Putting America on the glory road

Judy Haiven March 9 1981

Putting America on the glory road

Judy Haiven March 9 1981

Putting America on the glory road


Judy Haiven

Who could doubt the sincerity— and the stamina—of the crowd at this fundamentalist bit of show business. Two thousand people came despite the chill winds and squalor of downtown Trenton, N.J., to sway and sing along in yet another Jerry Falwell I Love America Rally— his 33rd of the past 12 months. Flanked by a forest of red, white and blue streamers and American flags, the man in the blue three-piece suit watched approvingly as his choir, the Liberty Baptist College Singers, sang I Love America while stepping neatly in time up and down the steps of the state capital building. “Free to worship as we please . . . that’s why I love America.” Then they each raised one arm out to the side: “America, America.” The other arm stretched up, and both reached out for the grand finish: “The land I love. Americaaa.”

The three-piece suit rose and approached the dias. Preacher Jerry Falwell, as usual, minced no words: “It is time that we join our efforts to turn this nation back to God. ... We do not like the moral drift of our nation. We cannot allow vulgar, profane humanists to control history—” On cue, the choir of two dozen fresh faces burst into the Battle Hymn of the Republic. “Everyone join

hands,” Falwell exhorted.“Homosexuals join hands too. . . . Oh, you have already.” The crowd laughed at the reference to the small counter-demonstration on the fringe of the rally. A few polite protesters carried signs: GAY RIGHTS MEAN HUMAN RIGHTS, SUPPORT THE ERA and JERRY’S MANSION IS ON EARTH.

Jerry’s $80,000 mansion is, in fact, in Lynchburg, Va., right beside a house once put up for sale with the come-on: “Only $100,000. Live next door to Jerry

Registering millions of voters and telling them which are good guys and which are bad

Falwell.” Falwell is a legend in Lynchburg, as he is to an audience of some 25 million across the Caribbean, Canada and the United States, where his OldTime Gospel Hour is carried weekly on 673 radio and TV stations. He has become the figurehead of the fundamentalist New Right—Richard Nixon’s Silent Majority roused at last to forceful articulation by the persistent and malignant godlessness of American society. He may not exactly have delivered Washington to Ronald Reagan singlehanded last November, but he and his Moral Majority did round up millions of votes for the victor. It’s an impressive

record for a man raised on the secular glories of baseball and practical jokes— jokes that cost him a seat at his high school graduation ceremony. Although religion is a serious subject in southwestern Virginia, young Falwell’s aspirations ran more to mechanical engineering and even professional baseball. But, as the numerous slick pamphlets produced by the church explain, he was converted to Christianity in his sophomore year at Lynchburg College (inspired by radio preacher Charles Fuller), and “after two days in [training] camp Jerry rejected the call of the St. Louis Cardinals and accepted the call of God.” After Lynchburg College, Falwell went on to graduate from the Baptist Bible College at Springfield, Mo., then started his ministry in a building abandoned by the Donald Duck Bottling Co. In 25 years that first congregation of 35 people has grown to 17,000, the largest in the United States. His operating budget last year was $56 million, and his empire includes the Thomas Road Baptist Church, elementary and high schools and a seminary, all in Lynchburg. “They used to call us the Donald Duck Baptist Church,” Falwell laughs. “Now we reach more people than Lawrence Welk.”

Falwell shunned politics until relatively recently. He founded the Moral Majority in June, 1979, in close association with Paul Weyrich, the prominent New Right ideologue instrumental in the creation of two other fundamentalist organizations: Christian Voice, the most radical of the New Right groups, headed by a former official of Rev. Sun Myung Moon’s Unification Church; and Religious Roundtable, a small group of prominent preachers and New Right politicians that seeks to guide the political course of the entire fundamentalist movement. “It’s not going to do any good to register millions of voters and then not tell them who the good guys are and who the bad guys are,” says Weyrich. “We’re talking about Christianizing America.”

“Good ole Jerry,” as Falwell calls himself, has never faltered in his leap into the political battle, unlike other TV preachers like Pat Robertson of The 700 Club and Jim Bakker of The PTL Club, who flirted only briefly with politics in 1980 before withdrawing their active support from candidates. Not only did Falwell back Reagan to the end, but many of the liberal senators and congressmen on his “hit list,” like George McGovern, Frank Church and Birch Bayh, went down like dominoes.

