Fall­out from era of Fal­well

Los Angeles Times - - Calendar -

IN a week filled with in­ter­est­ing po­lit­i­cal sto­ries, two stood out be­cause they have more than a sev­en­day shelf life and sug­gest some­thing im­por­tant about the way the Amer­i­can me­dia cover pol­i­tics to­day.

One, of course, was the death of the fun­da­men­tal­ist preacher Jerry Fal­well, a found­ing fa­ther of the re­li­gious right. The other is the con­tin­u­ing snip­ing at Repub­li­can pres­i­den­tial can­di­date Mitt Rom­ney over his ad­her­ence to the Mor­mon faith. What the po­lit­i­cal press seems re­luc­tant — in fact, un­will­ing — to en­ter­tain is the idea that Rom­ney’s or­deal is, in large part, a con­se­quence of Fal­well’s legacy.

Reg­u­lar read­ers of Re­gard­ing Me­dia may re­call that, back on Jan. 13, this col­umn ex­am­ined a num­ber of ar­ti­cles on Rom­ney’s re­li­gion by gen­er­ally lib­eral com­men­ta­tors and con­cluded that “it’s been nearly half a cen­tury since our po­lit­i­cal jour­nal­ism has wit­nessed any­thing quite as breath­tak­ingly nox­ious and of­fen­sive as the cur­rent at­tempt to dis­credit” the for­mer Mas­sachusetts gov­er­nor be­cause of his faith.

“Rom­ney comes from a po­lit­i­cal fam­ily,” the col­umn said. “His fa­ther, Ge­orge, was a lib­eral Repub­li­can, a sup­porter of civil rights and an op­po­nent of the war in Viet­nam. When Mitt


[ Rom­ney, a one-time in­de­pen­dent, ran as a Repub­li­can against Sen. Ed­ward Kennedy in 1994, he was pro-choice and op­posed dis­crim­i­na­tion against ho­mo­sex­u­als by the Boy Scouts. Since then, his ad­her­ence to the val­ues of so-called so­cial con­ser­vatism has in­creased along with his na­tional po­lit­i­cal am­bi­tions.

“Ev­ery bit of that record is fair game for in­quiry and com­men­tary. His private re­li­gious con­science, how­ever he chooses to frame it, is not.”

Since then, it’s mi­grated from the opin­ion col­umns into cam­paign re­port­ing. Dur­ing the last few months, the po­lit­i­cal press corps has de­manded that this guy — a suc­cess­ful busi­ness­man and politi­cian, though hardly a the­olo­gian — ex­plain his views on ev­ery­thing from the Moun­tain Mead­ows mas­sacre to polygamy.

You’d swear he was au­di­tion­ing for a part on “Big Love” rather than run­ning for pres­i­dent. It’s as if Ro­man Catholic can­di­dates were be­ing asked to de­clare where they stand on the slaugh­ter of the Al­bi­gen­sians or the trial of Galileo. Why not de­mand that Pres­by­te­rian can­di­dates de­clare their views re­gard­ing the ex­cesses of John Calvin’s theo­cratic Sparta in Geneva? Let’s ask Epis­co­palians to ac­count for the ex­e­cu­tion of the Lon­don Carthu­sians or Luther­ans for Martin Luther’s an­tiSemitism.

Then there’s the low-level ridicule, mas­querad­ing as hu­mor.

Fri­day, for ex­am­ple, Peggy Noo­nan, who wrote speeches for Ron­ald Rea­gan and now com­ments for the Wall Street Jour­nal, had this to say about one of the week’s big po­lit­i­cal sto­ries: “Hav­ing watched the sec­ond Repub­li­can de­bate the other night, it’s clear to me the sub­ject to­day is Fred Thompson, the man who wasn’t there. While the other can­di­dates bang away earnestly in a frozen for­mat, Thompson con­tin­ues to sneak up from the creek and steal their un­der­wear — box­ers, briefs and tem­ple gar­ments.”

Noo­nan, of course, can have no idea whether Rom­ney wears the un­der­gar­ments pre­scribed for de­vout Mor­mons, and why make him the only can­di­date iden­ti­fied by his re­li­gion? An in­stinct for the cheap laugh . . . maybe . . . or per­haps a not-so­sub­tle ap­peal to some­thing that re­ally ought to con­cern Amer­i­can po­lit­i­cal writ­ers and com­men­ta­tors.

AS the re­li­ably non­par­ti­san Pew Re­search Cen­ter re­ported this week, “Na­tional polling or­ga­ni­za­tions show strong pub­lic mis­giv­ings . . . about any pres­i­den­tial can­di­date who be­longs to the Mor­mon Church.” Pew’s most re­cent sur­vey found that 30% of the Amer­i­can pub­lic is less likely to sup­port a can­di­date if that can­di­date is a Mor­mon. Three months ago, Gallup re­ported that 46% of its re­spon­dents had an un­fa­vor­able opin­ion of the Mor­mon re­li­gion. That was the high­est un­fa­vor­able im­pres­sion Gallup turned up, as only 25% said they held a sim­i­larly neg­a­tive view of Mus­lims, while 14% said they had a bad im­pres­sion of Catholics and 7% were ill-dis­posed to­ward Jews.

