A Movement That Left Falwell Behind

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R. David Duncan III / AP

Jerry Falwell stands in front of a scale model of Liberty Village on May 30, 2002.

When John McCain delivered the Commencement address at Jerry Falwell's Liberty University last year, it was taken as a sign that he had made peace with the man he had skewered as an "agent of intolerance" during the 2000 primary campaign.

But it was also a sign that McCain, like many people, did not fully understand how much the evangelical landscape had changed since Falwell first arrived back in the 1970s to reshape it. The current climate exists both because and in spite of him: no one did more to usher fundamentalist Christians into the political arena, but he could not control what happened once they got there.

The son of an atheist bootlegger who was born again when he was 19, Falwell initially followed the Baptist tradition of keeping church and state devoutly separate. (This instinct also reflected the fact that in his early days of ministry it was the clerics of the left who were flooding the streets and lobbying the Senate and speaking passionately from their pulpits in defense of civil rights.) But with the coming of the culture wars and especially the Roe v. Wade decision legalizing abortion, Falwell had another conversion experience, and entered the political arena with a vengeance.

In the decades that followed, abortion and homosexuality remained his central targets. Though he folded the Moral Majority in 1989, he remained an outspoken foe of all those whom he believed would undermine the sanctity of life and traditional marriage — including, most notoriously, the purple-purse-carrying Teletubby Tinky Winky, whom he accused of corrupting children.

Those who knew only the flamboyant, firebreathing Falwell, however, might have been surprised to see how he behaved inside the White House during his presidential audiences. There was something of the awed country boy left in him, a giddy delight that he was even in the room. "Falwell was always very respectful and low-key and humble and soft-spoken in these meetings," says one veteran of the first Bush White House. Unlike some others, he didn't walk in and hand over a "to do" list; Having been given perhaps more credit than he deserved for helping deliver Reagan into office, he was not one to break publicly with the popular President once he was there.

Maybe it was inevitable that the movement he had done so much to create would grow up, stretch out, even rebel against his strong paternal supervision. Part of this was the much chronicled disillusionment of some Christian soldiers who had duly marched onto the field, gone door to door and pew to pew in search of new voters, placed their faith in politics and politicians to promote their most precious values, only to find those values were a currency that could be traded away behind closed doors. After six years with a born-again evangelical in the White House and the G.O.P. dominant on Capitol Hill and spreading through the judiciary, the religious voters who believed they exalted these leaders for a purpose had reason to believe they'd been betrayed. It was a bitter irony to see the bookstores filling with accounts of the rise of a new American Theocracy: what many conservative Christians saw was that the boardroom, not the sanctuary, was Republican hallowed ground. When their interests clashed with the G.O.P. business wing, the money talked: concerns about persecution of Christians in China, disgust with Internet pornography, alarms about global warming, respect for workers' right to wear religious clothing, would not translate into policies that might inconvenience American business.

But even more important was a spiritual and generational change that was occurring that made Falwell a less representative voice of people of faith in public life. The path twists and widens: It was not just his tactics the next generation rejects, but his political theology as well. Today's young evangelicals on campus still have their heroes and their causes, but it's less likely to be Falwell and James Dobson fighting abortion and gay marriage than Bono and Rick Warren leading the way on addressing poverty and "creation care" and AIDS in Africa When Falwell talked of AIDS, it was about God's punishment of homosexuals. When Rick Warren, who also views homosexuality as a sin, talks about AIDS, he's talking about how to stop its spread and minister to the suffering. When he hosts a global AIDS Summit, he invites both Barack Obama and Sam Brownback.

It will be tempting to call Falwell's passing the end of an era, but that risks missing the larger point. The movement he helped lead was never monolithic, or as tidy as its critics imagine — or obedient to earthly powers. In every generation, Christians have wrestled with the question of whether their efforts are better spent changing laws or changing hearts, and how to proceed when those goals seem to conflict. Falwell enthusiastically practiced the politics of division, flinging damnation at those who disagreed with his vision of a Godly America. Now a rising generation of Christian leaders is looking for ways to bring people together: the politics of division may be a shrewd electoral strategy, but it's a shallow spiritual one. Their God is bigger than their party, more mysterious, more forgiving and more embracing. It is only partly wishful thinking when a progressive evangelical counterforce to Falwell like Jim Wallis declares, "The Evangelicals have left the Right. They now reside with Jesus."