OAKLAND, United States, May 16 (IPS) - The right-wing U.S. Christian evangelist Jerry Falwell, who died Tuesday at the age of 73, is perhaps best known for his fundamentalist social positions and tirades against lesbians, gays and feminists, not to mention “pagans”, “abortionists” and assorted other miscreants.
But Falwell also had a significant impact on U.S. foreign policy over the last 30 years, and was one of the founding fathers here of so-called Christian Zionism — the belief that the modern state of Israel is the fulfillment of Biblical “End Times” prophecy and thus deserving of political, financial and religious support.
From his pre-Moral Majority days when he preached against religious folk involved in the civil rights movement, to his support for the President Ronald Reagan-backed contra movements in Central America and Africa that were responsible for the deaths of tens of thousands of people, to his invective against Nelson Mandela and South Africa’s African National Congress and his support for the apartheid regime, Falwell was a Republican Party stalwart and a dependable voice of reaction.
Today, conservative evangelicals are a formidable lobby group in the United States and a key component of the Republican voting base. However, they had largely stayed out of politics until the mid-1970s, when Jimmy Carter’s declaration during the 1976 presidential campaign that he had been “born again” rejuvenated the political activism of the evangelical community.
But Carter’s more liberal positions on some social issues, and his support for a Palestinian homeland shortly after his election in 1977, alienated right-wing Christian Zionist leaders in the movement, like Falwell and New Right figures Paul Weyrich and Richard Viguerie, who steered evangelicals toward the Republican Party — where they remain today.
In the 1980s, Israel’s Likud Party drew closer to the right wing in the U.S., and Falwell was a key figure in mobilising conservative Christian voters. In her book Spiritual Warfare: The Politics of the Christian Right, Sara Diamond notes that Falwell, “often through his television broadcasts and his frequent trips to Israel, played a key role in “dr[awing] evangelicals to pay closer attention to Middle East politics.”
In 1979, Israel rewarded Falwell with a private jet. Two years later, he received Israel’s Jabotinsky Award for his support.
According to one press account, “Jewish-evangelical relations had become so close by the early ’80s that, immediately after Israel bombed Iraq’s nuclear reactor in 1981, Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin telephoned Moral Majority leader Rev. Jerry Falwell before calling President Ronald Reagan to ask Falwell to ‘explain to the Christian public the reasons for the bombing’.”
Falwell also served on the board of advisors of the American Alliance of Jews and Christians, an organisation founded by Rabbi Daniel Lapin, the president of the conservative Jewish organisation Toward Tradition, and Christian conservative evangelical Gary Bauer, founder of American Values.
This past September, Falwell’s church hosted Christians United for Israel’s (CUFI) Pastor John Hagee, who accused Iran of being behind the summer war between Hezbollah and Israel. “They gave Syria 14,000 missiles and 100 million dollars,” he claimed. “Those missiles were given to Hezbollah.” Falwell served on the Board of CUFI.
In the hours since his death, a number of Falwell’s supporters have unstintingly praised him as a seminal and courageous figure of the New Religious Right.
Sen. John McCain, who during the 2000 Republican presidential primary called Falwell and the Rev. Pat Robertson “agents of intolerance” but had recently sought his support, issued a statement praising Falwell for his contributions.
While Falwell helped place conservative evangelicals at the forefront of the political landscape, he was also in part responsible for coarsening the political dialogue in this country. In a career that was marked by a continuous stream of controversial — and sometimes wacky — statements, perhaps none was as mean-spirited as his reaction to the Sep. 11, 2001 attacks.
Soon after 9/11, Falwell appeared on Pat Robertson’s Christian Broadcasting Network’s “700 Club, and told Robertson’s viewers:
“The abortionists have got to bear some burden for this because God will not be mocked,” he said. “And when we destroy 40 million little innocent babies, we make God mad. I really believe that the pagans and the abortionists and the feminists and the gays and the lesbians who are actively trying to make that an alternative lifestyle … all of them who have tried to secularise America. I point the finger in their face and say, ‘You helped this happen.’”
He later apologised for those remarks.
Falwell dated his political activism to the Supreme Court’s Roe v. Wade ruling that established a woman’s right to an abortion. “Believing life begins at conception, I became very exercised over this,” he said.
In the late 1970s, Paul Weyrich, widely considered as the guru of the modern conservative movement, Terry Dolan, Richard Viguerie, the godfather of conservative direct mail, and Howard Phillips tapped televangelist Falwell to head up the Moral Majority. Over the years, as Falwell became more controversial and influential politically, he became a favoured guest on cable television’s news programmes.
With Falwell at the helm, the Moral Majority, founded in 1979, prospered. And, unlike some of his televangelist brethren who were severely wounded by sexual and financial scandals, Falwell’s enterprises prospered throughout the 1980s.
After the Moral Majority officially shut down in 1989, Pat Robertson’s Christian Coalition, Dr. James Dobson’s Focus on the Family, the Family Research Council and a host of other conservative Christian groups stepped into the breech. In 2004, Falwell, seeing a political opening and hoping to re-connect with his funding base, announced the formation of an organisation called the Moral Majority Coalition, which he characterised as a “21st century resurrection of the Moral Majority.”
In his early seventies, after recovering from a serious illness, Falwell focused on making the Christian liberal arts college, Liberty University, which he founded in 1971, his everlasting legacy. The 4,400-acre campus is home to 9,600 students, and another 15,000 are enrolled in its distance learning programme.
The mending-fences visit of Sen. John McCain to the Liberty University campus last year was an example of Falwell’s continued involvement in top-level Republican politics. His connection to the founding of the Pastor John Hagee’s lobbying group, Christian Zionist Christians United for Israel, also showed that Falwell wasn’t only about setting up multi-million dollar endowments and fashioning impressive real estate deals.
Nearly 30 years after entering the political fray, Falwell had formidable political clout up until his death.
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Bill Berkowitz is a longtime observer of the conservative movement. His column “Conservative Watch” documents the strategies, players, institutions, victories and defeats of the U.S. Right.