A Falwellian Turn

In 1979, Jerry Falwell founded the “Moral Majority,” a largely evangelical Christian-based political organization intended as a counterweight to the social liberalization during the 1960s and ‘70s. While the Moral Majority possessed wide-ranging goals for the advancement of Christian religious interests across the public policy spectrum, it focused upon an opposition to various outgrowths of the sexual revolution (notably free sex, pornography, and abortion). In fact, Falwell’s feud with colorful pornographer Larry Flynt – which ended in a Supreme Court ruling in Flynt’s favor – may be his most noteworthy jaunt into the public sphere.

The importance of Falwell’s choice of the term “Moral Majority” for a religious-based political organization should not be overlooked. This carefully-crafted moniker first implied that the organization represented a decency that its opponents (the non-religious and sexually liberated) fundamentally lacked. The term further implicated that Falwell and his supporters had numbers on their side – that most people opposed the social change which had swept the country in previous decades.

Falwell’s message was clear – he and his followers possessed both a moral and numerical superiority over those who dared to oppose them. And that, in stark terms, the opposition to Falwell’s organization advanced the forces of evil.

While Falwell ultimately disbanded his Moral Majority after a decade of some policy success, the Falwellian strain of American political involvement, which receded some during the 1990s and 2000s, has not left the discourse, and instead has found some ideologically unlikely bedfellows in 2018 America. In particular, the discourse from the social justice left very much finds a home in the Falwellian tradition. For many such social justice warriors, Trump supporters are troglodytes whose views were better suited for the Dark Ages. Religious folks opposed to gay marriage are evil hatemongers. Concerned parents speaking up against shared high school bathrooms are backwoods, Duck Dynasty-loving rednecks. Businessmen and women concerned with the costs of global warming legislation relative to its benefits are intent on environmental (and even humanity’s) destruction.

Such an attitude is extremely consistent with the Falwellian tradition of demonizing people who are deemed to hold the “wrong” views. For Falwell, the wrong views consisted of those supportive of women’s rights, sexual liberalization, and pornographic expression. Today, the social justice crowd feels no differently about what they perceive to be a minority of people inadequately “woke” regarding the Trump Presidency, LGBT issues, and global warming.

While Falwell targeted the religious fervor of his supporters when decrying the evil aligned against them, modern Falwellians – despite their lack of adherence to and often anathema toward organized religion – treat their perceived enemies with a similar zeal. If you disagree with us, they contend, you are a bad person. You have chosen darkness over light, evil over good, and wrong over right. There is no debate to be had, because your opinions are simply indecent and unworthy of debate.

Nearly 40 years ago, Jerry Falwell framed the debate on the changes of the 1960s and ‘70s in a manner where his opponents were immoral, indecent, and unworthy of respect. Such a framework slammed the door on a vibrant exchange about where the culture may have actually gone wrong and correction was needed. Today, with a comparable religious fervor sans the religion, the Falwellian left proudly, yet unwittingly, walks in his tradition regarding a host of cultural issues where their opposition is viewed as standing for little more than defending an evil past and undeserving of engagement, and once again compromise with the forces of darkness is viewed as surrender.

To say the least, the Falwellian tradition substantially damages our ability to engage in a constructive dialogue and reach outcomes both sides can accept as valid. And as the Falwellian left learned in November 2016, when the middle ground is off the table and the stakes are perpetually winner-take-all, the perceived evil does not always lose.