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D’Souza: Falwell Before the Millennium

February 18, 2011 Leave a comment

When most people talk about “the Religious Right” or “the Christian Right,” they’re talking generally about theologically and politically conservative Christians who can be relied upon to vote a particular way (most of the time) and otherwise participate in politics (through donations or working on campaigns) in a particular way (most of the time). When they state specifics they often resort to breakdowns by denomination; the “Christian Right” consists of conservative Protestants, conservative Catholics, evangelicals, and Mormons. Never mind for the moment that this misses conservative non-denominational types (Calvary Chapel, Vineyard Christian Fellowship, etc.) and considers Mormons Christians; the former is complicated and the latter makes sense because Mormons in one part of the country (the Mormon Corridor, AKA the Jello Belt) can be identified as consistent, significant voter blocks.

Anyway, the history of the Christian Right over several election cycles has experienced a sea change: initially the issues and leaders came from Protestants and evangelicals and the coalition-makers tried to sell them to Catholics; now it appears that process has mostly reversed. See e.g. the Manhattan Declaration. I think this is because initially the analysis focused on the big numbers (there are more Protestants than Catholics) but now it focuses on smaller numbers (there are more Catholics than Southern Baptists or conservative Lutheran or what-have-you). Never mind that Protestants seem to be short on idea leaders and charismatic leaders, while Catholics do at least have a scholastic tradition that can occasionally manage more than a soundbite.

Dinesh D’Souza’s book (the whole title is Falwell: Before the Millennium: A Critical Biography [link]) is from 1984, and while it is mostly a straightforward biography of Falwell through about 1983, and is reasonably well-written, it’s important to understand that at least part of what D’Souza is doing here is attempting to make Falwell palatable to his Roman Catholic brethren. Here’s a quick rundown:

  1. About 70 pages putting Falwell in context in American history (the Scopes trial, etc.) and another telling of his conversion story. There are several good versions of Falwell’s conversion story, each with differing anecdotes but for the most part consistent with one another. This is a pretty good one.
  2. 40 pages or so explaining Falwell’s fundamentalist credentials, his entrance into national politics, and how those two things were at variance.
  3. 40 pages or so describing Falwell’s involvement in Moral Majority, national politics, etc. through about 1983.
  4. 50-60 pages of miscellaneous topics, including a visit to Lynchburg, a description of the various ministries circa 1983, etc.

Highlights include

  • A rundown of the 1970 FCC decision that changed the way religious television was regulated, making it possible for some TV preachers to become popular without various media outlets being required to provide equal time to their less popular counterparts/brethren. Dinesh D’Souza says Falwell was especially grateful to FCC Director (and Reagan appointee) Mark Fowler. I’d never heard that one before.
  • The claim on the part of D’Souza that Falwell believed that the Watergate break-in should never have been exposed. I don’t know that I ever heard Falwell say anything like this, and it struck me as a Republican article of faith that sounded weird in 1984 and still sounds weird today.
  • A theme regarding Falwell’s disagreements with various people affiliated with the World Council of Churches/National Council of Churches. It’s easy to forget that WCC people were the voice of Establishment Christianity in the United States circa 1975 or so.

This is mostly a brisk read and an interesting period piece. Sometimes it gets bogged down with inside-the-Beltway (or is that inside-the GOP?) minutiae, but that’s to be expected given D’Souza’s perspective at the time. I do kind of wish he’d delved a bit deeper into Falwell’s racial past (e.g. his supposed relationship with Lester Maddox) or his relationship to the right-wing fringe in Republican circles (e.g. his supposed relationship to the John Birch Society), and while a book like this would have been a safe place to do so D’Souza has other fish to fry.

I’d recommend it to people who are interested in the history of the Christian Right and its entanglements with the Republican Party.

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