By Steven Charleston
The recent death of the Rev. Jerry Falwell has produced an expected flurry of media eulogies and critiques. Both his supporters and detractors have offered opinions about his legacy. If we read between the lines of these many political post mortems, I believe conservatives and liberals alike can find some lessons that the Falwell experience has to teach us. The question is: which side in the debate will learn the most from these lessons?
Here are four of those lessons for our shared reflection as we look at the mirror that Jerry Falwell holds up to all of us, what ever our faith or politics may be:
Lesson Number One: if you can create a constituency, you can exercise political power far beyond your real numbers. The secret is in perception. Jerry Falwell created the impression of a unified grassroots movement. He influenced politicians and supporters because he claimed to speak for a solid block of public opinion. While he did not invent this process, he certainly refined it in the context of American civil religion.
Lesson Number Two: all social agendas rise and fall on the tide of media exposure. In our culture, images on a screen are validation. Falwell was one of the early practitioners of media religion. By using the most contemporary forms of communication, he was able to galvanize large numbers of people to both see and respond to his message. Even those who disagreed with him were talking about him, and as anyone in show business knows, the fact that people are talking is all that matters.
Lesson Number Three: if public opinion is a tightrope drawn between acceptance and rejection, exaggerated rhetoric is a strong wind. Falwell undercut his own credibility (much like his counterpart, Pat Robertson) with outlandish statements that brought him censure and ridicule. There is a moral gyroscope at the center of culture and it can tilt quickly if any leader steps over the line of reason.
Lesson Number Four: personal power is ephemeral while shared values are enduring. The great preachers of the age come and go, but the message they deliver can be forever if it is embedded in the commitments of a community. Falwell’s community remains a potent and resilient force in both religion and politics. His true legacy will not be in how well he is remembered fifty years from now, but in how many people continue to self-identify with the values (or lack of them) for which he stood.
These four simple lessons, among the many that we may identify, are an integral part of the religious landscape of this century. As both conservative and progressive factions contend for social impact, political power, and moral persuasion in the United States and beyond, these lessons from Jerry Falwell will be acted out over and over again. Certainly Falwell’s constituency will be continuing to press for an agenda of values that embodies their political and social agenda. With just as much certainty, they will be confronted by others whose value system is radically different. Both sides will attempt to unify and focus a community. Both will seek to use the media and technology to expand their base. Both will search for language that invites people to believe and to act. But in the end, both will be measured by how well they can transcend images in order to influence reality.
The Rt. Rev. Steven Charleston, former Bishop of Alaska, is president and dean of Episcopal Divinity School, and keeper of the podcasting blog EDS’s Stepping Stones.
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