Fineman: Jerry Falwell's Political Impact

The Reagan Revolution has come and gone, and now the Republican Red State Machine—assembled by Karl Rove on the Reagan foundations—is grinding its gears. If you are looking for a sign that "CHANGE IS A COMIN'," as they say, the death of the Rev. Jerry Falwell is as good an indicator as any. He saw patterns where others didn't—for good and for ill—and, knowing him, I think he would see his passing for what it is: the end of an era.

You can't understand the profound political changes in America in the last quarter of the 20th century without knowing about Falwell and the voter migration that he helped foster, and that he embodied. The Biggest Story on my beat has been, until recently, the entrance of the evangelical Christians (especially, though not exclusively, Southerners) into politics in general—and the movement of those evangelicals in the political arena from the Democratic to the Republican Party.

It was upon that mass migration that the modern, Southern-based GOP of Reagan and Rove was built. And it is that base that is in danger now, as Virginia—of all places—trends blue, and as George W. Bush's presidency falters from arrogance, incompetence, military and diplomatic blunders. The evangelicals, who began the Bush era with such hopes, are disillusioned, and wary of the cast of Republican characters bidding to take his place.

We are likely to witness what amounts to a state funeral, with Republican candidates and elders gathering in Lynchburg, Va. As it happens, Newt Gingrich was scheduled to give the commencement address at Falwell's Liberty University this weekend. Maybe he will explain where the movement Falwell built goes from here.

Falwell helped lead the GOP migration from his redoubt in Lynchburg, a genteel old city in the mountains. The town fathers never wanted to have much to do with him. He was an across-the-tracks kind of guy. That made him both an unlikely and an appropriate shepherd for his flock of true-believer voters.

His story is a familiar one, at least in the way it starts: a hard-livin', hard-drinkin' hell raiser who finds Jesus, marries a lovely lady, quits cold turkey and takes to preaching. A hulking presence with a booming baritone voice—the word "bombast" seemed created for such a voice—he famously launched his storefront Baptist evangelism in an abandoned soda-bottling plant, where the floors were so sticky that his congregation could barely move their shoes once they planted them.

But they didn't listen because they were stuck; they listened because he transfixed them with sermons on how the literal words of the Bible gave them all the specifics they needed on how to be happy in this world and with Jesus in the next.

Falwell didn't need a microphone, let alone a radio, to gather a flock, but soon enough he had both. Born with an instinct for showmanship and business, he became a pioneer in the use of broadcast television to expand a ministry. By the 1970s, Billy Graham, who had come from similar roots but who had gone on to hobnob with presidents, was the regal royalty of evangelism. Falwell was country corn—a dirt-track Chevy to Graham's in-town Cadillac.

Falwell, following tradition, wasn't into preaching politics then. But that changed in 1979. It is one of the great ironies of modern American history that the man who inadvertently launched the modern GOP was none other than Democrat Jimmy Carter. As the first self-professed born-again president, Carter was the first to lure a new generation of evangelicals into political action.

Seeing that—and joining forces with northern Catholics suddenly shaken awake by the landmark abortion rights case, Roe v. Wade, in 1973—Falwell joined with a small group of other evangelicals in 1979 to form what he dared to call The Moral Majority. Instructed in the mysteries of campaign techniques by Washington conservative activists, Falwell & Co. used new, liberalized financing rules to create a powerful, independent grass roots force.

The key moment came when the group met with Ronald Reagan, who had had little to do with such people until then, though he had admired them from a distance. He gave them the assurances they wanted on abortion—Reagan had become ardently pro-life—and matters of "faith in the public square."

The rest, as they say, is history.

By turns gracious and crude, Falwell was a maddening combination of worthy, lofty ambition—and mean-spirited, uncaring ignorance. Starting in 1971, he doted on what he at first named Lynchburg Baptist College. When the town fathers, loyal to old-line, well-established Lynchburg College, complained, Falwell changed the name to Liberty Baptist College, and, finally, Liberty University. The school has high standards; Falwell once told me he wanted it to be the "Notre Dame of the Evangelicals." He told me not long ago that they teach creationism there, but evolution too—since he needed to meet state education requirements for teachers, nurses and others. Science was OK.

His viciousness was well-documented: he said the anti-Christ was a Jew—and was probably alive now. He said 9/11 was the fault of the sin of gays and lesbians. He was always the guy from across the tracks. Democrats were ungodly. The list went on and on and on.

Even so, and in spite of all of that, there was something oddly innocent about him. He craved acceptance, which he never quite got outside of the world he created for himself and his flock. Like all stirring preachers, he seemed to yearn for God's acceptance as much as those he preached to. He helped lead America in these last decades, but I wish I felt more certain that we had made it to a Better Place.