Now, far from content with sitting on the election results, the Moral Majority intends to transform its thoughts and words into deeds. Among these are the nation’s return to military and political pre-eminence in the world, the outlawing of abortion, putting prayer back into schools, suppressing homosexuals and clamping down on pornography. From the pulpit of his Lynchburg church Falwell has called for a return to the “McCarthy era, where we register all Communists.... We should stamp it on their foreheads and send them back to Russia.” Liberals and free-thinkers may perceive the man and his following as the latest incarnation of H.L. Mencken’s “booboisie,” with a dangerous pat of autocracy on the complexion, but the $1 million in pledges that the mail brings Falwell every week indicates the broad support across the country for his version of the American dream.

Indeed, Falwell’s crusade has polarized Americans in one of the fiercest debates in recent history. The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) bought a full-page advertisement in The New York Times just after the election, for $20,000, with a headline reading: IF THE MORAL MAJORITY HAS ITS WAY, YOU’D BETTER START PRAYING. Columnist Jack Anderson wrote: “Moral Majority endorsed one congressman who was caught soliciting sex and another who was photographed accepting a bribe. Apparently the Moral Majority admired them more for their conservative politics than their Christian morality.” Falwell’s theological selectiveness has attracted further denunciation. Con-

gressman Paul Simon of Illinois, a target of the fundamentalist right’s rating game, recalls the judgment day scene in Matthew 25, “. .. where Christ lists the questions we will be asked: Did you help the hungry? Did you give water to the thirsty? Did you provide clothes to those needing them? Did you take care of the sick? Did you show concern for those in prison?” Simon argues that Falwell and his associates are reluctant to address these questions. “Somehow they improvised on that almost 2,000year-old list so none of the original concerns [are] reflected.”

But the most spectacular attack on the Moral Majority has come in a series of slick prime-time TV ads by producerwriter Norman Lear, who wrote, “The

danger of the religious New Right... is that they attack the integrity and character of anyone who does not stand with them.”

Falwell takes the criticism all in his stride. Well over six feet tall, with a serious demeanor and smooth delivery, he radiates authority. He is the picture of the family man, with a wife and three teen-age children. He sports a bronze Jesus First lapel pin (“You get two absolutely free when you write or call the Old-Time Gospel Hour”) and a stickpin of Old Glory. He draws the line at smoking, drinking, dancing, the movies and TV shows like Three's Company and Charlie 's Angels.

Falwell’s world of church-as-bigbusiness is supported almost entirely by donations, which are coaxed in many ways. For $10 a month, a viewer of the

Old-Time Gospel Hour can become a “faith partner,” receiving Falwell’s monthly newsletter and a gold Jesus First lapel pin. For a single donation, a viewer becomes a “prayer warrior,” which means he sends in his name and indicates which five-minute period in the day he will set aside to pray for the ministry. Or the viewer can join the I Love America Club, which issues a monthly Clean Up America Hotline Report, and lets members know where and when Falwell will be preaching. More than 10,000 students are enrolled in his Liberty Home Bible Study course for $23 a month. The money flows in. Eight years ago, the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) charged the church with “fraud and deceit” and “gross insolvency” in one of its fund-raising efforts. Falwell repaid the $6.6 million in question and allowed his financial operations to be monitored by a committee of Lynchburg residents until 1978 as part of the SEC settlement.

Falwell has been criticized as a racist toward Jews and blacks, charges that he rejects vehemently: “The Jews are the chosen people of God. I’m walking around blessing them wherever I go.” But last spring at an I Love America Rally, he told his audience: “I know why you don’t like the Jew; he can make more money accidentally than you can make on purpose.” Falwell protested that the well-publicized remark was just a joke, but some Jewish leaders see it in the same light as a comment by Falwell’s cohort Bailey Smith, president of the Southern Baptist Convention, who recently said, “Almighty God does not hear the prayer of the Jew.” Rabbi Alexander Schindler, president of the Union of American Hebrew Congregations, told a San Francisco meeting of Jewish leaders recently that it was “no coincidence that the rise of right-wing Christian fundamentalism has been accompanied by the most serious outbreak of anti-Semitism in America since World War II.” Nevertheless, last November Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin decorated Falwell for his “service to Israel” in assisting immigration to that country. As for blacks, Falwell asserts that his church has been open to them since its earliest days, but one Lynchburg area minister, who demands to remain anonymous says, “I’ve heard him in person say his church is for whites only.” Few blacks attend the church.

Falwell has already gone farther along the road to political power than any evangelist in U.S. history, in which the division between church and state has never really been accepted. Does Falwell intend to take the final plunge and go for political office? He answers with a smile, “No, I can fight better from the outside.”