Those are trou­bling find­ings, and some hard re­port­ing on what lurks be­hind them would be a real pub­lic ser­vice rather than an ap­peal to our pol­i­tics’ low­est com­mon de­nom­i­na­tor.

And now we’re back to Fal­well, be­cause the pas­sions, prej­u­dices and in­cli­na­tions he helped laun­der back into Amer­i­can elec­toral pol­i­tics helped make licit, if not re­spectable, the bar­gain-base­ment in­qui­si­tion to which Rom­ney is be­ing sub­jected.

The elec­tion of 1960 was a wa­ter­shed in Amer­i­can po­lit­i­cal his­tory. Con­fronted by a his­toric Amer­i­can anti-Catholi­cism, John F. Kennedy made his per­sonal be­lief in sep­a­ra­tion of church and state a core fea­ture of his pres­i­den­tial cam­paign. He won and, eight years later, a solid ma­jor­ity of Amer­i­cans told the Gallup Poll that churches should stay out of pol­i­tics.

A lit­tle more than a decade later, Fal­well set about over­turn- ing that con­sen­sus. He suc­ceeded not through per­sua­sion but through the hard re­al­i­ties of elec­toral pol­i­tics. His Moral Ma­jor­ity or­ga­ni­za­tion helped bring evan­gel­i­cal Chris­tians into the elec­toral process, which they pre­vi­ously had dis­dained as im­pure. To­day, ac­cord­ing to Pew, “white evan­gel­i­cal Chris­tians com­prise 24% of the pop­u­la­tion and form a dis­tinct group whose mem­bers share core re­li­gious be­liefs as well as crys­tal­lized and con­sis­tently con­ser­va­tive po­lit­i­cal at­ti­tudes.”

For ex­am­ple, 6 out of 10 of those con­ser­va­tively in­clined Amer­i­cans be­lieve that the Bi­ble should be law­mak­ers’ guid­ing prin­ci­ple, even when that book con­flicts with the will of the peo­ple. It’s a view Catholics and main­line Protes­tants re­ject by sim­i­lar mar­gins.

Still, in a coun­try that is gen­er­ally split down the mid­dle along par­ti­san lines, a co­he­sive group of vot­ers with such views is bound to ex­ert an out­sized in­flu­ence in con­ser­va­tive, which is to say Repub­li­can, pol­i­tics. Nearly 80% of those re­li­gious right vot­ers cast bal­lots for Ge­orge W. Bush, whom they re­gard as one of their own, a fact not lost on cur­rent GOP can­di­dates.

From the be­gin­ning, Fal­well’s in­ten­tion was to di­vide those he re­garded as godly from those he deemed un­godly in Amer­i­can life. (His first foray into pol­i­tics oc­curred as a fer­vent op­po­nent, on re­li­gious grounds, of Brown vs. Board of Ed­u­ca­tion and in­te­gra­tion, gen­er­ally, though like many white South­ern­ers of his gen­er­a­tion, he later dis­avowed those views.)

“There is no sep­a­ra­tion of church and state,” he once re­marked.

The evan­gel­i­cal Chris­tians who are the over­whelm­ing ma­jor­ity of the re­li­gious right agree. As the Pew sur­vey found, they be­lieve their churches should ex­press views on “day-to-day so­cial and po­lit­i­cal is­sues.”

That sen­ti­ment has helped make Amer­ica the only coun­try in the de­vel­oped world in which sci­en­tific ques­tions, such as evo­lu­tion and global warm­ing, have taken on a re­li­gious or par­ti­san cast. For ex­am­ple, 65% of white evan­gel­i­cal Chris­tians re­ject evo­lu­tion, which is why can­di­dates at the first Repub­li­can pres­i­den­tial de­bate were asked where they stood on the is­sue. (Three of them re­jected Dar­win’s the­o­ries.) Sim­i­larly, Fal­well was hardly alone when he de­nounced con­cern over global warm­ing as an at­tempt “to de­stroy Amer­ica’s free en­ter­prise sys­tem and our eco­nomic sta­bil­ity.” In fact, nearly 3 out of 4 Repub­li­cans re­ject the con­cept that hu­man ac­tiv­ity is chang­ing the cli­mate.

Fi­nally, 6 out of 10 of the evan­gel­i­cal vot­ers whom Fal­well helped bring into the elec­toral process to­day be­lieve po­lit­i­cal can­di­dates are not suf­fi­ciently forth­com­ing about their re­li­gious con­vic­tions.

That’s the story the po­lit­i­cal press corps missed this week: Jerry Fal­well’s legacy is Mitt Rom­ney’s real prob­lem.


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