May 22, 2017


The Theology Beneath the Trump-Comey Conflict : How the former FBI director's interest in Reinhold Niebuhr shaped his approach to political power. (STEVEN WEITZMAN, MAY 19, 2017, Christianity Today)

Submitted in 1982, Comey's thesis compares Niebuhr and Jerry Falwell. At the time, the televangelist had emerged as a central figure in American politics following the election of Ronald Reagan. Comey's study was an effort to understand how each man would answer the question: "Why should the Christian be involved in politics?"

Niebuhr and Falwell came from opposite sides of the political spectrum. One, a former socialist and--despite his support for the Cold War--an early opponent of the Vietnam War, believing it an obligation to be critical of American actions that were unjust. The other, a staunch opponent to socialism and a supporter of the Vietnam War.

As the co-founder of the Moral Majority, Falwell espoused the kind of America-first patriotism that Niebuhr condemned.

Opposition to the Vietnam War--acceptance of communist regimes--is the politics of America First.

Jerry Falwell's opposition to all communist regimes was quintessentially globalist.  Indeed, with its mix of capitalism, democracy and proterstantism, Falwell's was the theology of the End of History : How the Ghost of Jerry Falwell Conquered the Republican Party (MICHAEL SEAN WINTERS, March 5, 2012, New Republic)

Even before the 1980s, evangelicals had long supported free market economics and a strong foreign policy. Their commitment to both capitalism and a strong military was rooted in their pronounced anti-communism. Earlier evangelical preachers such as Carl McIntire in the 1950s had voiced their enthusiasm for Senator Joseph McCarthy's anti-communist witch hunts. But for Falwell, the links between capitalism, foreign policy, and religion ran especially deep.

Falwell's laissez-faire economic views stemmed from a particular theological perspective: his hostility to the Social Gospel movement. During the first decades of the twentieth century, liberal Protestant pastors, such as Walter Rauschenbusch, had encouraged Christians to move beyond traditional charitable concern for the poor and to support the social welfare state as an ethical matter. Falwell strongly opposed this position. In 1965, he delivered a sermon entitled "Ministers and Marches," in which (ironically) he criticized Martin Luther King and other preachers for being too politically engaged. The sermon was printed in leaflet form to assure its widespread distribution. In that sermon, Falwell condemned the Social Gospel movement as unbiblical. "Education, medicine, social reform, and all the other external ministries cannot meet the needs of the human soul and spirit," he told his congregation. For Falwell and other fundamentalists, efforts to improve this world detracted from the effort to attain the next.

Still, Falwell ended up backing into an exception to his lack of concern with worldly matters: anti-communism. Two years after his "Ministers and Marches" sermon, he placed advertisements in a local newspaper for two Sunday evening sermons on "godless Communism" at Thomas Road Baptist Church in Virginia. Several years later, in 1975, Falwell's commitment to American exceptionalism, in contradistinction to communism and European-style socialism, manifested itself in a series of "I Love America" rallies. He would fly the choir from his school, then called Lynchburg Baptist College, around the country, invite local pastors and their congregations, erect a flag-bedecked stage on the steps of the state capitol building, and give an address filled with the kind of encomiums to American exceptionalism that Sarah Palin would later make a staple of her stump speech. Reagan, too, expounded a version of American exceptionalism, but it was Falwell who gave it the distinctly religious character it enjoys today, which sees the American founding as a quasi-salvific event and treats the constitution as a semi-sacred text. "The United States Constitution has as its cornerstone the Ten Commandments," Falwell told his television audience in March 1976. "I was reading the Constitution this week. It is a masterpiece. I don't believe it was written under divine inspiration like the Bible, but I indeed believe it was inspired. ... There's no question about it, this nation was intended to be a Christian nation by our founding fathers."

When Falwell finally decided to jump into the political fray by forming the Moral Majority in 1979, the group's political platform had four over-arching themes. It would be pro-life, pro-family, pro-moral, and pro-American. This last theme entailed support for a tough U.S. foreign policy. An early piece of Moral Majority literature warned against an "unprecedented lack of leadership" with the "danger of capitulation to the Soviet Union a very possible result." In the South, where Franklin Roosevelt had often located new military bases as a way to secure the support of conservative southern senators for other parts of his political agenda, the military was becoming a central part of the culture--more so than in other regions of the country. The South was also, of course, the evangelicals' geographic base. All of this made it the perfect environment for Falwell's marriage of conservative theology and hawkish foreign policy.

Many commentators voiced alarm when President Reagan, in a press conference on his ninth day in office, denounced d├ętente with the Soviet Union. In fact, he was using words that could have been lifted from any of a number of Falwell's sermons or from the preacher's 1980 book Listen, America, which included a chapter on fighting communism. Here was Reagan: "I know of no leaders of the Soviet Union since the revolution, and including the present leadership, that has not more than once repeated in the various Communist congresses they hold their determination that their goal must be the promotion of world revolution and a one-world Socialist or Communist state, whichever word you want to use." And here was Falwell on the same subject: "The Soviets have always had one goal, and that is to destroy capitalistic society. They are a nation committed to communism and to destroying the American way of life." What's more, the fear of a one-world state--which Reagan alluded to--had important implications in the universe of fundamentalist thought. A 1980 mailing from Falwell's "Old-Time Gospel Hour" warned that the time of Tribulation foretold in the Bible would witness a "Russian invasion of Israel" (although Russia is not mentioned in the Bible), and warned that "A powerful ruler, led by Satan and referred to as the Anti-christ, will rise to power. After leading the nations to form an alliance to help preserve the world system, he will break the treaty and be responsible for persecuting the nation of Israel and leading the last great battle against the forces of God in the battle of Armageddon."

In the spring of 1981, the newly installed Reaganites made the decision to lead with their economic agenda, not with the divisive social issues like abortion and gay rights that were understood to be the principal concern of Christian conservatives. Some interviewers were surprised when Falwell told them he endorsed this decision. "I don't think the president is sidestepping the moral and the social issues," he explained on "Face the Nation." "I think he wants to give [his economic agenda] the full shot." But Falwell did more than support Reagan's decision to emphasize economic issues. He also lent him cover for his proposed cutbacks in social programs. "We must be sensitive to the fact that we cannot ignore the presence and the needs of the poor among us," Falwell said in that same interview, "and I think that is where the churches must quickly move in, particularly conservative churches of which I am a part, and fill the vacuum that no doubt the country can no longer fill."

For Falwell, then, being a social conservative was not simply a matter of denouncing abortion and gay rights. It also meant fealty to laissez-faire economics and to an aggressive foreign policy. But even as he was helping to make evangelicals into hard-right fiscal conservatives and foreign policy hawks, Falwell was also doing something else: giving them permission to form alliances with other religious groups. Before Falwell, fundamentalists were warned against being "yoked" with non-believers, and a "non-believer" was anyone who did not share the core beliefs of evangelical Protestantism. Mormons, Catholics, and most liberal Protestants did not make the cut. But, after reading Francis Schaeffer's teachings on "co-belligerency"--the idea that believers and non-believers could cooperate--Falwell came to see the necessity of working with non-fundamentalist but conservative believers of other creeds. This newfound awareness of ecumenical possibilities came to Falwell in the late 1970s, just as he was being encouraged to get politically involved by GOP operatives. If Simon the Cyrene could help Jesus carry his cross, Mormons and conservative Catholics and fundamentalist Baptists could join forces to defeat liberalism. In the early years of the Moral Majority, Falwell would brag that a third of the group's members were Roman Catholic.

Posted by at May 22, 2017 7:40 AM