Reverend Jerry Falwell, who died in his office on Tuesday at the age 73, was a seminal figure in the rise of what liberals despairingly called the "Religious Right." Without him, it is doubtful Christian fundamentalist, Evangelical Christians and conservative Roman Catholics would ever have mobilized into the significant voting bloc that elected Ronald Reagan twice, George H.W. Bush once and the current President Bush.
As a vice president of the Moral Majority from 1980 to 1985, I witnessed the rise of this movement from the inside. It had its positives, including a focus on "moral issues," such as abortion, same-sex marriage, a strong national defense and the cultural decline of the nation and the registering of many previously inactive people to participate in the political life of their nation. All of these remain hot-button issues.
The movement also had its downside, because it tended to detract from a Christian's primary responsibility of telling people the "good news" that redemption comes only through Jesus Christ. At times, this central message seemed to be replaced by one suggesting that a shortcut to moral renewal might come through Washington and the Republican Party.
Mainstream media loved the story of Christian conservatives coming out of the political catacombs, because it created controversy. The daily battles between left and right and between the religious and secular sometimes resembled professional wrestling in their intensity and animosity. TV program bookers searched for the most outrageous and extreme people to "debate" Falwell because it brought them high ratings, if not understanding and consensus.
Bill Moyers hosted a TV special in 1980 on which he wondered where these religious conservatives had come from. Most of the media had missed the growing outrage at what conservatives regarded as liberal intrusion into their sacred traditions. The outlawing of prayer in public schools in the early '60s had deeply affected them. They had prayed as children and they wondered why the Supreme Court would not allow their children to pray or read the Bible in public schools.
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