Jerry Falwell's Legacy

It's been over a week and a half since Jerry Falwell died. I've thought about him many times but between the trip to Ithaca NY and work and church obligations I haven't had the time to collect my thoughts til now. The truth is I'm kinda saddened by his passing.

Falwell had lost relevancy in later years as other preachers of the Religious Right had come to the fore, and I find myself thinking more about him in his death now than I did the last decade or so of his life. But his impact on me and all of us was huge.

I grew up hating Jerry Falwell. One of the first political buttons that I owned as a fledgling liberal activist was one that said "The Moral Majority is Neither." At that time, given how prevalent and powerful the Moral Majority was as a political and social force, Falwell acted as a sort of anti-beacon in shaping my identity. His exclusionary views on religion, family, and what it means to be an American were what I knew I did not want to be, and did not want my country to be.

At this stage in my life I've moved beyond defining myself by what one is against, in favor of a more positive identity. But I recognize the influence that Falwell had on my life, and am wistful that the "anti-beacon" is no more.

In thinking about Falwell now, I realize that his influence on me and us was even more profound that just my/our political views. Jerry Falwell is the reason why my job exists - not just to promote liberal religious views in public policy, but to promote religious views in the first place. While there historically has been a long tradition of religiously motivated political activism within the U.S., with Unitarians and Universalists being in the heart of it, by the 1980s the accepted practice had become to keep religion and politics separate. Those of us who were activists did so on a purely secular basis. Even those who were religious kept their religious beliefs separate from their political views (or pretended to).

When Falwell's Moral Majority started getting into politics a lot of people said, "Hey you can't do that!" But what he was doing was perfectly legal and in keeping with our country's founding traditions. We just hated that he was so effective at it. Falwell made religion relevant to society again, and for that I must give him a nod.

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Acknowledgments is made possible in part by generous support from the Fahs Collaborative