I wasn’t going to say anything about Falwell’s passing, but feel remiss for not. So, I’m gonna tackle it as best I can.
I have never been a fan of Falwell’s. Ever. When I was a small kid and he was on television, I either laughed at how inane he was, or just turned it before anyone could see it was even on long enough for me to figure what it was and flip the channel. Televangelists just annoy me.
However, if you go back to 1979, the country was in a state of flux. We had possibly the worst president of all time, definitely in my lifetime. We were still reeling from Vietnam. The Supreme Court was passing repeated very liberal opinions. The US was being held hostage by Iranians. The economy was in shambles. Gas was scarce and expensive. Things were basically just a huge mess. And, they were the result of very liberal and weak leadership. Although Jimmy Carter was a very religious man, his policies were perceived as being very liberal. The Republican Party was disorganized and completely lacking direction. The prospects going into 1980 were pretty bleak on both sides. Ronald Reagan had lost his primary in 1976 to Gerald Ford in a very tight primary that split the party even moreso than it had been already. Ted Kennedy was giving Jimmy Carter a fight for his political life when the hostage situation bailed Carter out. The events that caused the country to rally behind the flag would lead to complete and utter frustration. Things were bad and no one was stepping up to lead us in a new direction. Reagan was very upbeat and positive, but was relying on his economic philosophies to excite his voter base. And, it wasn’t working. Then, leading into the North Carolina primary, things changed. Senator Jesse Helms came out very firmly behind Reagan and brought all his organization and grass roots support with him. What that led to was Jerry Falwell organizing a new element in politics, televangelist driven voter drives. The ranks of Republican voters had steadily declined throughout the 60′s and 70′s. With this new social initiative, they suddenly swelled. With Reagan’s acting skills and speech making prowess, the Republican Primary of 1976 turned unexpectedly exciting with an obvious new element arising in the party. The Democrat Party was contentious and traditional. Although Reagan lost in 1976, by the time Jimmy Carter was sworn in, the whole country knew who our next president would be. It was just a matter of time. During that time Falwell continued to motivate young, conservative professionals to register Republican en masse. Millions of them joined the Republican Party. Whereas the Democrat Party had staked its future on the hippy generation, the Republicans were being reborn as the religious conservatives. And, these weren’t your typical conservatives. They were aggressive and outspoken. Just like their mentors. When Reagan won in 1980, Falwell was given a lot of credit. When Reagan was re-elected in 1984, Falwell was there with him. The Neo-conservatives had risen from nothing to national prominence in basically eight years. Thanks for the most part by the leadership of Falwell. Those who dared attack Falwell, as McCain did in 1984, lost. The Republicans were back in control, and would eventually regain the House and Senate briefly. Falwell and his followers were right there with them the whole way. When Clinton won in 1992, neither candidate really associated themselves with the Religious right. However, Falwell and the Religious Right went after Congress and the Senate. With that grassroots conservatism, the Republicans won both the House and Senate. In 2000, they’d get the White House as well. With the riches came the in-fighting that goes along with it. The Religious Right basically imploded and Falwell faded from the limelight amid a series of very intolerant quotes.
As I started with, I didn’t like Jerry Falwell. I don’t like what the Neos have done to my party. But, I do acknowledge that if they hadn’t, there wouldn’t be much left of that party. Reagan and the neophyte Neocons returned the United States to a strong two-party system, regardless of what I think. Maybe not for the right reason for me. But, the alternative was even worse.
And for that, Jerry Falwell does need to be recognized.