themselves as "evangelical."
"We're no longer overlooked, persecuted, discriminated against, and misquoted in the mainstream media, an editorial in Christianity Today stated in 2005. "So we've been mainstreamed, now what?"
In Falwell's days, the evangelical movements seemed like one big church, and the culture was always looking to identify its leader and pastor. Now the movement is much more "fragmented," Schmalzbauer says.
Warren is an obvious leader but he shuns the political spotlight. James Dobson, head of Focus on the Family, remains enormously influential but he is of the Falwell generation, a little too extreme for mainstream politics.
Another name often mentioned is Richard Land, president of the Southern Baptist Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission. Land has solid evangelical credentials and was educated at Princeton and Oxford universities. He believes in working with conservative Catholics and Jews to accomplish his agenda. He believes in collaboration over confrontation.
Like Cizik and Warren, he is a member of the post-Falwell generation, which believes in "getting things done," as Land once said, even if it doesn't accomplish what Falwell did best over his long career: making headlines.