More than any other single person, Jerry Falwell was the embodiment and single most recognizable icon of the Religious Right. However, the association is even deeper than that. In many respects, Jerry Falwell was the heart and soul of the Religious Right, which is why many people hated him so much. They fully understood that without Jerry Falwell there was no Religious Right. And make no mistake about it: liberals hate the Religious Right.
It was the Religious Right that dared to stand in the gap against a secularist/amoral juggernaut that sought to eviscerate America's moral culture, not to mention our Christian heritage. And it was Jerry Falwell's Moral Majority that made the Religious Right a force to be reckoned with, respected, and ignored at one's own political peril.
With Jerry's passing, the question that must be asked is, Did the Religious Right die with Jerry Falwell? The answer is not simple, because it involves both a yes and a no.
In one way, the Religious Right, as currently constituted, died with Jerry Falwell. There is no one at the national level who has the character, gifts, and resources to take the helm of the Religious Right. And, contrary to the opinions of some, great movements are not built on consensus or committees; they are built by men of dynamic leadership and courage. And while there are many notable and courageous leaders among the Religious Right, none has the same prominent stature or political savvy to begin to take Jerry's place.
In fact, Jerry's passing, and a fading Religious Right, has already had a significant influence upon the upcoming presidential election. Does anyone really believe that Republican presidential contender Rudy Giuliani would openly and boldly campaign as a "pro-choice" candidate if the Religious Right was as politically powerful as it once was? In virtually every Republican primary since the creation of the Moral Majority back in 1979, no candidate could expect to obtain the Republican nomination who did not pass the Religious Right's litmus test (at least in rhetoric) of being pro-life and anti-gay marriage.
Not anymore. Today the Republican frontrunner, Rudy Giuliani, is running on a platform that is pro-abortion, pro-gay unions, and pro-gun control. Yet, at this moment, the nomination appears to be his to lose.
Yes, I know that James Dobson, Richard Viguerie, and Janet Folger have all said they would never support or vote for Giuliani, should he obtain the nomination. Viguerie even went so far as to say that if Giuliani is the nominee, he would "personally work to defeat the GOP ticket in 2008.... It will be time to put the GOP out of its misery." [Viguerie Press Release, May 15, 2007]But will that be enough to stop Giuliani from gaining the nomination? Probably not.
In addition, Viguerie and Company must also be displeased with the other Republican frontrunners. Accordingly, it is a very real and distinct possibility that the Republican Party will go into the 2008 presidential election without the support of the Religious Right for the first time in nearly thirty years. However, this prospect not only dooms Republican chances for a presidential victory, it also dooms the Religious Right as a major player in presidential politics. But, please understand: this is not in and of itself a bad thing. Let me explain.
In the providence of God, Jerry Falwell's birthing of the Moral Majority coincided with the first presidential campaign of Ronald Reagan. The combination was magic. Falwell truly admired Reagan and Reagan truly admired Falwell. It was a relationship held together by mutual respect and shared principles.
Unfortunately, the bonds that were first formed in the Reagan/Falwell coalition were not present in subsequent Republican administrations. The result: what started as a legitimate relationship turned into an unholy axis. Republicans after Reagan quickly used their considerable power and influence to bribe and bully the Religious Right. And the Religious Right did as so many battered spouses do; she took the abuse with little more than a whimper, which served only to encourage the bullies within the GOP machine. Until what began with mutual respect and admiration became vile and one-sided.
Nothing illustrates the GOP's lack of respect for Jerry Falwell than the list of no-shows at his funeral. Can you imagine Ronald Reagan sending a low-level White House aide to Dr. Falwell's funeral? Did you notice, too, that none of the GOP presidential contenders showed up at his funeral? In fact, there were virtually no national Republican leaders present at his funeral. This, for the man that did more—for a longer period of time in modern memory —than any other single human being to elect Republican candidates to the White House. You see what I mean by a one-sided, abusive relationship?
On the other hand, the Religious Right deserves some of this maltreatment. For the privilege of sitting at the king's table, the Religious Right compromised and even capitulated on many of its principles. What began as a partnership of shared ideals became a partnership of shared ambition. And ambition, even when clothed in religious garb, is rarely pure.
So, did the Religious Right die with Jerry Falwell? In one respect, yes. But, on the other hand, the rank and file of the Religious Right are still very much alive. However, before the people who once formed the Religious Right can become the significant force they once were, they must learn from their mistakes.
For one thing, they mistakenly believed that most Republicans shared Ronald Reagan's conservatism. Most don't. It has been money, not principles, that has always been at the heart of Republican and Democratic politics. Republicans have historically been the puppets of big-business, while Democrats have been the puppets of big-labor. It was Ronald Reagan who gave the GOP a semblance of righteousness. It was only a faade. Unfortunately, this misplaced trust allowed the Religious Right to be totally and thoroughly beguiled by conservative phonies George Bush I and II. At the end of the day, money, not righteousness, is in charge of both major parties. It's time that Christian conservatives understood that.
Secondly, if the people that made the Religious Right such a powerful force are to regain their credibility, they must come to understand that the strength of their cause is found, not in a political party, but in the adherence to constitutional principles. Hence, what we desperately need today is a constitutional reawakening. If Christians would be as determined and energized in electing men and women who will follow the Constitution as they were in electing Republicans, most of the issues they care about would be resolved.
Yes, in many ways, the Religious Right died with Jerry Falwell. However, the opportunity for conservatives, whether Christian or not, to be a powerful voice in government has never been greater. The two major parties are in meltdown. And there are millions of disenfranchised citizens from all faiths and persuasions that are thirsting for old-fashioned, commonsense, constitutional government. In this regard, Jerry Falwell's Moral Majority is very much alive and well—and waiting.