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BOOK REVIEW: ‘God’s Right Hand’
GOD'S RIGHT HAND: HOW JERRY FALWELL MADE GOD A REPUBLICAN AND BAPTIZED THE AMERICAN RIGHT
By Michael Sean Winters
HarperOne, $28.99, 440 pages
When his best friend took a shine to the girl Jerry Falwell wanted to court, Falwell volunteered to mail his friend's love letters, and threw them away, mailing his own. The girl was his friend's fiancee.
It worked, and in 1958 Mr. Falwell married Macel Pate, to whom he was devoted until the day he died of a heart attack at age 73 in his Liberty University office on May 15, 2007. Far from denying his expediency, Falwell often cheerfully told the story of how true love for Macel conquered all, including his scruples.
Born Aug. 11, 1933, in Lynchburg, Va., with his twin brother Gene to a Baptist mother and hell-raising, entrepreneurial father, Falwell was not only devout but pragmatic, doing whatever it took to build institutions to advance God's kingdom. He founded the now-mega Thomas Road Baptist Church in Lynchburg during the 1950s, incorporated the Moral Majority on June 6, 1979, and helped to elect Ronald Reagan in 1980 and 1984, and both Presidents Bush.
In 1971, he founded Lynchburg Baptist College, which became the largest evangelical Christian college in America - Liberty University - complete with a law school, Division I athletic squads and a debating team that regularly wins the national championship, including 2009 through 2011. (Full disclosure here - my son and daughter graduated from Liberty, and I knew the reverend personally.)
The cover blurbs from Larry Flynt, George Stephanopoulos, the Rev. Jennifer Butler and liberal columnist E.J. Dionne would lead one to suspect that "God's Right Hand" was another unflattering cartoon treatment of Falwell. But Michael Sean Winters, who works for National Catholic Reporter, instead provides a rich, engaging portrait of one of the most consequential figures in recent political and religious history.
The author does two things admirably: He takes Falwell's faith and goals seriously, and also makes it clear that the rise of the "Religious Right" came as a defensive reaction to an increasingly intrusive and coarsening culture. It's to Mr. Winters' credit that he allows this crucial insight given that he shares few of Falwell's political views.
Drawing heavily from Falwell's autobiography, and a book by his widow Macel, Mr. Winters paints a full-blooded picture of his subject's rise to prominence. The book's few errors and omissions seem more out of ignorance than malice - most of the time. He describes James Dobson only as founding the Family Research Council, never mentioning Mr. Dobson's far larger Focus on the Family radio ministry that reached millions.
Mr. Winters also exposes his own reflexive liberalism, such as ticking off a number of stances that Falwell favored that sound right out of a Tea Party platform, and commenting, "Falwell's sermons adopted some of these coded racist tropes." Because so much of the book is fair, barbs like this provide a jolt.
Anecdotes abound, such as Falwell's tricks as a youth pastor. He'd drive around Lynchburg in his Plymouth and remove the steering wheel while secretly holding pliers on the steering column. Then, he'd hand the wheel to newcomers in the passenger seat, astounding them. Within a year, he had recruited 56 students to his Sunday school. Right up to his death, he played pranks on Liberty students and even appeared in students' spoof videos.
For years, Falwell eschewed politics, content to win souls to Christ. That changed as he saw the culture, the courts and liberal politicians wage war on biblical values. As Mr. Winters puts it, "Christians who had been content to absent themselves from mainstream culture began to wonder how long their self-imposed exile would be respected by outsiders trying to change their way of life. ... [T]he cultural match was lit on the precise issue of sex education."
As the book amply chronicles, Falwell was the catalyst for transforming millions of conservative Christians into a reliable voting bloc of the Republican Party, a marriage fraught with potential and real conflicts.
What makes this book different from most "outside" accounts is Mr. Winters' appreciation of Falwell's faith, his genuine love of people - even Ted Kennedy, porn magnate Larry Flynt and Falwell's ghost writer turned homosexual activist Mel White - and the preacher's boundless energy.
Disappointingly, Mr. Winters continues the myth about the "Teletubbies" character "Tinky Winky." The National Liberty Journal had cited a Washington Post in/out list that said the lavender-colored boy Tinky Winky, who sported a purse and an upside-down triangle on his head was an "in" homosexual character. The media spin became Falwell "outing Tinky Winky." Not exactly true, but worth its weight in gold to his critics.
Despite such blemishes, the book is well researched and a vital account of the man and his times.
Robert Knight, senior fellow at the American Civil Rights Union and a columnist for The Washington Times, has written several books, including "Ten Truths About Socialism and Radical Rulers" (Coral Ridge Ministries, 2010).
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