While Harold Lindsell’s “The Battle for the Bible” may have been the opening salvo on the war on Evangelicalism, Baptist segregationist Pastor and televangelist Jerry Falwell and his “Moral Majority” movement marked the beginning of an all-out assault on evangelicalism. It marked the D-Day politically of the war and would set the tone for the next two decades.
Depending on whom one talked to, Falwell was either a fundamentalist or an evangelical. He certainly started out as a fundamentalist. His foray into politics somewhat sullied his reputation as a fundamentalist, as Bob Jones University “declared that the Moral Majority organization “was Satanic”, holding the view that it was a step towards the apostate one-world church and government body because it would cross the line from a political alliance to a religious one between true Christians and the non-born-again, which was forbidden by their interpretation of the Bible.“ (1) But, Falwell never disavowed fundamentalism, and continued to espouse many of its tenants.
Which is part of the point I wish to make. By allying with conservative politicians and Catholics, Falwell was able to infiltrate evangelicalism, while still able to forward a fundamentalist agenda. But let’s be clear here. This entanglement with American politics was a major departure for a fundamentalist. Instead of rejecting politics, as most fundamentalists before, Falwell heartily jumped into the fray, while still clinging to most fundamentalist beliefs, the most prominent of which was racism.
Viewing the fight for civil rights as a communist plot, Falwell was a staunch defender of segregation. For him and other fundamentalists, communism fostered American racial discontent as a tool to discredit capitalism. The political ploy he relied on was, of course, “states rights.” (2) The argument that States, not the federal government, should decide issues of discrimination has been a consistent tool in the fight against inclusion by conservatives ever since.
However, the racism inherent to fundamentalists like Falwell put him at a tremendous political disadvantage. “Although Southern fundamentalists were advancing in socioeconomic status and becoming more politically active, they were unable to create a nationally, influential political movement, primarily because their defense of segregation ran counter to the nation’s increasing acceptance of civil rights and left them regionally isolated.” (3)
As Falwell positioned his morality troops in 1979, fundamentalists of another sort were preparing their assault on Southern Baptist colleges. David P. Gushee, a renowned Christian ethicist, who has since renounced evangelicalism, describes the bitter cultural battle being fought when he attended seminary in the 80’s.
“The Southern Seminary where I arrived in 1984 was embroiled in a fierce denominational controversy…Little known to me before my arrival was that the fact that the Southern Baptists were at the forefront of the religious wars of the 1980s and beyond, and that Southern Seminary was ground zero. I showed up in the midst of the carefully organized campaign of ‘fundamentalist-conservatives’ to take over (back?) the denomination from ‘moderate’ (moderate-conservative? liberal?) control.” (4)
Interestingly, I was finishing up my seminary degree from Fuller Seminary about the same time Dr. Gushee was beginning his. I was aware of the battle, but as I was not Southern Baptist, didn’t think that much of it. I was also aware of Jerry Falwell and his Moral Majority, but likewise, dismissed it as “fringe.”
So, as the 1980’s began, a basic two-pronged fundamentalist strategy formed: one on the popular level with the Falwell-led Moral Majority, the other on campuses and within the Southern Baptist Convention, led by fundamentalists such as Paige Patterson. More on that later.
To be continued.
2 “God’s Own Party, The Making of the Christian Right,” Daniel K. Williams, Oxford University Press, 2010, p. 46.
3 Ibid, pp. 46-47.
4 “Still Christian, Following Jesus out of American Evangelicalism,” David P. Gushee, Westminster John Knox Press, 2017, p. 28.