Review: God's Right Hand
Michael Sean Winters. God's Right Hand: How Jerry Falwell Made God a Republican and Baptized the American Right. New York: HarperOne, 2012. 448 pp. ISBN 978-0-06-197067-2.
In 1980 Ronald Reagan told 18,000 conservative evangelical ministers in Dallas, “I want you to know that I endorse you and what you are doing.” After decades of cultural exile, according to Michael Sean Winters, conservative evangelicals were receiving a blessing from a serious presidential candidate. In this page-turning biography, Winters argues that Jerry Falwell, founder of the Moral Majority, was the pivotal figure who brought social conservatism onto the national stage and launched the culture wars.
The narrative is familiar to students of American religious history. Falwell was a driven religious entrepreneur who founded Thomas Road Baptist Church, where he preached salvation and fulminated against encroaching secularism, federal government, and global communism. He established a Christian day school in the 1960s, launched Liberty University in the 1970s, and began to preach a conservative political gospel in the 1980s. Despite Falwell’s devotion to Reagan, the president failed to deliver, and Falwell himself made a series of missteps in the 1980s. As his ministries careened between infusions of cash and insolvency, Falwell overreached, and his infelicitous language provoked a backlash from moderates.
But Falwell was more than a political operative. He was a sinner, according to his own spiritual narrative, a southern hooligan in need of Jesus. His conversion ensconced him in an all-encompassing fundamentalist world. After graduation from Baptist Bible College in Missouri, he became a preacher of the gospel, a calling that always superseded his political adventures. In fact, Winters shows that the vast majority of his sermons dealt with scripture, not politics. Despite a vituperative streak, he could also be gracious. He formed unlikely friendships with Hustler’s Larry Flynt and liberal Democrat Edward Kennedy. A devoted family man, Falwell never suffered a hint of personal scandal. Even as Winters clinically recounts a multitude of horrifying remarks about racial integration in South Africa and the American South, he humanizes Falwell with telling anecdotes and descriptions of Thomas Road’s numerous ministries of compassion.
Winters locates Falwell ecclesiastically and culturally as a fundamentalist. As a mid-century independent Baptist, he inhabited a separatist world. While this separatism eventually transformed into combative engagement, his basic views of homosexuality, government intrusion, abortion, support for Israel, and American superpatriotism did not change. As the decades passed, Falwell’s genius was revealed in his ability to invert certain fundamentalist methodologies, even while maintaining moral certitude on these issues. From cultural critic Francis Schaeffer, Falwell learned the strategy of cobelligerancy. Abandoning long-standing separatist tendencies, he linked fundamentalist networks with Catholics, Jews, and Mormons. Even as he practiced a nostalgic trope of national declension, he co-opted the methods of modern advertising. Falwell’s use of radio, television, and direct mail filled his coffers and expanded his empire beyond mega-church status. Finally, having preached the infamous 1964 “Ministers and Marches” sermon, which defended segregation by denouncing political activism, he turned many apolitical fundamentalists into political activists.
This account of Falwell’s transformations is both convincing and eminently readable, but it is not an original piece of scholarship. The paucity of archival sources is conspicuous, and Winters heavily depends on his subject’s own published accounts. Winters exaggerates Falwell’s significance, both as a driver and a representative figure of evangelical politicization. To be sure, the founder of the Moral Majority was an important figure in the resurgence of American conservatism. But Winters’ repeated claims that Falwell was “the face of American Christianity” and the architect of the mega-church movement are overplayed. Moreover, there is little recognition of the many varieties of evangelical politicization: Prohibition activists of the early twentieth century, Okie populists who lifted Barry Goldwater to the Republican nomination in 1964 and Reagan to the governorship of California in 1970, and the evangelical left of the 1970s. Winters does not acknowledge these important antecedents to the 1980s iteration of the religious right.
Those looking for a fine-grained, archives-driven cultural analysis of this important figure will have to turn to Susan Harding’s The Book of Jerry Falwell (2001). But this fascinating and lively narrative portrait of Falwell, the first comprehensive biography of this important figure, contributes significantly to the literature of American religious history.