It was the high court's 1973 abortion ruling, however, that became the tipping point for religious conservatives. Falwell began to preach against abortion and to address what he regarded as a crumbling of America's moral underpinnings. People who had heard him preach against the danger to the church when it became entangled with politics suddenly began hearing a different message. Falwell, whose most famous sermon on the subject, preached in 1965, was called "Ministers and Marches" in which he opposed Dr. Martin Luther King's political activism, began to follow King - at least into the political arena. Falwell had credibility with a large number of conservative pastors, because he knew them and because they, too, were concerned about the direction of the country.
The flaw in the movement was the perception that the church had become an appendage to the Republican Party and one more special interest group to be pampered. If one examines the results of the Moral Majority's agenda, little was accomplished in the political arena and much was lost in the spiritual realm, as many came to believe that to be a Christian meant you also must be "converted" to the Republican Party and adopt the GOP agenda and its tactics.
One had only to look at the history of the religious left to see the danger in a shotgun marriage between church and state. Most liberal theologians long ago gave up preaching about another king and another kingdom in favor of baptizing the earthly agenda of the Democratic Party. That too many conservative Christians followed their liberal opposites into the same error was to their shame and demonstrated they had missed an important lesson.
Jerry Falwell did not fit the stereotype many sought to impose on him. He had a wicked sense of humor and he could be very generous. I once took him to a meeting of inner-city pastors and disadvantaged children in Washington, D.C. One young boy particularly impressed him and Jerry asked the boy to ride with him to the airport. The boy told him he'd like to go to college and Jerry gave him his phone number, saying, "When you graduate from high school, call me. You will have a full scholarship at Liberty University." The boy's father cried. So did I.
Jerry liked to say that when he passed away, they'd put "and the beggar died" on his tombstone because he was constantly asking for money. That won't happen. His legacy will be his university. He once said he wanted it to be like Harvard. All of the rest is "wood, hay and stubble."
Cal Thomas is co-author (with Bob Beckel) of the book, "Common Ground: How to Stop the Partisan War That is Destroying America".
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