May 16, 2007

A Christian Right Without Falwell

When he died May 15, the Rev. Jerry Falwell, founder of the Moral Majority, left a legacy as one of the innovative early leaders of a movement that brought evangelicals and other Christians into politics. The Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life reflects on Falwell’s impact and the future of the Christian right.

Featuring:
John Green, Senior Fellow in Religion and American Politics, Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life

Interviewer:
Robert Ruby, Senior Editor, Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life

The Pew Forum has also compiled a resource page on Falwell’s life and legacy.


Question & Answer

John GreenIs there likely to be another leader of the Christian right who gains as much attention and has as much influence as Jerry Falwell did at his peak?Falwell’s death is a reminder that, at one point or another, there will be a changing of the guard among the leadership of the Christian right. It’s quite possible that a new leader will eventually attain the kind of prominence attained by Falwell. But it’s likely that such a person will attain prominence in a different way, with a different organization and through different issues, because the political world is fundamentally different than it was when Falwell came to prominence. It’s also possible that the movement will never again have leaders of Falwell’s stature but instead will have a number of leaders.

What were Falwell’s accomplishments? What important things on his agenda were left undone?

In terms of accomplishments, Falwell changed the way that evangelicals think about political activity. There’s no longer much debate among evangelicals as to whether they should be involved in politics. There is great debate, however, as to what their political goals should be.

In this regard, one of the things Falwell did not accomplish was changing the law to reflect the traditional values he espoused. So one can point to some major political achievements but not many major policy achievements.

Was Falwell’s most important role as a religious figure or a political figure? Can the two be separated?

Jerry Falwell is best known as a political figure. He played a critical role in the mobilization of evangelical Protestants and other conservative Christians into politics in the 1980s. But he could not have had that role if it had not been for his religious activities. Falwell was credible when he talked about politics because of his religious credentials.

Over the years, Falwell was assigned a variety of labels. In terms of religion, should we think of him as an evangelical or a fundamentalist?

The term evangelical Protestant refers to a large religious tradition among Protestants. Fundamentalists, properly defined, are a subset of the evangelical religious tradition. Falwell was a self-identified fundamentalist. But his political activities with the Moral Majority consciously reached out to other elements of the evangelical community as well as to non-evangelicals – conservative mainline Protestants, traditional Catholics, Orthodox Jews and others. One of his contributions was the idea that religious people of different faiths could work together in politics even if they disagreed on theology.

Where has this movement of religious conservatives been heading in recent years?

Jerry Falwell and the Moral Majority were present at the creation of this movement, but movements are always more complex than a single person or a single organization. The movement is still active, but it has different leaders and different organizations than it did in the 1980s.

One thing we can say for sure is that the Christian right no longer dominates politics within the evangelical community because there now are other political voices and political leaders among evangelicals.

This transcript has been edited for clarity, spelling and grammar.