Monday, May 21, 2007

Jerry Falwell

Say what you will about the Reverend Jerry Falwell, he was an American original. I have mixed feelings about his public life. When I was becoming an aware citizen in the late 1970s and early 1980s, he was ascending to the top of his power. Like so many of that age in that age, I found him appalling. Not just in his politics, but in his very appearance and mannerisms. With his expensive suits, excessive waistline, and smooth delivery, he seemed almost the very personification of Elmer Gantry. Years later, I understand that it is important to ask not just whether a person is an Elmer Gantry, but why the cultural industry finds it so easy to generate archetypes like Elmer Gantry – a corrupt, clownish evangelist – in ways that it does not for corrupt people of the left. (Michael Moore, for example, practically cries out for satire, but there are no takers in the temples of the opinion manufacturers.)

Clearly, much of what Reverend Falwell promoted in the political arena is anathema to those who believe in freedom and limited government. The notion that the state should be the tip of the spear for enforcing personal morality is bad both for society and for the success of that morality, which are largely accept. And yet I feel America is much healthier for his having energized the constituency of evangelical Christians – whether they are an actual “moral majority” or not – who felt helplessly trod upon by a secular culture hostile to all they believed in and stood for, and which used the universities and the courts to promulgate this hostility. In most of Europe, such questions as whether abortion is infanticide and whether promotion of gay marriage is bad for society are completely off the table. To American proponents of such views, this is a sign of European enlightenment. But I think a better characterization is that in Europe the elites have decided these questions for the citizenry, while in America some notion of self-government is still intact. And the popular media was occasionally grossly unfair to him, for example in the controversy over his remarks about that Teletubby with the purple outfit and the purse that was advancing the gay agenda. (It turns out that there were significant references, not least among friends of the gay-rights movement, to Tinky-Winky as a minor-league icon of that movement well before Reverend Falwell made his remarks, for which he later self- deprecatingly apologized.)

He and his success were signs of a civically active society, not yet ground down by the relentless wheels of the cultural elite, who seek to install their own constraints on individual freedom in the name of multiculturalism, enforced secularism, etc. He will be missed, not least for the reasons that once caused me to dislike him so.


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