"The Reverend Falwell’s Heavenly Timing"
HARD as it is to believe now, Jerry Falwell came in second only to Ronald Reagan in a 1983 Good Housekeeping poll anointing “the most admired man in America.” By September 2001, even the Bush administration was looking for a way to ditch the preacher who had joined Pat Robertson on TV to pin the 9/11 attacks on feminists, abortionists, gays and, implicitly, Teletubbies. As David Kuo, a former Bush official for faith-based initiatives, tells the story in his book “Tempting Faith,” the Reverend Falwell was given a ticket to the Washington National Cathedral memorial service that week only on the strict condition that he stay away from reporters and cameras. Mr. Falwell obeyed, though once inside he cracked jokes (“Whoa, does she look frumpy,” he said of Barbara Bush) and chortled nonstop.
This is the great spiritual leader whom John McCain and Mitt Romney raced to praise when he died on Tuesday, just as the G.O.P. presidential contenders were converging for a debate in South Carolina. The McCain camp’s elegiac press release beat out his rival’s by a hair. But everyone including Senator McCain knows he got it right back in 2000, when he labeled Mr. Falwell and Mr. Robertson “agents of intolerance.” Mr. Falwell was always on the wrong, intolerant side of history. He fought against the civil rights movement and ridiculed Desmond Tutu’s battle against apartheid years before calling AIDS the “wrath of a just God against homosexuals” and, in 1999, fingering the Antichrist as an unidentified contemporary Jew.
Though Mr. Falwell had long been an embarrassment and laughingstock to many, including a new generation of Christian leaders typified by Mr. Kuo, the timing of his death could not have had grander symbolic import. It happened at the precise moment that the Falwell-Robertson brand of religious politics is being given its walking papers by a large chunk of the political party the Christian right once helped to grow. Hours after Mr. Falwell died, Rudy Giuliani, a candidate he explicitly rejected, won the Republican debate by acclamation. When the marginal candidate Ron Paul handed “America’s mayor” an opening to wrap himself grandiloquently in 9/11 once more, not even the most conservative of Deep South audiences could resist cheering him. If Rudy can dress up as Jack Bauer, who cares about his penchant for drag?
The current exemplars of Mr. Falwell’s gay-baiting, anti-Roe style of politics, James Dobson of Focus on the Family and Tony Perkins of the Family Research Council, see the writing on the wall. Electability matters more to Republicans these days than Mr. Giuliani’s unambiguous support for abortion rights and gay civil rights (no matter how clumsily he’s tried to fudge it). Last week Mr. Dobson was in full crybaby mode, threatening not to vote if Rudy is on the G.O.P. ticket. Mr. Perkins complained to The Wall Street Journal that the secular side of the Republican Party was serving its religious-right auxiliary with “divorce papers.”
Yes, and it is doing so with an abruptness and rudeness reminiscent of Mr. Giuliani’s public dumping of the second of his three wives, Donna Hanover. This month, even the conservative editorial page of The Journal chastised Republicans of the Perkins-Dobson ilk for being too bellicose about abortion, saying that a focus on the issue “will make the party seem irrelevant” and cost it the White House in 2008. At the start of Tuesday’s debate, the Fox News moderator Brit Hume coldly put Mr. Falwell’s death off limits by announcing that “we will not be seeking any more reaction from the candidates on that matter.” It was a pre-emptive move to shield Fox’s favored party from soiling its image any further by association with the Moral Majority has-been and his strident causes. In the ensuing 90 minutes, the Fox News questioners skipped past the once-burning subject of same-sex marriage as well.
What a difference a midterm election has made. The Karl Rove theory that Republicans cannot survive without pandering to religious-right pooh-bahs is yet another piece of Bush dogma lying in ruins, done in by two synergistic forces. The first is the raw political math. Polls consistently show that most Americans don’t want abortion outlawed, do want legal recognition for gay couples, do want stem-cell research and never want to see government intrude on a Terri Schiavo again. On Election Day 2006, voters in red states defeated both an abortion ban (South Dakota) and, for the first time, a same-sex marriage ban (Arizona).
But equally crucial is how much the “family values” establishment has tarnished itself in the Bush era. . . .