Re-reading Southern Religious Literature
A Roundtable Discussion on Jerry Falwell's Listen, America!  (New York: Bantam Books, 1980)
Edited by Ted Ownby, University of Mississippi

This roundtable begins a new Journal of Southern Religion feature in which scholars will read and review or respond to older books that played important parts in the history of southern religious life.  The authors do not read each other's works.  Nor do they have the assignment of writing a history of the book, its author, or the broader setting or issues.  Instead, they simply have the job of saying what they think when they read a particular book.  The editors welcome suggestions for future roundtables.

Virtually everyone who studies southern religion has something to say about Jerry Falwell, but my impression is that only a few have actually read and analyzed his written work.  Published in 1980, Listen, America! was the first book in which Falwell, already a rising star in broadcasting, church-building, and what had come to be called the Religious Right, spelled out his ideas.  The first reviewer is Samuel S. Hill, Jr., Professor Emeritus at the University of Florida, who has since the 1960s been the author and editor of some of the most influential works on southern religion and its history.  The second is Lauren F. Winner of the Duke Divinity School, author of three books about religious life and a scholar of, among other things, religion and the material culture of colonial Virginia.  The third is Richard H. King of the University of Nottingham, author of important works on southern intellectual history, ideas of race, and the civil rights movement.

-Ted Ownby

Sam Hill, Professor Emeritus, The University of Florida 

Not so often does one get to reflect in print on a single book published twenty-six years earlier.  Is the product desirably a retrospective, a “review,” an evaluation of its cultural or literary impact, or what exactly?  Listen, America!, the Rev. Jerry Falwell's influential contribution to the emergence of the Christian Right, is in certain significant ways a classic.  Critics from the majority of the nation's literary and religious public notwithstanding, one could hardly identify a more provocative, social/political work.

Falwell's leadership, already in evidence when this book appeared, was boosted by this publication's delineation of the movement's essence.  The term, “Moral Majority” had become reasonably common currency by 1980, but this work, in league with numerous pamphlets, books, and television presentations, made its use universal.  The man himself, age 47 when it came out, had brought himself, the congregation he started, and the movement that became virtually synonymous with his name, out of obscurity and improbable stature to national prominence.

While it is tempting to discuss only the Christian Right itself, this book deserves some disciplined focus.  First, it realigned American Protestant Fundamentalism, an unorganized, goal-specific crusade that appeared between 1900 and 1925 to do battle with Protestant liberalism.  Its spokesmen [sic] defended biblical veracity against the naturalistic claims of science, the social sciences, and literary criticism.  Its roots thrived in the “northern” environment of intellectualism, immigration, and urban progress.  Listen, America! led the way, mobilizing a new politically active, grass-roots body of conservative Protestants predominantly (though far from exclusively) in the southern belt.  There had been little occasion to challenge “modernism” from Virginia to the southwest much earlier.  But by declaring a somewhat new agenda, Falwell's book did contribute heavily to realignment.  Only in the crusade's second generation did it fret itself much with the life of the mind (although the issue of textual and conceptual authority is ground zero to all forms of Fundamentalism).

Family ethics and sexual ethics wrested first position from the insidious modernist thinking that provoked original Fundamentalism.  The regional base of that shift is something of a surprise; southern religious culture had long nourished a tilt toward existential concerns rather than essentialist ones.  That is, while there was little subscription to or patience for unorthodox doctrine, in the final analysis Christians of that persuasion did not live and die by conceptual purity, rather, by embodying the Christian message in direct personal experience of God and living righteous lives.  What Falwell insisted on was what we may call “pre-religious” laws and regulations, an instance of essentialist thinking.

The term “pre-religious” points to certain modes of conduct and several irrevocable truths that are held to be simply in the nature of things, in the stars, as we say.   They do not need to be acclaimed as central in Holy Scripture or require consensus from religious traditions.  In Hans W. Frei's words, Christian leaders who think this way see “the ‘real' world as autonomous from and prior to biblical description.”  (The Eclipse of the Biblical Narrative, p. 37)  Thus, claiming that a law or system is eternally true needs no confirmation, and certainly does not invite discourse.

The organization of human life into families stands as a transcendent propriety and demanding of highest priority; similarly, heterosexual relationships.  Whether the biblical text makes much of any such teaching or whether other forms of living are approval-worthy deserves no hearing.  Moreover, when the Bible is read this way, any passage that just might be interpreted as condemning an act or a mode of living, notably homosexuality, is apt to be universally understood that way; for example, regarding the Sodom and Gomorrah story found in Genesis as a divine stricture against “sodomy”.

