How Jerry Falwell Used Language and Rhetoric to Transform American Politics and Culture
The Book of Jerry Falwell: How an Evangelical Leader Shaped American Politics
In this article, I'm going to summarize the book The Book of Jerry Falwell: Fundamentalist Language and Politics by Susan Harding. This book is a fascinating study of how Jerry Falwell, a prominent evangelical preacher and founder of the Moral Majority, used language and rhetoric to create a powerful political movement that transformed American politics in the late 20th century. Harding analyzes how Falwell constructed a narrative of Christian nationalism, moral crusade, and cultural warfare that appealed to millions of conservative Christians who felt marginalized by the liberal establishment. She also examines how Falwell's influence waned in the face of scandals, opposition, and social change. Finally, she explores how Falwell's legacy continues to shape American politics and culture today.
the book of jerry falwell chapter summaries
The Rise of the Moral Majority
One of the main themes of Harding's book is how Falwell mobilized conservative Christians to form a political movement called the Moral Majority in the late 1970s and early 1980s. Harding argues that Falwell was able to do this by using language that resonated with his audience's religious beliefs, cultural values, and political grievances. He portrayed America as a Christian nation that was under attack by secular humanists, liberals, feminists, homosexuals, communists, and other enemies of God. He urged his followers to reclaim their moral authority and restore their rightful place in society. He also framed his political agenda as a biblical mandate that required obedience from all Christians.
The Culture Wars
Falwell and his allies challenged the liberal agenda on various issues that they considered to be moral and spiritual matters. They opposed abortion rights, gay rights, feminism, pornography, sex education, evolution, environmentalism, and other causes that they saw as threats to their faith and family values. They also supported prayer in public schools, creationism, traditional gender roles, censorship, and other measures that they believed would protect their religious freedom and moral order. They accused their opponents of being anti-God, anti-family, anti-American, and anti-life. They claimed that they were fighting a culture war for the soul of the nation.
The Reagan Revolution
Falwell and his followers supported Ronald Reagan's presidency and his conservative policies. They saw Reagan as a strong leader who shared their vision of America as a Christian nation that was exceptional, prosperous, and powerful. They applauded his economic policies that favored lower taxes, deregulation, and free markets. They also endorsed his foreign policies that opposed communism, terrorism, and nuclear disarmament. They believed that Reagan was God's instrument to restore America's greatness and morality.
The Televangelist Scandals
Falwell and other prominent TV preachers faced public scrutiny and criticism for their financial and moral misconduct. They were accused of misusing donations, living lavish lifestyles, engaging in sexual affairs, and covering up scandals. They were also exposed for their hypocrisy, corruption, and manipulation. They lost credibility, trust, and support from many of their followers and the general public. They also faced legal troubles, investigations, and lawsuits. Some of them resigned from their ministries or went bankrupt. These scandals tarnished the image and reputation of the evangelical movement and undermined its moral authority.
The Fall of the Moral Majority
Another theme of Harding's book is how Falwell's political influence declined in the late 1980s and early 1990s due to internal divisions, external opposition, and changing social trends. Harding argues that Falwell failed to sustain his political movement because he faced various challenges and limitations that he could not overcome.
The Religious Right in Disarray
Falwell and his peers struggled to maintain unity and relevance among conservative Christians. They faced competition, conflict, and fragmentation within their own ranks. They also faced resistance, criticism, and backlash from other religious groups, such as Catholics, Jews, Muslims, Mormons, and mainline Protestants. They also faced apathy, indifference, and disillusionment from some of their supporters who felt betrayed, disappointed, or bored by their leaders. They also faced difficulty in recruiting new members, especially among younger generations who were more diverse, tolerant, and secular than their parents.
The Rise of the Religious Left
Falwell and his foes faced a new challenge from progressive Christians who advocated for social justice and environmental issues. These Christians challenged Falwell's claim to represent the true Christian voice in politics. They argued that Falwell's agenda was narrow, divisive, and oppressive. They offered a different vision of Christianity that was inclusive, compassionate, and liberating. They supported causes such as civil rights, human rights, peace, poverty alleviation, health care reform, immigration reform, climate change action, and other issues that they saw as expressions of their faith and values.
The End of an Era
Falwell disbanded the Moral Majority in 1989 and shifted his focus to his ministry and education. He admitted that he had made mistakes and learned lessons from his political involvement. He also acknowledged that he had not achieved his goals and that he had underestimated the complexity and diversity of American society. He decided to concentrate on his church, his university (Liberty University), and his media outlets (such as Liberty Broadcasting Network). He also tried to moderate his tone and broaden his appeal by reaching out to other religious groups and social groups.
The Legacy of Jerry Falwell
The final theme of Harding's book is how Falwell's impact on American politics and culture can still be seen today. Harding argues that Falwell left a lasting mark on the nation by shaping the conservative agenda, mobilizing the evangelical vote, influencing the public discourse, and creating a brand name.
The New Christian Right
The Culture Wars Revisited
Falwell's issues remained contentious and divisive in the public sphere. They included issues such as abortion, gay marriage, transgender rights, religious liberty, health care, immigration, gun control, climate change, among others. They also sparked debates, protests, lawsuits, and violence. They also polarized the nation along ideological, religious, and cultural lines. They also influenced the Supreme Court nominations and decisions.
The Falwell Brand
Falwell's name and image became associated with various institutions, movements, and controversies. They included institutions such as Liberty University (the largest Christian university in the world), Thomas Road Baptist Church (Falwell's megachurch), Liberty Counsel (a conservative legal organization), among others. They also included movements such as the Tea Party (a grassroots conservative movement), the Alt-Right (a white nationalist movement), among others. They also included controversies such as the 9/11 attacks (Falwell blamed them on America's sins), the Jerry Falwell Jr. scandal (Falwell's son resigned from Liberty University after a sex scandal), among others.
In conclusion, Harding's book is a compelling and insightful analysis of how Jerry Falwell used language and rhetoric to create a political movement that changed American politics and culture. She shows how Falwell constructed a narrative of Christian nationalism, moral crusade, and cultural warfare that mobilized millions of conservative Christians who felt marginalized by the liberal establishment. She also shows how Falwell's influence declined in the face of scandals, opposition, and social change. Finally, she shows how Falwell's legacy continues to shape American politics and culture today.
Q: What is the main argument of Harding's book?
A: The main argument of Harding's book is that Jerry Falwell used language and rhetoric to create a political movement that transformed American politics in the late 20th century.
Q: What are some of the sources that Harding used for her book?
A: Some of the sources that Harding used for her book are Falwell's speeches, sermons, books, newsletters, interviews, TV shows, and other media materials.
Q: What are some of the strengths and weaknesses of Harding's book?
A: Some of the strengths of Harding's book are that it is well-researched, well-written, well-organized, and well-argued. It provides a rich and nuanced account of Falwell's life and work. It also offers a critical and balanced perspective on Falwell's impact and legacy. Some of the weaknesses of Harding's book are that it is sometimes too dense, too technical, and too repetitive. It also sometimes overlooks or downplays some of the alternative or opposing views on Falwell and his movement.
Q: Who is the intended audience of Harding's book?
A: The intended audience of Harding's book are scholars, students, journalists, policymakers, and anyone who is interested in American politics, religion, and culture.
Q: What are some of the implications or applications of Harding's book?
A: Some of the implications or applications of Harding's book are that it helps us understand the origins, development, and consequences of the religious right in America. It also helps us appreciate the power and complexity of language and rhetoric in politics. It also helps us reflect on our own beliefs, values, and assumptions about religion and society.