Editor’s Note: Stephen Prothero is a professor of religion at Boston University and the author of “Why Liberals Win the Culture Wars (Even When They Lose Elections): The Battles That Define America from Jefferson’s Heresies to Gay Marriage.” The opinions expressed in this commentary are his.
On Monday, Martin Luther King Jr. Day, Donald Trump will speak at the convocation of Liberty University, which was founded in Lynchburg, Virginia, by the televangelist Jerry Falwell and is now run by his son Jerry Falwell Jr.
Other presidential candidates, including Ted Cruz, Ben Carson, Jeb Bush and Bernie Sanders, have addressed Liberty students in recent months. So did Ted Kennedy in 1983. But Trump is the only one of them asked to speak on the King holiday. As Falwell Jr. told the Lynchburg News & Advance, “We chose that day so that Mr. Trump would have the opportunity to recognize and honor Dr. King on MLK Day.”
With this promise in sight, it seems like a good time to revisit what Falwell Sr. said about King before and after he co-founded the Moral Majority in 1979 as a “pro-life, pro-family, pro-moral, and pro-American” organization.
Although Falwell came to prominence as a political pastor, he started his career by affirming the strict separation of church and state long championed by Baptists like himself. In “Ministers and Marchers,” a 1965 sermon delivered at his Thomas Road Baptist Church the day after King led civil rights marchers from Selma to Montgomery, Alabama, Falwell suggested that King was a communist.
He also criticized “left-wing” leaders of the “so-called freedom movement” for stirring up hatred and violence. “Preachers are not called to be politicians but to be soul winners,” Falwell concluded.
By 1976 – Newsweek’s “Year of the Evangelical” – Falwell had undergone a change of heart.
In a Bicentennial rally held on July 4, 1976, he told his followers that “this idea of ‘religion and politics don’t mix’ was invented by the devil to keep Christians from running their own country.” In 1977, he worked with actress Anita Bryant and her Save Our Children campaign to repeal a gay rights ordinance in Dade County, Florida.
In 1978, he helped to defeat a Virginia referendum to legalize parimutuel betting. In 1979 he joined forces with other cultural conservatives to form the Moral Majority.
So it was no surprise when in 1980 he repudiated as “false prophecy” his earlier stance against the separation of church and state. “All the moral issues that matter today are in the political arena,” Falwell said. “There’s no way to fight these battles except in that arena.”
According to the creation myth of its founding, the Religious Right coalesced around their opposition to abortion and Roe v. Wade (1973). That makes for a good story, but it is not how it happened. Falwell did not preach his first anti-abortion sermon until 1978, and the Southern Baptist Convention did not oppose abortion until 1980.
“The Religious Right did not start because of a concern about abortion,” says Ed Dobson, who as an associate pastor at Falwell’s church, was present at the founding of the Moral Majority. “I sat in the non-smoke-filled back room with the Moral Majority, and I frankly do not remember abortion ever being mentioned as a reason why we ought to do something.”
What brought Falwell and other white evangelicals into common cause with political conservatives was a ruling issued in 1978 by the IRS of the Jimmy Carter administration. This ruling stripped tax-exempt status from all-white private schools formed in the South in reaction to the Brown v. Board of Education mandate to desegregate public schools.
Falwell had founded one of these schools in Lynchburg, though he and other white evangelicals insisted that their schools were Christian academies, not segregation academies. Their intent was safeguard children from secularization, not racial integration, but their schools had been unfairly and illegally targeted by a federal government hell-bent on making secular humanism the nation’s false faith.
“In one fell swoop,” writes political scientist Corey Robin, “the heirs of slaveholders became the descendants of persecuted Baptists, and Jim Crow a heresy the First Amendment was meant to protect.”
In this controversy, the Religious Right found its voice and its power. It also found common cause with political conservatives.
“There was an overnight conversion,” recalled Paul Weyrich – the conservative strategist who coined the term “moral majority” – as conservative Christians realized that “big government was coming after them as well.”
According to Ralph Reed, who would later lead the Christian Coalition, many white evangelicals decried the IRS decision as “a declaration of war on their schools, their churches, and their children.” But it was the Religious Right that declared this culture war, reintroducing to American politics the good-and-evil rhetoric of an impending apocalypse and a mindset of spiritual struggle: no compromise, no negotiation and no surrender.
Soon Falwell and his shock troops would reset their sights.
Falwell would repudiate his segregationist past and his movement would pivot from race to “family values.” Yes, abortion was murder and homosexuality was unnatural. But each also undermined family life.
Similarly, feminism was dangerous because it confused the distinct roles men and women and boys and girls were to play in the “traditional family,” which Falwell and his fellow travelers understood to be of a singular sort: one male breadwinner and one female homemaker, married, with children, living under one roof and the patriarchal authority of the man of the house.
But the spark that lit a fire under these culture wars was race.
In 1967, the same year public schools were finally desegregated in Virginia, Falwell had established his own private school called Lynchburg Christian Academy. At its opening it had zero black students, the same number of black members at Falwell’s massive Thomas Road Baptist Church. Lynchburg Baptist College (now Liberty University) followed in 1971.
When Trump steps up to speak there on King’s holiday, he will be stepping into this past, appending his words to those of King and of Falwell.
Today, some white evangelicals are dismayed that so many of their co-religionists are supporting the candidacy of this man, who seems to be a walking billboard (or Jumbotron) for the Seven Deadly Sins.
Trump, who has been married three times and derives his language more from the vulgarities of bathrooms than from the niceties of the pulpit, has also taken stances on key cultural issues, including abortion and gay rights, that are at odds with the Republican Party’s white evangelical base.
Nonetheless, he does have a story to tell that resonates not only with white evangelicals’ complaints about the decline of a Christian America, but also with the broad contours of the Christian story, which runs from The Fall in Eden to redemption at the hands of the crucified and resurrected Christ. Both of these narratives get going with a fall from grace and point toward an upcoming revival.
I know many evangelicals, and Trump is not one of them.
The way he tells his story – that America has been schlonged but will be great again – isn’t how they would tell it. But that story itself is not so far off from the story that Falwell and other conservative culture warriors have been telling themselves for decades. Moreover, the anxieties and fears it exploits – in Trump’s case, of Mexicans and Muslims – are close kin to the anxieties and fears about King and other African-Americans that Falwell himself exploited a half-century ago.