I graduated from Liberty University in 2003 and for several years whenever someone new would learn this new “factoid” about me, I would have to endure several minutes of Jerry Falwell bashing. I would do then as I do now (the occasions where the need arises) and listen politely until the person finished, generally ending their diatribe with a smile as if they did not just spend the last few minutes tearing apart a good man’s character but instead simply asked me for directions. When they were finished, I would take a deep breath and respond with a similar statement each time; “Oftentimes a person’s perspective can be distorted by a biased media. The Dr. Falwell I knew, was kind, gregarious, gentle, loving, generous, and I never heard him say a bad word about anyone. In fact, quite the opposite, I often heard him speak generously about a political opponent or debate foe. I have personally witnessed him pour kindness out onto those the media would tell you that he hated. I think you have the wrong picture of who Jerry Falwell was.”
I believe this wholeheartedly, Dr. Jerry Falwell was a gracious and loving man who sought to make the world a better more loving place while he was here. However, that doesn’t mean I completely agree with his methods or philosophy. In 1976, Jimmy Carter won the executive office by a nose… just over 1.6 million votes separated him from President Ford. President Carter’s win came by way of the “Evangelical” vote of which Carter won 40%. That may seem like a loss, but no Democrat candidate had fared as well among Protestant evangelicals in over 50 years. During the Carter Presidency leaders (like Dr. Falwell) on the Right engaged and educated their constituents on the importance of “social issues” in the political spectrum. These groups, with the Moral Majority at the forefront, actively and very publicly engaged the culture and the media with the gospel of social conservatism. In doing so they galvanized the white evangelical population, turning them out to give President Ronald Reagan 80% of their vote in his 1980 victory. The Moral Majority was a resounding success in the sense that they delivered an immediate victory to the Republican Party, and have been firmly ensconced as the base of the party for the last 30 years.
I would argue, however, that the Moral Majority while a short term success has been a longterm failure. I believe that our focus on changing laws and siding publicly with one party over another has not only hurt our political value, but it has become an extreme hindrance to our “true” mission here on this earth. Our vociferous engagement with the political realm has served to turn an entire generation away from our churches because when they look at us what they see is politics. I don’t mean to argue that we should not be fighting for conservative social values, I mean to say that the arena we have been fighting in for the last 30 years is the wrong one. We were supposed to be fighting in the arena of culture and on the streets where the people live instead we took a wrong turn and ended up miles away in the arena of politics and on the streets where politicians and corporations sell themselves to the highest bidder. In the New Testament Jesus teaches us that we are to be good citizens of whatever nation we find ourselves, and contextually for us it means that we should be active participants in our political process because in the American system, a good citizen is an active citizen. But there is a greater calling and that is to be making disciples – if our involvement in the political world is hindering our work in the spiritual realm… then we must reevaluate what we are doing.
In my opinion, legislating morality is not possible. Perhaps one could argue that any legislation is a legislation of morality, but I think we can agree that common and accepted moral legislation (like laws against murder, rape, theft, etc) generally have one party being hurt or at least impinged on by another. What we have learned in the last 30 years is that even with conservative government in power and with conservative laws being passed across the nation our citizens have only become more immoral. Could any of this be because the church has focused their energies on politics and laws when we should have been focusing on hearts and souls? If even a tiny portion of this is true, we must reevaluate what we are doing. Should their be a monolithic Christian response to immigration reform? Probably not. Should their be a monolithic Christian response to tax hikes, spending issues, and politicians salaries? Not unless it’s a Biblical imperative. How about with social issues? Should we, who argue that the best politics for a nation are ideals grounded in “freedom of”, be encouraging laws to limit behavior that does not inherently infringe on our own rights? I would argue not. I think prostitution, homosexuality, and addiction to drugs (addiction to anything for that matter) is sin, but someone else’s practice of it does me no harm. I would not want my rights restricted because the majority of the population found my practices distasteful, and I think we set a dangerous precedent when we argue to limit the rights of others because of our own morality. (Just in case someone were to bring up an objection citing abortion, I believe abortion is murder and should be prosecuted as such. For this reason, I do not view abortion as a “social issue”. )
I love Dr. Falwell and I am so thankful for the ministry he had on this earth… though he is gone, I know that his work is still changing lives for the better. I may disagree with his method, or even his philosophy – but I know the work he did was in the hopes of making this world a better place. But I think that there is a better way, there must be a better way – because the Christian church in America is hemorrhaging influence and we have to stop the bleeding. We should be in the business of changing the world for the better, I would argue the best way to do that is not through political action, per se… but through engaging hearts and minds with the Gospel. The church in America needs to examine itself and readjust the focus, laws don’t’ change culture the Gospel does.