Party Of Reagan? No, Party Of Falwell, Writer Says

Rev. Jerry Falwell was a typical kid, more interested in pranks than church or politics. But he went on to create some of the country's most important Christian fundamentalist institutions and leave an indelible mark on today's Republican party. Host Michel Martin speaks with Michael Sean Winters about his biography on Falwell, God's Right Hand.

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MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

I'm Michel Martin and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. Now it's time for a special Faith Matters. That's the part of the program where we talk about matters of faith and spirituality, and often we talk about how politics and faith intersect. This year's presidential campaign has already caused us to have some of those conversations and another one has been sparked by the announcement by the likely Republican presidential nominee, Mitt Romney, that he will give the commencement address this spring at Liberty University.

Now, that gesture was saluted by the people who watch the evangelical vote as a sign that the former Massachusetts governor has finally clued in to this important voting bloc since Liberty is the largest Christian fundamentalist university in the world. But Romney's liberal critics used the announcement to continue to press the theme that he will use his presidency to pander, in their view, to the far right.

Our next guest says there's something both sides should agree on. Romney's decision is a sign that evangelical leader and Liberty University founder Jerry Falwell has left an indelible mark on the Republican Party and the country. Religion writer, blogger and frequent guest on this program, Michael Sean Winters, takes a fresh look at Jerry Falwell's improbable rise from bootlegger's son to GOP power player in his new political biography "God's Right Hand: How Jerry Falwell Made God a Republican and Baptized the Religious Right." And he's with us now in Washington, D.C.

Welcome. Thanks so much for joining us once again.

MICHAEL SEAN WINTERS: Great to be here, Michel.

MARTIN: Now, Michael Sean, people who listen to this program know you as a person who follows the affairs of the Catholic Church closely. Why did you decide to write this book about Jerry Falwell, who was a southern Baptist?

WINTERS: Well, first of all, it was suggested to me and pointed out that my first book had been on Catholics and Democrats and said, you know, there's been no serious biography of Jerry Falwell since 1984 and why don't you take it on? So the fun part was every day was like waking up inside a photographic negative. I mean, I care about religion and politics. This was not my religion nor my politics, and the way they intersected you could make out the forms and see the issues, but everything was in the reverse of where I was accustomed to finding it.

MARTIN: So it was a journey for you?

WINTERS: Yes. Oh, absolutely.

MARTIN: But, you know, there's no question that, before his death in 2007, Jerry Falwell was surely one of the best known Christian leaders in America, you know, apart from his own specific denomination. But you're saying his influence on American politics continues, even though he's no longer here. How so?

WINTERS: Absolutely. And it's because of just what a different face of Christianity in the public square he was. When you think back to the '60s and the '70s, the face of Christianity were people like Dr. King, Father Drinan, the liberal member of Congress from Massachusetts, William Sloane Coffin, the, you know, celebrated liberal chaplain at Yale.

And now, in our own day, when you hear of religious involvement in politics, you almost instinctively assume it's conservative and Republican. And so Falwell's Moral Majority, which was only in existence for 10 years - from '79 to '89 - really changed the face of Christian political involvement.

MARTIN: So let's take a step backward and talk about Jerry Falwell's early life, the fact that his father was an agnostic, a very kind of light churchgoer, you know, if at all, that his father actually shot his own brother and killed him. Both of them were drinking. His father died of alcohol-related illness.

How did Jerry Falwell kind of go from that to being this kind of Bible-believing rock-ribbed Christian?

WINTERS: Right. Well, as is often the case, it was the influence somewhat of his mother, who was a churchgoer and a believer. But, really, it came from a singular event where he went one day to a Baptist church. He had been looking for a fire-breathing pastor like he had heard on the radio that his mother would play during breakfast. And he went there and that very night he was converted, met his wife and met Jesus on the same night and he never looked back.

MARTIN: But you also point out that he came of age at a time when, for conservative evangelicals like himself, there was a skepticism about being involved in politics. What changed?

WINTERS: Oh, absolutely. There was this traditional notion called the spirituality of the church, which said that you shouldn't be involved in moral reformation of your society and also said it was wrong to be yoked with unbelievers. And, by unbelievers, they meant anyone who was not a fundamentalist Christian.

One of Mitt Romney's real sources of indebtedness to Falwell is he got the evangelical movement not only active in politics, but got them over that idea that they could not be yoked. And he said that it was perfectly fine to be a cobelligerent with nonbelievers on behalf of certain social objectives.

MARTIN: But how did he become so engaged in the political process. As many people might remember, the Moral Majority was a very real force in, you know, political life. Many people think it contributed mightily to the election of Ronald Reagan, for example.

WINTERS: Oh, yeah. I mean, he...

MARTIN: So what changed his mind about the need to be involved in politics?

WINTERS: He was solicited by a group of conservative political activists who went and met with him. And he was very reluctant, and he thought that if pastors were involved, the people in the pews would be very resistant to that and so they came armed with a poll that showed that, in fact, the people in the pews were chomping at the bit.

MARTIN: If you're just joining us, you're listening to TELL ME MORE from NPR News. We're speaking with Michael Sean Winters. Most recently, he's the author of a newly-released biography of Jerry Falwell. It's called "God's Right Hand: How Jerry Falwell Made God a Republican and Baptized the American Right."