Accordingly, method precedes textual accuracy and contextual scrutiny.  Such thinking proclaims these certain truths to be self-evident. In Listen, America! we are clearly dealing with a form of natural law, an organon that has not been characteristic of biblical literalist thinking or conservative theological work in the past.  Let us notice that this is not straightforward classic natural law theory, rather a particular—perhaps innovative—form of it.  As many have pointed out, Christian reasoning of any such sort reflects the demystification or disenchantment of spiritual truth (think Max Weber), and amounts to the modernizing of classic religious thought toward modes that have defined mathematics and the natural sciences.  Ironic this is; but to think this way, as do Falwell and his philosophical brethren, is to preclude any awareness of the category of irony.

This discussion so far has seemed to ignore the exact wording of the book's title.  It stands as a modern-day national jeremiad.  Falwell calls America to its senses, to its heritage, and to its divine vocation.  What prompted the appearance and widespread acceptance of this message?  Without question, the rebellion against traditional mores and morals that were a feature of the 1960s played a large part.  But this cry is to America, not just its people but also, most profoundly, to its social-political reification.  Falwell refers to Communism repeatedly in this passionate statement.  The Cold War was still raging in 1980.  Nuclear capability belonged to the Soviet Union as well as to the U.S.  Ronald Reagan had not yet come to office—nor Mikhail Gorbachev.  But a national messianic leader was surely to be lifted by the God of the universe.  Briefly, Falwell hoped that his fellow Baptist, President Carter, might be that figure, but Carter let him down.  Rarely has a national candidate for political office been as exalted, virtually deified, as Ronald Reagan was.  The troops of the Moral Majority were fully enlisted.  The stature granted to Reagan had greatly to do with his palpable certainty of American destiny.  A divorcee, and in no evident way a worshiping Christian, he was given a clean bill of moral health by the organized forces of the Christian Right.

Falwell's version of natural law totally certified Reagan and the emergent form of Republicanism.  Free-enterprise capitalism, one of that president's signature issues, is in the stars, is a law of the universe, is the economic end of history.  Biblical texts are adduced to prove that point—through what has to be assessed as overreach, really, distortion.  Much of what was wrong with the world in the era of this book had to do with economic theory.   The case does not need making for the veracity of that insistence; free market economics is of God and for his chosen nation, through his new Israel to all societies.  (This is hardly the only appearance of Israel in the agenda.)

Thus, Listen, America! develops an agenda beyond family, sexuality, right to life, pornography, and feminism.  This nation is enjoined to practice liberty, a resurgent Falwell value, liberty from degraded human behavior, social as well as personal, for the realization of America's high (divine) calling in the world.

America listened, and millions heard.  And, in different forms, the message is still resonating.  Not a bad day's work for a preacher from a small city in central Virginia.

Lauren F. Winner, Duke University Divinity School

“Can America survive the 1980s?”  That is the apocalyptically-inflected question that booms forth from the back cover of the 1981 Bantam paperback edition of Jerry Falwell's Listen, America!  In this anxious tract, Falwell warns that the U.S. might, in fact, not survive, that God will unleash His judgment upon the United States unless we shape up.  By now, this sort of rhetoric is just what we expect from Falwell, who described 9/11 as a punishment for our embrace of paganism and the People for the American Way, and who, after Hurricane Katrina, welcomed Franklin Graham to his church, where Graham insisted that Katrina was a fitting tribulation for a nation given over to “satanic worship” and “sexual perversion” (John F. Harris, “God Gave U.S. 'What We Deserve,'” Washington Post, Sept. 14, 2001; Anne Blythe, Some Condemn Graham's Remarks, Raleigh News & Observer, Oct. 9, 2005).

Well, we did survive the 1980s.  Still, when historians centuries hence right a moral history of the United States, they may, with Falwell, look upon the 1980s as a turning point—though for different reasons.  Falwell was unable to prophesy (or, much more likely, was untroubled by) the way that Reaganomics, with its pernicious iteration of social Darwinism, would affect the American soul.  Nor did he seem worried about the ways that corporations would extend their dominance of American society during the 1980s.  Falwell was much more worried about the welfare state (which he believed was bankrupting, financially and morally, the country), divorce, abortion, homosexuality, government interference in family life, and, in general, America's wholesale abandonment of its religious roots. 

Let's face it: subjecting this book to a caustic litany of errors is easy work.  To take one obvious example:  Russia did not lead an end-times charge against Israel.

Still, Listen, America! is worth consideration, if only because Falwell prefigures so many of the themes that the Religious Right would continue to sound, to the present day.  His concern about education, for instance:  “Parents have the primary right and responsibility to educate their children according to the philosophy of their choice without government interference or financial penalty” (117).  That sentence not only reflects a debate over integration that was not exactly in the distant past at the time Falwell wrote; it also anticipated subsequent policy debates about school vouchers. 

