Liberty University, founded by Moral Majority leader andÂ evangelicalÂ Jerry Falwell, recently invited Mitt Romney to speak at commencement exercises. Â Several students boycotted the commencement address by Romney, choosing not to attend. Â Christianity Today had an interesting article titled Why Jerry Falwell Sr. Isn’t Rolling In His Grave over Romney’s Liberty Invitation. The subtitle was “And what the university’s invitation to the Mormon candidate says about evangelical political engagement.” Â Here are some excerpts I found interesting.
Touting itself as “the world’s largest evangelical university,” the conservative institution has aÂ history of hospitality to speakers from outside the not-so-big evangelical tent, including Democrats such as the late Ted Kennedy and former Virginia Governor and Democratic Party Chairman Tim Kaine. Joining Romney among the ranks of non-evangelical commencement speakers are Jewish comedian and economist Ben Stein, Episcopalian Karl Rove, and Catholics Dinesh D’Souza and Sean Hannity.
Hosting such speakers falls squarely within the vision of the university’s late founder, Rev. Jerry Falwell, who also founded theÂ Moral Majority. The now-defunct activist organization, long held as central to the rise of the so-called “religious right” was, in fact, a broad coalition of religious, not strictly evangelical, conservatives.
However, since Falwell’s death in 2007, the voting bloc of the “religious right” has been largely replaced by the narrower demographic of “evangelical voters” whose energies lit bright but short-lived sparks for fallen presidential contenders Rick Santorum and Michele Bachmann. While great momentum is gaining among evangelicals and Catholics workingÂ together, the larger interfaith vision of Falwell seems to be fading. As Lucas Wilson, 22, who will graduate from Liberty tomorrow surmised, “I am not sure why we are allowing a Mormon to speak at commencement just because he is conservative; we sure would not invite a conservative Muslim to speak.”
The late Falwell, on the other hand, influenced byÂ Francis Schaeffer’s concept of “co-belligerents” teaming up for battle in the culture wars, pioneered a brand of political activism based on heterogeneous political bedfellows.
In 1980, for example, Falwell dissociated himself from the statement of the then-president of the Southern Baptist Convention who claimed that “God does not hear the prayer of the Jew.” In response, calling America a “pluralistic republic,” Falwell toldÂ The New York Times, “This is the time for Catholics, Protestants, Jews,Mormons,and all Americans to rise above every effort to polarize us in our efforts to return the nation to a commitment to the moral values on which America was built.” He also argued, “We may have differing theological positions, but we must never allow this to separate us as Americans who love and respect each other as a united people.” Falwell later toldÂ The Washington Post, “I’m a fundamentalist, but I believe in a pluralistic America. This country belongs to the Hebrew Americans, theMormonAmericans, black Americans, white Americans.” Falwell’s political ecumenicism reached even further than these, at least in a tongue-in-cheek way: in mobilizing religious conservatives to elect Ronald Reagan in the 1980s, Falwell said they’d support Reagan “Even if he has the devil running with him, and we’ll pray he outlives him.”
As a writer forÂ TimeÂ described in a 2007 retrospect of Falwell’s approach in the Moral Majority,
Instead of enlisting just fundamentalists and other conservative Protestants, Falwell opened the Moral Majority up to everyone: Jews, Catholics and Mormonsâ€”in short, the very people (and faiths) that fundamentalists had been separating themselves from for generations. That was Falwell’s greatest political discovery: he understood that fundamentalists, orthodox Jews, conservative Catholics and Mormons had so much in common politically that they could overlook their theological differences.
I have to say that of late, the political bigotry of evangelicals is a real turn off to me, and I think this article certainly enhances Jerry Falwell in my eyes. Â What about you?