You know, you talk in the book about how he really showed an early gift for organizing in the way he built his first church. What would you say was his most significant gift, as an organizer, in politics?

WINTERS: Three things.

MARTIN: Mm-hmm.

WINTERS: One, he had great charisma. Two, he just had boundless energy. I mean he was somebody who didn't need a lot of sleep. And thirdly, he had a very strategic sensibility about this. He had often compared himself to Eisenhower and other great generals and he would motivate others to work with him in doing door knockings in Lynchburg to help bring people to church. But I wouldn't underestimate the charisma. I mean he also was very good on TV, you know, he became the person who a "Phil Donahue Show" or something like that - the first person they wanted to call because he was articulate, he was punchy, pithy...

MARTIN: Very media savvy. One of the things you point out, and in fact, Larry Flynt, the publisher of "Hustler" magazine, wrote a blurb for your book...

WINTERS: He did. Yeah.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

MARTIN: ...which was interesting. They were frequent, kind of, friendly combatants on television. How did that come about? And they actually seem to have a very cordial personal relationship. I mean you often see the two of them kind of laughing, even though Larry Flynt is everything that Jerry Falwell did not believe in.

WINTERS: Right. And when Falwell died, Flynt wrote a very beautiful tribute in the LA Times about my friend Jerry Falwell. It came out of a lawsuit - somewhat improbably - in which "Hustler" had published a parody of Falwell that was particularly vulgar. Falwell sued. It ended up going all the way up to the Supreme Court. And then they began doing some college speaking gigs, a kind of dog and pony show, and then subsequently, every time Falwell was in Los Angeles he would always visit Larry Flynt. And he would say when Larry Flynt's time comes, I want to be there at his bedside to save him for the Lord. Well, of course, Falwell went first but they did have a genuine rapport.

Falwell also had a friendship with Ted Kennedy. I mean he did have this capacity for friendship with people that he was locked in disagreement with.

MARTIN: But I cannot help but note that none of those people seem to have been African-American.

WINTERS: That's true.

MARTIN: so talk to me about Falwell on race.

WINTERS: Falwell was, you know, grew up in the segregated South and his most famous sermon before the Moral Majority, was in 1965 called Ministers in Marches, where he denounced King and the political activism of the black clergy - specifically on this idea that clergy should not be involved in politics. In the late '60s and early '70s, he just said, you know, I was reading the Bible wrong and now I understand segregation was wrong.

What I was most concerned and interested by was that when he then flips on segregation, he would talk about the degradation that was perpetrated on blacks by Jim Crow. What many former segregationists never really reckoned with was that Jim Crow didn't just do bad things to blacks, it morally deformed them. And you would think, especially a minister, would have wanted to examine that. And I never found any evidence of that kind of self reflection about how had he been able to be so blind.

MARTIN: I think fair-minded people would praise his accomplishments in terms of, you know, creating a viable conservative base for the Republican Party, energizing of voting block, encouraging more people to be engaged in the civic life of their country. But you also note, at the end of the day you think Falwell's efforts were ultimately bad for politics and bad for religion. And that's a pretty harsh assessment. I'd like to ask why you arrived there.

WINTERS: I think it was bad for politics because he still brought that fundamentalist cast of mind with him. Twenty, 30 years ago, if those of us in the progressive community were arguing to raise the minimum wage, we had on the opposite side the National Association of Manufacturers, and they were opposed to raising the minimum wage because it meant more money out of their pockets. It was simply about interest. Today, it's about ideology that really has coarsened the debate and may compromise less likely. The reason...

MARTIN: Make compromise undesirable, or make compromise almost a dirty word, some would argue.

WINTERS: Oh, absolutely. And so if you are a moderate Republican now, you're not just a, you know, you're a Judas figure.

MARTIN: You say that the fastest growing religion in the U.S. is the religion of none. And you argue that the public image that he created and promoted has contributed a great deal to the growing numbers of people in this country who don't want anything to do with organized religion. Again, that's a very damning assessment. Why do you arrive there?

WINTERS: Well, I think - you know, when you conflate religion which has, you know, deals with the ultimate life questions into this kind of, you know, handy political card of how you should vote. When people that have questions about the politics and decide they don't like your politics, they're going to throw the political baby out with the baptismal water. You know, you need to have some mediating philosophies and mediating institutions between religion and politics, to make sure that they're kept separate.

The whole purpose of the Moral Majority was to conflate those in ways, and again, because of this fundamentalist mindset, often in very simplistic ways. And so when people said, you know, well, I just don't want to have anything to do with his politics, they almost felt they then had to abandon Christianity, because this is what Christianity had become in their mind. And I think he's very much responsible for that.

The other part that I argue is that he reduced religion to ethics. And so when people found themselves making different ethical choices, they lost the kind of other salvific message of the Gospel. Because if you have to leave your religion at the door and just go in and talk about ethics, you've still left your religion at the door.

MARTIN: Michael Sean Winters is the author of "God's Right Hand: How Jerry Falwell Made God a Republican and Baptized the American Right." He was kind enough to join us in our Washington, D.C. studios.

MARTIN: Michael Sean Winters, thanks so much for joining us once again.

WINTERS: Great to be here. Great to be here.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

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