alien & sedition.
Monday, May 21, 2007
  Falwell and Revisionist History

Compare Max Blumenthal's excellent account of the rise of Jerry Falwell to Jeffrey Bell's curious little piece at the Weekly Standard.

Bell observes the magnitude of the shift among evangelical voters from 1976 to 1984:
[T]he swing in terms of partisan margin among theologically conservative white Protestants was a breathtaking 87 points--from a Democratic margin of 25 points in 1976 to a Republican lead of 62 points in 1984. By way of comparison, the margin swing in the electorate as a whole was 20 points--from Carter-Mondale's 2-point victory in 1976 to Mondale-Ferraro's 18-point defeat in 1984.

These numbers might suggest that the entire GOP presidential gain between 1976 and 1984 could be accounted for by the striking change among the roughly 20 percent of the electorate classifiable as Bible-believing white Protestants. In pure statistical terms this is true, and much was happening in the campaigns of 1980 and 1984 to explain the shift in terms of social issues and the status of religion in American life.
So what, according to Bell, accounted for this shift? "Judicial elites" banning spoken prayer in school, for one thing. The hardening politics of abortion, too. And then there was the Carter administration's revocation of tax exemptions for "Bible schools."

Blumenthal points out that, whatever the politics of abortion after 1980, before founding the Moral Majority in 1979, Falwell had shown very little interest in the issue. What had motivated him was the loss of the tax exemption - not because it was an "attack" on Christians, but because it was aimed at eliminating public subsidy for segregationists like the good minister himself.

Falwell was a virulent racist who saw private education as a last refuge for white supremacists. It was the breach of that refuge that drove him to politics -- with the help of Paul Weyrich:
For Falwell and his allies, the true impetus for political action came when the Supreme Court ruled in Green v. Connally to revoke the tax-exempt status of racially discriminatory private schools in 1971. At about the same time, the Internal Revenue Service moved to revoke the tax-exempt status of Bob Jones University, which forbade interracial dating. (Blacks were denied entry until 1971.) Falwell was furious, complaining, "In some states it's easier to open a massage parlor than to open a Christian school."

Seeking to capitalize on mounting evangelical discontent, a right-wing Washington operative and anti-Vatican II Catholic named Paul Weyrich took a series of trips down South to meet with Falwell and other evangelical leaders. Weyrich hoped to produce a well-funded evangelical lobbying outfit that could lend grassroots muscle to the top-heavy Republican Party and effectively mobilize the vanquished forces of massive resistance into a new political bloc. In discussions with Falwell, Weyrich cited various social ills that necessitated evangelical involvement in politics, particularly abortion, school prayer and the rise of feminism. His pleas initially fell on deaf ears.

"I was trying to get those people interested in those issues and I utterly failed," Weyrich recalled in an interview in the early 1990s. "What changed their mind was Jimmy Carter's intervention against the Christian schools, trying to deny them tax-exempt status on the basis of so-called de facto segregation."
There is, of course, none of this in Bell's piece. It takes a pretty tight tunnel vision to ignore the reality of Falwell's history, so we shouldn't be shocked when Bell's piece ends with a reference to "the pivotal role of 'values voters' in the 2004 presidential election." The fact that Bell is just about the last person on Earth to believe this canard is hardly surprising, given the myopia at work in his article generally.

But in another sense it is a little surprising to see such shallow analysis of the subject in a conservative intellectual journal. The question of Falwell's legacy is one of urgent importance to the right these days, as it's forced to decide how to negotiate its way between that legacy and a Giuliani-ized future. One would think that more clear-headed analysis was in order.

The Moral Majority was unpopular with significant portions of the intellectual and fiscal right during the early 1980s. Conservative elites knew Falwell's gang scared people -- scared them too, a little bit. Still, they managed to enter into a productive partnership. Now, though, the continued usefulness of that partnership is very much in question. A good time, one would think, to prefer sobreity to sentiment.

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