Out Run Politics
“Do you know Christ as your personal savior? Do you believe in God? What if you died today?”1 Professor Susan Friend Harding was asked these sorts of personal, uncomfortable questions while conducting interviews for her anthropological study, The Book of Jerry Falwell. Similar questions were commonly the rhetoric for conversion into the fundamental Protestant faith, a small segment of the huge cultural movement that swept across a majority Christian United States during the 1980s. Millions of Bible believers began breaking the previously held standard of conservative Christianity and re-identified as the born-again Moral Majority community. Two decades after the nation was turned upside down by the influx of religious influence into society, Harding analyzes the tactics and the significance behind the reemerging surge of Christian fundamentalism to explain one of the most dramatic religious revivals in America.
Harding begins her work by explaining one of the most important factors in the fundamentalist movement’s success and exodus from its exiled past: the conversion. The first chapter reverts between third and first person, consisting of interview manuscripts with Reverend Campbell while also analyzing his tactics in their witnessing session. Campbell invites Harding to receive Christ as her personal savior, testifying on His holy intervention in his life while explaining other fundamental doctrines. This method of witnessing one’s conversion was a common practice amongst Protestant Christian preachers who were mobilizing their Christian army across the nation. Followers of Minister Jerry Falwell, the founder of Lynchburg, Virginia’s Thomas Road Baptist Church (TRBC), were lured in through these poetic testimonies that paralleled biblical stories for thematic purposes. None were able to escape from identifying with the Reverend’s message, as “the witness’s words…are on a deep level about the listener: you too are a character in these stories; these stories are about you.”2 Harding describes how she was naïve to believe she would be subject from becoming immersed into the conversion process by keeping things strictly professional in her interviews, but “there was no such ground… [her] story about what [she] was doing there, instead of protecting me from “going native” located [her] in their world: [she] was a lost soul on the brink of salvation.”3 She continues by explaining how American Christian fundamentalists became isolated from their nation, analyzing their retreat from the world as a result of the Scopes Trial. The trial, debated on the legality of teaching evolution versus creationism in school “in effect legitimized the exile of Fundamentalists…from public life.”4 The narrative of the trial followed the interrogations between pro-evolution Clarence Darrow and pro-Bible William Jennings Bryan. However, with Bryan’s timely death mid-trial, mass media and journalists “explicitly articulated modern America as a world in which Fundamentalist figured as stigmatized outsiders.”5 With the failure of the Christian community to rally against the trial’s outcomes, American society began to secularize, but all this would change following the political activism of Falwell’s community and the emergence of born-again Christianity.
In Part II of her study, Harding focuses specifically on the cultural oratory that led to the reemergence of conservative Protestants. Harding follows the beginnings of Falwell’s empire built from the roots of televangelical miracle-based ministry. Leaders like Pat Robertson and Jimmy Swaggart gave their testimonies on God’s divine impact in their lives, always setting their stories under the backdrop of irreversible salvation. These miraculous tales ultimately “convert[ed] a poor powerless preacher into a multi-million dollar powerhouse for God,”6 and Falwell capitalized on these narrative techniques to bring income to his movement. A master at creating persuasive tales of conversion, Falwell was able to further his national presence in a fight against moral wrongdoing. Through his and other televangelist’s practices, the Christ-centered gospel economy began to expand. Falwell had an ability to persuade his people to support his Baptist ministry economically, and “after the Moral Majority was founded, total ministry income doubled between 1980 and 1986.”7 He gave parable that he was called by God to move mountains of morality after seeing thousands of young Americans engaged in promiscuity by rallying his people, claiming “God blesses those who obey him, and blesses financially.” 8 Through his televised speeches, Falwell was seen as a martyr and saint, sacrificing himself for God, thus prompting his viewers to do the same.
