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Falwell Rising

In short, the ubiquitous evil corrupting the Great American consciousness, in the words of '70s fundamentalist evangelical radio star Jerry Falwell, is a product of a society in which “missing is the mighty man...who will call sin by its right name.” As Adam's first divine mandate was to name things, Falwell graces his audience with a neatly ordered laundry list of social iniquity, authoritatively assuming the character role of his own absent protagonist. Among those perpetrating such damnable social degradations Falwell enumerates homosexuals, welfare recipients, women who speak out of turn, and, apparently, “humanists” in general. He issues a call to the “silent majority” on behalf of God, with strong nationalist overtones, to seek renewal of God's law and scriptural morality. From the inauguration of Ronald Reagan to the time of this writing, those who listened and heeded his call have been an inextricable force in American politics, and have arguably influenced the entire course of human history by virtue of that leverage.
Falwell proposed biblical solutions to what he perceived to be the social problems of his day, and, in doing so, gave voice to an entire sub-culture of Americans who stood against the equal rights movement. Like the Bible, on which the Constitution was clearly predicated, American law was perfect just the way it was, except,perhaps, for its permissive attitude toward gays and drug addicts. The television had engendered a “loss of respect for human life” after, not ten years prior, galvanizing major national attention to such previously invisible issues as racial discrimination and police brutality, and thus prompting the very altruistic affirmations of human equality and respect embodied in the Equal Rights Movement he urges his followers to “stand against.” He mythologizes an America “built on integrity and hard work,” but increasingly populated with near-do-well sinners, and poses the rhetorical question “Does the world owe them a living?” Oddly, his appeal to the prideful ethic of those who work for a living against those sedentary vultures profiting from their existential losses is not far removed from Marx's appeal to the proletariat a century prior, but this point of agreement between religious radicals and Godless communists remains lost upon the vast majority of each.

Alternately, Falwell denounces the humanists for their “attempt to exempt [themselves] from God's law.” True to form, he takes his illustration directly from the red east, quoting Mao Tse-tung “Our God is none other than the masses of the people.” This is not a bridge either side of this extremist feud is expected to cross in the foreseeable future. It is more likely that the progressive tide of secularism and the practical concerns of survival will eventually drown out the conflict, but at the time of this writing, the Moral Majority, having stalled out in the nineties with Newt Gingrich, was promptly resurrected by Bush II for the prophesied tribulation under the most contentious presidency in American history, as two completely new wars evolved on purely ideological grounds, ever feeding the frenzied appetites of the nothing-if-not-imaginative Signs and Wonders crowd. Almost as if by omnipotent choreography, the most pervasive topics of debate in modern times include Gay Rights, as marriage bans are overturned; Women's Rights, in the form of equal pay legislation and rape-awareness; and Entitlement Reform, to include “wellfare queens” or “corporate bailouts” depending on who is in congress.

These new phenomenon challenge many well established views of normative behavior, and these challenges most often proceed from some aspect of a faith tradition. Falwell's conservatism was a predictable reaction to the liberalism driving policy and opinion. The problem with secularism, which humanists often overlook, is that even the most radical religious critics are equally human, and are reacting to a perceived (and pervasive) threat to their own cultural models for reality. As the world continues to recede from Divine Right Autocracy, many are left behind, stranded like polar bears on floating fragments of ice as glaciers retreat from global warming. Whether right or wrong, a sense of isolation only ever exacerbates the perception of any threat. Therefore, it is not surprising to note Falwell's objective, which is quite naturally a call for revival, confession, and repentance. He challenges “millions in the silent pray...and exalt this nation,” and like a true protestant reformer, invites them all “back to God, Back to the Bible, Back to Morality!”

Years later, Falwell would go on to sue a pornographic magazine for publishing a pretty offensive ad-parody, and would have been awarded a substantial civil claim had the decisions of his local courts been upheld by the supreme court. More years later, the two highly controversial men appeared together in a surprisingly warm and fascinating debate regarding the social implications of that decision. Flynt argued that had the courts decided in Falwell's favor, they would have set a dangerous and unconstitutional precedent for censorship, thereby undermining the protections guaranteed by the First Amendment. Falwell insisted that some panel or body convene to determine what is and isn't “reasonably” offensive, but when asked repeatedly by Flynt, the moderator, and by audience members who ought to be entrusted with this sacred responsibility, Falwell conceded he did not know, ant that he pushed the lawsuit in the first place because “it was new ground; you didn't know whether or not you could plow it until you went there.”
That he nearly reaped six figures on a cartoon, he surely noticed.

That he nearly broke the Constitution, and almost certainly broke television (censors, as it turns out, were probably a good idea..) he did not quite seem to miss. He said he “wanted consumers to decide” but balked at both the spike in magazine sales and the unanimous Supreme Court Decision in Flynt's favor. His primary interest, as he candidly intimated, was to use the SCOTUS as a platform for reaching his audience. As an audience member observes, the trial and the debate were carried out between who are widely perceived as “a first amendment hero and an elder statesman of the church.” The novelty of the debate was watching two completely antithetical public figures wax poetic, elbow to elbow, while joking and glowing in the limelight of each others moment in the sun. The novelty of the trial, however, as both men rightly perceived, was that it verified for each man that America was still just exactly what he thought it was in the first place. Through chuckles, they each confessed to having become friends, and it is very difficult to measure the sincerity of this claim. Through each other, they are each vindicated.

Its kind of romantic really.  

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