Similarly, his critique of television has prescience—though perhaps none of us, in 1980, could have really foreseen how entertainment technologies like cellphones, TV, iPods, and personal computers would reshape American society.  Still, the limits of Falwell's critique continue to play out in the Religious Right's approach to technology today.  His appraisal focuses on the content of television—game-shows stoke desires in housewives for things they can't have, and Anita Bryant is the butt of jokes on too many sit-coms.  He does not extend his critique to the medium itself—there's no hint of Marshall McLuhan (who happened to die the year Listen, America! hit the shelves).  Far from suggesting that the medium is the message, Falwell concludes his anti-television diatribe with a defense of the technology itself: media like television will be the principal ways that Christians communicate the Gospel to unbelievers, writes Falwell.  “Television is a form of media that can be used very positively” (170).  Here, Falwell is representative of American evangelical approaches to technology throughout the twentieth century—from Aimee Semple McPherson's preaching sermons over the radio to Billy Graham's and Oral Roberts's embrace of TV, evangelicals have been, and continue to be, quite happy to exploit the newest technology to tell that old, old story.

Finally, it is worth reviewing Falwell's framework for thinking about gender.  In his chapter about the demise of “the American family,” he quotes at length from an article by Judy Mann.  Mann, lamenting the circumstances of latch-key kids, envisages a bold solution: not to roll back the clock and remove all women from the paid workplace, but to consider “more part-time work for fathers and mothers, through more flextime, through parental leave of absence, though the thirty-hour work week, parental co-operatives, and other forms of sharing child-raising responsibilities”—a myriad of possible structures that would “free more of our time to raise our children” (110). 

Surprised that Falwell quotes that passage?  I was, too.  Then I kept reading.  Though he endorses Mann's concerns about the impact of working mothers, Falwell states very clearly that the solution to America's ills will not come from socialistic parental co-ops or well-paying part-time work for “fathers and mothers.”  No, it will only come from a widespread return to the biblical plan in which the husband is “the decisionmaker.” [sic]  (Here, by the way, Falwell anticipates the Promise Keepers movement:  “Until men are in right relationship with God, there is no hope for righting our families of our nation” (111).

He goes on to explain that “mothering”—“the most important function on earth” —is “a full-time . . . task.”  (111)  So Judy Mann went off-course when she called for part-time work options for mothers, and when she suggested that fathers might be centrally involved in the day-to-day tasks of parenting. 

Falwell's focus on gender is hardly surprising—surely angst about feminism has come to be one of the hallmarks of evangelicalism.  What is noteworthy here is the way that Falwell's particular vision for gender is as historically distorted as his claims about the religious foundations of America.  For implicit in his critique of feminism is the notion that feminism undid a timeless order of things:  Prior to the founding of NOW, American women stayed at home with their children, and if we could just eviscerate this newfangled women's lib movement, we could go back to the way things have always been, with women giving their full attention to their children.

Fair enough, of course, to note that second-wave feminism ushered many women who had not before worked outside the home into the paid workforce, especially into the ranks of the professions.  Beyond that, however, Falwell is fantasizing, imagining a past that never was, or never was beyond the Eisenhower years.  Falwell needs to read a few historical works like Laurel Thatcher Ulrich's A Midwife's Tale and then try to describe women's lives “before feminism.”  In eighteenth-century, predominately agrarian America, were women principally “at home”?  Sure.  So were men.  And, while household productivity was more or less gendered, women were not “at home” playing Baby Mozart with their tots.  They were making soap and weaving fabric and putting up preserves.  If Falwell wants to critique the ways the contemporary workplace is wrecking families, I would say amen—but that critique should begin not with an ahistorical romanticized view of gender in days gone by, but with the questioning of a capitalist system that demands ever more hours in the office from professional workers, and that has replaced the skilled productive work that once occupied most homes with unsatisfying domestic consumption.

