Fallout from era of Falwell
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.