During the 1970s, Falwell pushed for a cultural exodus to unite his people into a vocal presence and become politically active. He believed the United States was in a spiritual renaissance, but only if fundamentalist preachers began training men of God for other positions of influence in secular society – businessmen, and lawyers – to integrate religion into their occupational practices. Led by Falwell and evangelist pastor Frank Schaeffer, separatist fundamentalists and conservative evangelicals formed an alliance under commonly Biblical grounded truths. Schaeffer criticized the fundamental separatists for creating a pretentious aura for their religion through didactic terminology and lofty sayings unfamiliar to the general public. Schaeffer called these Christians to “infiltrate the world rather than avoid it”9 and thus united the fundamentalists and evangelists under the same theology, tearing down cultural taboos of separation of religion and state. Through the spiritual awakening, Protestant political sermons opened up addressing controversial subjects of divorce, women’s rights, and abortion. Falwell spoke of the need for a male headship within families to actively restore family rites, and conversely necessitated a submission of men to their wife’s desires to avoid divorce. Furthermore, Falwell himself created a pro-life book, If I Should Die before I Wake, arguing that abortion directly violated God’s word. Born-again preachers were able to directly engage in their communities in the movement against abortion under the premise of furthering God’s will.
The last segment of Harding’s work focuses on a last few doctrinal truths that ultimately failed in public view and the gradual disappearance of the Moral Majority under botched leadership in the late 1980s. The goal of campaigning for creation science to be taught alongside biology was a naïve political attempt to integrate religion. Scientific proof of the Bible was supposedly shown in Falwell’s Museum of Earth and Life History which actually parodied the definition of a museum by twisting science into Christianity. Another failed cultural tension was the popular prophecy of the Second Coming following the Revelation’s Armageddon. Christians believed there would be no such rapture for them upon Christ’s Return, yet modern readers believed in their judgement to death if they rejected the Bible’s absolute truth. Popularizing the belief that the Christian Right was formed from moral crises and thus necessitated fear of the apocalypse, Bible Prophecy writer Tim LaHaye “argued…American Christians had nothing else to do with their lives on this earth but pray, live right, and save souls.”10 A combination of the skewed definition of holy living and the increasingly corrupt vices of televangelist preachers brought down the Christian Right. Soon, major religious controversies were publicized as scandals, “marking the end of the period of their public leadership…brought down by their own greed, lust and hypocrisy.”11 These telescandals caused journalists to attempt to unmask Falwell, finding his real motives in his cultural takeover and thus began to question the revival of fundamentalism and religious orthodoxy, ending the movement in Moral Majority.
Throughout The Book of Jerry Falwell, Harding continually reasserts that her study is neither of facts and figures nor the history of the Moral Majority, but rather one on “the oratory, the rhetorics and narratives, the internal cultural work that ended conservative white Protestant collaboration with the terms of secular modernity.” 12 She analyzes the stirring language and zealous tactics behind conversion, economic sacrifice, and persuasion into pro-life. Within the sub beliefs of this cultural movement laid a well-oiled machine that knew how to deliver its message effectively, making born-again Christians ready to fight for a new sense of morality in the United States. Analyzing the definitions between Fundamentalists, Evangelists and other branches of Protestantism was also instrumental to Harding’s understanding of how such a large majority of a defined secular society so heavily endorsed a political Bible-believing movement. She ends the work with a detailing of events such as heavy telescandals that ended the movement.
As a cultural anthropologist and not a traditional historian, Harding was still able to present a thorough understanding for Christian fundamentalism in the 1980s. Harding studied anthropology at the University of Michigan and did her first in case study in the villages of Spain. In 2000 she began studying “millennial movements and the American civil rights, feminist, and pro-family movements”13 similar to movements found in The Book of Jerry Falwell. As a Caucasian female, Harding was probably more susceptible to religious influence and an easier target for conversion when visiting Lynchburg, Virginia when conducting her research. For example, in her manuscripts with Reverend Campbell, his testimony had been quite friendly and open under the context of her race and gender.
Published in 2000, The Book of Jerry Falwell accurately depicts the Christian fundamentalist movement as it chronicles the beginnings and the endings of Falwell’s Moral Majority. Harding began her study in the early 1980s following the rising movement at its origins. Traveling to the site of origin of Thomas Road Baptist Church in Lynchburg Virginia, she couldn’t just “‘learn the culture’, [ask] questions based on respect and knowledge; and still remain outside, separate, obscure about what [she] believed and disbelieved. There was no such ground.”14 The entire Lynchburg Christian community was already prone to reaching out in evangelism to convert lost souls. The rapid growth of the movement in the early 1980s definitely influenced the book in terms of its rawness with verbatim manuscripts to reveal personal experience.
