Wednesday, May 16, 2007

Jerry Falwell (or, How I Joined the Moral Majority, But Never Did Learn to Love the Bomb)

So Jerry Falwell is dead. Some have suggested that it would have been sweet retribution for him to discover that there is no afterlife, but I don’t suppose he is discovering anything at all at this point. (Maybe that’s just as well for Jerry, since Westboro Baptist insists he is in Hell, for which they are praising their God, who seems to be even more nasty, petty and hate-filled than Falwell’s.)

30 years ago, while a Canadian teenage student at a US university, I inadvertently joined the newly minted Moral Majority. I was, in fact, a Christian at the time (a few years post-conversion). However, even though my religious inclinations at the time were evangelical, my political leanings were decidedly liberal, pacifist, and even socialist on many issues. I had a subscription to Christianity Today, and there Falwell posted a survey soliciting opinions about the sorry moral state of the US. As I recall, there were questions about prayer in schools (I was opposed), priority of arms spending (I thought there should be less), and sex education (I thought it should be retained and improved in schools, and added a written comment that it should be in churches as well). Much to my surprise, a few weeks later I received a letter thanking me for having joined the Moral Majority! Maybe they only counted envelopes received, and didn’t bother actually looking at the content of the responses.

Whatever the cause, I was now on Jerry’s mailing list. Jerry apparently had lots of money, as he got his hands on a mail generator that would automatically insert the name and location of the addressee at strategic points in the email. Of course, this sort of thing is old hat now, but was rather amusing to see in its primitive state – the letters appeared to have been pre-printed with the bulk of the text, then the personalizations were inserted, often in a slightly different font, and not quite lined up (eg: …you, Theo Bromine, at your home in Cambridge, Massachusetts, 02139…). Before moving to the more recent rhetoric of blaming gays and liberals for 9/11, Jerry spent his time trying to goad his “Moral Majority” into supporting the Military Industrial Complex, stating that God was showing his growing dissatisfaction with America’s lack of commitment to him as evidenced by the fact that the US was falling behind the USSR in military supremacy.

I suppose Falwell (and his preacher cronies from the 1980s) made a significant contribution to my slide from evangelical Christianity to a more liberal faith, and thence to my current position of provisional atheism. Whenever I told someone I was a Christian, I always felt obligated to add the disclaimer that I was not *that* sort of Christian, thus bringing a new meaning to the term “apologetics”. Unlike Christopher Hitchens, I don’t think that Falwell was really a cynical unbeliever just using the trappings of religion to gain personal wealth and power – I think Falwell sincerely believed in most of what he did and said. On the other hand, I think that existence and relative prosperity of people like Falwell is evidence *against* a loving personal god.

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