“Are you talkin' to me?”
Richard H. King , University of Nottingham, UK

To start academically: Jerry Falwell's Listen, America! stands clearly in the tradition of the jeremiad, which was alive and well in America, even below the Mason-Dixon line circa 1980. But the contradictions masked (sort of) by the jeremiad are always fascinating. What sort of people are Americans, according to the forty-seven year old reverend? The gist of the book is that America is going to hell in a hand basket. The usual suspects are enumerated. The Soviet threat is evoked, though surprisingly not many Reds under the bed at home are discovered. The problem is really with us Americans: the faint hearts who believe in a “no-fight and no-win policy”(90), liberal dupes; pornographers, abortionists, feminists and homosexualists; materialists and secular humanists—the whole wild crew. Listen to the minister: “sin has permeated our land”(103) and “There have always been filthy books because there have always been filthy minds”(172). But if all this is the work of a corrupt majority, who then is the moral majority?  Later in the book, Falwell writes “America has been great because her people have been good”(213). Well, which are we—sinners or saints? Interestingly, since Falwell wants to start a movement, he doesn't appeal to the chosen few or a talented (Christian) tenth at home. The finger of suspicion points wildly in all directions but nowhere exactly. The point remains that the nation must return to “first principles” and to a “biblical basis (16).” I can imagine Jon Stewart with this material.

All this makes up the psycho-religious stew of guilt and greatness, innocence and corruption that the American jeremiad plays on/with. Since we are chosen, God chastises us and calls us back to the fold. The rest of that lot abroad aren't worth bothering with, except the Israelisone chapter is called “That Miracle Called Israel”—and they've shown what faith in God can do. “I firmly believe,” Falwell writes, “God has blessed America because America has blessed the Jew”(98). (Note the singular “the Jew.” Tricky thing these singulars and plurals, definite and indefinite articles when talking about the Jewish people.)

If Falwell speaks for the Moral Majority, it is no wonder US policy on Israel has ended up in the present dead-end. Twenty-six years later, Falwell remains a steadfast supporter of Israel—it's just that Jews, like Muslims (who are “heathens” and Muhammad a “terrorist”) and all the other infidels, must come to salvation through Jesus Christ. But, again, we are a bad/good/great nation. Is this Christian dialectics? Is this what they teach at Liberty University? The fact of our badness is somehow balanced by an assertion of our goodness and both point to our greatness as a nation. This isn't hypocrisy or illogic exactly, but it isn't exactly coming clean either. It's called wanting it both (all) ways. It's also called demagoguery and pandering.

Then there are the prophecies—after all it's a jeremiad. Falwell's whole premise is that the system is failing and the Soviets are winning. He cites Milton Friedman, who knows his free markets (or “free enterprise” as it was quaintly called then) and tells us what is wrong with strong government. He also leans heavily on Alexandr Solzhenitsyn, who knows his Soviets, and tells us what is wrong with our souls and how devious they are. But what is interesting is how wrong hard-line, right-wing, Bible-quoting American conservatives, such as Falwell, were about the strength of the Soviet Union. According to him, America is “no longer the military might of the world”(8) and any day now the Soviet Union “could demand our capitulation”(10). No one could have accused Reverend Falwell of misplaced faith in the American people or their Armed Forces.

I confess I was hoping for some touches of “southernness” in Listen America!  But I didn't find any. No downhome stories or folksy wisdom; not a hint of humor, even in the service of this great nation or the Lord. In fact, this Protestant militant sounds familiar to me, but it is a familiarity arising from my two decades plus of living in Britain—he sounds more like the Reverend Ian Paisley than Jimmy Swaggart, Marjoe Gortner, Elmer Gantry, or even Billy Graham. Or maybe he's “our” Louis Farrakhan. Actually, Listen, America! is an object lesson in how corrupted (an “abomination,” the Reverend Paisley would rumble) religion becomes when it is pressed into the service of national cheerleading. Falwell is really peddling right-wing nationalism rather than anything that merits the name conservatism. No “southernness” also means that there are no black people in Listen, America! that I can remember. (I admit to skipping a few pages, but not many, honest.) There are a few mentions of the ghetto and welfare chiselers but nothing beyond that. Yet the following must surely be a slip of his (or the ghostwriter's) pen. America “must continue to stand with Israel,” writes Falwell, if she “wants her fields to remain white [my underlining] with grain”(98). But isn't it “amber waves of grain” not “white waves of grain”? Has anyone ever seen any white grain? And would we want to see vast fields of it?

Finally one of the great strengths of traditional white southern Protestantism has been its music. It goes a ways toward making up for a multitude of sins and shortcomings. It runs the gamut from sin to salvation, death to life and everywhere in between. Music does something to fundamentalist theology, the biblical faith—it makes it “sing.” It even makes it humanly plausible. When Falwell's fellow Virginian Ralph Stanley sings “O Death,” it reminds me of those crosses along southern highways with “The wages of sin is death” carved on them. But at the core of the song is an authentic fear of death as a fact, not something to be pressed into the service of Cold War politics. It doesn't traffic in Falwell's cheap and lazy religious-political points. My final question would be: how do we get from Ralph Stanley to Jerry Falwell?

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