Critically acclaimed the depth and complexity of this work, Harding received mostly positive reviews lauding her ability to create a readable yet persuasively rhetoric work that mirrored Falwell’s own rhetoric of fundamentalism. History professor and director of the Nagel Institute for the Study of World Christianity Joel Carpenter states in his review, “while most studies of fundamentalism have looked at it from the safe distance of secular analysis, Harding allowed herself to be almost converted, entering what she calls ‘the psychic intersection between born-again and un-born-again languages and worlds’(p. xii).”15 Perhaps because of this integration within the white Baptist church culture, Sandra Collins from Liberty Journal Review finds Harding “a tad defensive of Falwell.”16 However, both reviewers find Harding successful at completing her task of analyzing the language that catalyzed the movement into such political and cultural prominence. They credit her efforts to redefine contemporary fundamentalism and bold rhetoric herself.
Harding offers an interesting perspective into the heart of Christian fundamentalism in the 1980s. Despite stating that she would be focused solely on the oratory of the cultural movement, the work also focused on the unifying aspects of branches of Christianity in doctrinal beliefs such as being anti-legalized abortion, and anti-women’s rights. Providing the reader a terminology guide, Harding describes, “the term ‘fundamentalism’ has two inflections in both scholarly and popular discourse on American religion.’”17 However, through the constant substitution of phrases such as “fundamentalism”, “evangelical”, “born-again” and “Bible-believing”, ideas become befuddled when Harding spends a great deal of time noting the difference between separatist Fundamentalists and non-separatist Evangelists and citing their uniting under Falwell’s movement. Oftentimes she focuses too much on the psychological implications of religious definitions, and the title creates a misleading name for itself as it is far from a pure biography of Falwell, but rather covers the breadth of conservative evangelicalism. Despite lapses in phrasing, Harding presents a persuasive account of the New Christian Right movement by becoming both the investigative scholar and the disconnected observer.
Harding’s discourse on the fundamental beliefs of Christian fundamentalism is an accurate reflection of the United States’ return towards conservatism. With the election of Jimmy Carter in 1977 as the “first self-described ‘born again president’” 18, and the help of the Moral Majority in electing the very Christian Reagan into office in 1981, the evangelists described exemplify the turn away from 1960s liberalism. This period of time was a massive cultural and political movement in progressivism for the previously outsider fundamentalists who were exiled from society due to their religious beliefs. Under the leadership of Falwell, this Christian community expanded its basis nationwide to give the United States a newfound sense of morality in fighting for the religious integration of Christian values into everyday society, a milestone in Christian progressivism.
Under the expansive new cultural movement that swept the nation, Harding, in her case study of the origins of the movement, amassed a great deal of first-hand accounts of the convincing and life-changing influence of the New Christian Right Movement. Through the fusion of branches of Protestant Christianity against modernism and under the leadership and oratory of a gifted preacher, Jerry Falwell, the 1980s became an almost aggressively religious era that characterized the United States in a Bible-believing perspective.
1. Harding, Susan Friend. The Book of Jerry Falwell Princeton, Princeton University Press, 2000. 1. 51.
2. Harding, Susan Friend. 44.
3. Harding, Susan Friend. 40.
4. Harding, Susan Friend. 61.
5. Harding, Susan Friend. 74.
6. Harding, Susan Friend. 90.
7. Harding, Susan Friend. 106.
8. Harding, Susan Friend. 122.
9. Harding, Susan Friend. 137.
10. Harding, Susan Friend. 242.
11. Harding, Susan Friend. 251.
12. .Harding, Susan Friend. 81.
13. UC Santa Cruz. “Susan Harding.” UC Santa Cruz. Regents of the University of California, 13. 2015. Web. 22 May 2016.
14. Harding, Susan Friend. 40.
15. Carpenter, Joel. “Review of The Book of Jerry Falwell: Fundamentalist Language and Politics.” Academic Room. The Journal of Religion, 12 Sept. 2002. Web. 22 May 2016. 16.
16. Collins, Sandra. “The Book of Jerry Falwell : Fundamentalist Language and Politics.” Buffalo & Ene County Library. Library Journals LLC, 2010. Web. 22 May 2016. 17.
17. Harding, Susan Friend. xv. 18.
18. Harding, Susan Friend. 128.