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After Blair: Conservatives Mumble About Welfare State Reform Immigration: Mend It Not Rend It

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The Legacy of Jerry Falwell

by Christopher Chantrill
May 21, 2007 at 2:40 pm

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IF THE UNITED States is a divided nation then it was probably Jerry Falwell who divided it.

Before the rise of Jerry Falwell Governor Ronald Reagan signed a law legalizing abortion for the state of California and nobody thought anything about it. The United States Supreme Court voted 7 to 2 on Roe v. Wade thinking it was just tidying up what had already been decided in the body politic.

You could say that with Roe v. Wade liberals had just about finished up the engraving on their moral get-out-of-jail-free card. Anything that well-born liberals wanted to do was now OK: sex, drugs, art, divorce, abortion, spirit, searching, activism, all no problem, all justified by German philosophy or psychology, and now confirmed by the United States Supreme Court.

Then along came Jerry Falwell and said that it was all wrong. No wonder they hated him.

But to Jerry Falwell his legacy was not the political battle of the Moral Majority but his Liberty University and the 10,000 people he had sent out into the world from there to “plant” the Word of God. What did he mean?

Fortunately we know, because in Spirit and Flesh: Life in a Fundamentalist Baptist Church James M. Ault, Jr. wrote about it. A liberal post-doc sociologist from Harvard he set out in 1983 on a two-year project to study the Shawmut Valley Baptist Church in Worcester, Massachusetts, and its pastor Frank Valenti.

Frank had grown up in a rambunctious Italian-Catholic family just outside Worcester, but by the early 1970s he was a disabled Vietnam vet with half a leg shot away, working as an auto mechanic, and his marriage was in trouble. He got Jesus and in 1974 he packed up his wife and two kids to go to Jerry Falwell’s Liberty Baptist College in Lynchburg, Virginia. He studied to become a pastor.

The curriculum at Liberty was heavy on hands-on education and light on academics, but “its modest reading assignments proved too much for Frank,” a blue-collar kid who had scarcely cracked a book in his life. But still, he graduated and “planted” his own Baptist church in Worcester.

Unlike Jerry Falwell, Frank never got his church membership above 100-150. The church always seemed to split when it got above the 100 member mark. But the members built a church and school, held Bible study, and operated a mutual-aid community where people only had to communicate a need to prompt the church community to pitch in and help. Ault, as a struggling post-doc, owned a Volkswagen Rabbit with worn-out brakes. Came the day when a church member insisted on fixing his brakes for free.

The Shawmut Valley church members came overwhelmingly from the lower-middle and working class. They were down-home people like Frank Valenti, struggling to make it in the city on the cusp of literacy. It is precisely people like them who have been drawn into the enthusiastic Christian experience ever since the Puritans in the seventeenth century and the Great Awakening in the eighteenth century.

For those wobbling on the cusp of literacy the birth into the culture of the written word has been midwifed in enthusiastic Christian sects for three centuries at least by Bible study, and Ault shows how Bible study teaches “the elementary discourses, the language, of fundamentalist Christian life.” In Bible study a traditional oral culture of families and kindred adapts to the modern world through a collective oral discourse mediated through a written text.

Our liberal friends often feel a profound compassion for cultures struggling with the challenge of modernity, and want to help them with government programs. Our academic friends talk about strategies of resistance to the cultural colonialism imposed by western hegemony.

But our liberal friends apply this analysis only to groups likely to serve their political interests and lacking the cultural power to challenge their therapeutic, feminist, communalist and social-scientific schemes. It serves their purpose, of course, to swaddle such groups in the blankets of the liberal-run welfare state. In a generation or two of welfare dependency a minority group becomes pretty well deracinated and domesticated.

But a Christian fundamentalist like Jerry Falwell, son of a bootlegger and murderer, does not want to be domesticated. Proud and independent, fundamentalists want to work out their salvation in a personal relationship with God without the mediation of liberal middle-men. There is only one way to characterize such willful obstinacy, for liberals. It is bigotry and hate.

Christopher Chantrill blogs at www.roadtothemiddleclass.com.

Buy his Road to the Middle Class.

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presented by Christopher Chantrill

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