"God's Right Hand": a new biography of Jerry Falwell

I just finished reading Michael Sean Winters's new biography of Jerry Falwell, God's Right Hand: How Jerry Falwell Made God a Republican and Baptized the American Right (HarperOne, 2012). Being familiar with his previous work (and the author himself), I must say that he did a fantastic job of writing with a different voice. If I had not known who the author was, I would have had no idea of his political leanings. Kudos to Winters: he has written a balanced biography of a controversial figure.[caption id="attachment_18136" align="alignright" width="295" caption="Looking to the Right"]Looking to the Right[/caption]This is not to say that Winters is not critical in his approach. With a keen eye for political rhetoric, he puts Falwell's most famous characteristics (and antics) under the microscope and sorts out the core principles from the frequent bloviating. There are myriad facts and anecdotes about Falwell's rise to power for those interested in tracking it, but Winters also offers some long-view analyses worth considering and testing against other evidence from the Religious Right.One memorable (because counter-intuitive) part of the book's argument is how he credits Falwell with the fact that GOP leaders must now have public commitment to Israel in order to be serious candidates for high office. (A pilgrimage with TV cameras is now the preferred method.) "Falwell's commitment to Israel and his many meetings with Jewish leaders helped eviscerate the ugly stain of anti-Semitism on the American right. It was part of the baptism," he wrote, referring to the metaphorical "baptism" of the Religious Right in the book's subtitle. Despite having some famous flare-ups (the Bailey Smith controversy), Falwell still, in Winters's telling, was central to creating the evangelical-Israel alliance. Another long-term effect of Falwell's influence Winters discusses at length is the well-placed alumni of Liberty University, a legacy that is difficult to track without meticulous research.Overall Winters puts Falwell at the center of several transitions in how religion and politics relate in the United States: most foundationally, he slowly but surely chipped away at "the separationist doctrine that had kept fundamentalist Christians in a self-imposed cultural exile through much of the twentieth century." Related to this was Falwell's de-emphasizing of "personal purity" in exchange for "moral postulates that conformed to his conservative principles." In Winters's conclusions, such as this one, it is easy to see how Falwell created the conditions for the very possibility of Newt Gingrich's candidacy.In the end, Winters suggests that the younger generation has not been as persuaded by Falwell's brand of mixing religion and politics -- his baptism of the Republican party. "Falwell became the face of Christianity to many Americans, and many Americans turned away from it. They did not merely reject his politics; his politics was such a part of his religion that they rejected both. The baby, as it were, was thrown out with the baptismal water."This is not a partisan judgment on Winters's part. By incorporating Robert Putnam and David Campbell's epochal book, American Grace: How Religion Divides and Unites Us, Winters shows how this conclusion about Falwell's effect on younger generations has been borne out by sociological analysis. A primary result of their study is that "youth disaffection from religion" in the 1990's and 2000's was an "aftershock" of the rise of religious conservatism in the 1970's and 1980's -- and especially the wedding (or baptism, to use Winters's metaphor) of the Republican party with Christianity.It remains to be seen what comes next. Will young Christians be persuaded by Ralph Reed 2.0 (his Faith and Freedom Coalition)? Or will other voices, such as Joel Hunter, David Gushee, or Samuel Rodriguez resonate louder and longer? Or will young Christians increasingly "fast" from politics, as recommended by David Kuo in his memoir, Tempting Faith? As a Christian during Lent, I'll say that fasting from politics doesn't feel like such a bad idea. But of course, fasting is difficult and not too popular. Someone will replace Falwell as a leading voice for evangelical Christian engagement with politics, but it's not yet clear who.

Michael Peppard is associate professor of theology at Fordham University and on the staff of its Curran Center for American Catholic Studies. He is the author of The World's Oldest Church and The Son of God in the Roman World, and on Twitter @MichaelPeppard. He is a contributing editor to Commonweal.

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