In 1984, the United States rectified a diplomatic anomaly when it formally recognized the Vatican and agreed to exchange ambassadors with the papal mini-state in Rome.
But when Congress held hearings on the measure, at least one discordant voice was heard in dissent. Rev. Jerry Falwell, by then already a familiar figure as the head of the Moral Majority, hustled to the Capitol to testify against the move.
One might have expected Falwell’s position to be based in the sort of theological antagonism between Baptists and Catholics that had its roots in the Reformation. But the evangelical leader had another agenda that day: He was mad about the church’s foreign policy in the Middle East. He urged the Senate not to recognize the Vatican until it extended the same courtesy to the State of Israel.
That was an issue that was also of concern to Jewish groups. The Vatican eventually did recognize Israel a decade later. But the idea of the Jews publicly campaigning against the church in this manner was simply out of the question.
Falwell’s intervention in this issue is barely a footnote to this chapter in history, but it is symbolic of much of his interactions with Jews over the years.
He was always among our most zealous allies on the question of Israel, its security and its place in the world. But his efforts in this regard were not merely unbidden. They were, for the most part, regarded with incredulity by Jewish audiences and groups, and thus not merely unappreciated but often met with outright rejection. As such, he was always American Jewry’s most unwavering and yet unwelcome ally.
Falwell’s death last month set off a wave of retrospectives in the media about the rise of Christian conservative politics. But no discussion of his impact on the culture of this country is complete without a discussion of his iconic position as the bête noire of liberal Jewry who regarded his noisy support for Israel – and the willingness of Israeli leaders such as Menachem Begin and Benjamin Netanyahu to embrace him for it – with a combination of disgust and horror.
The reason for that horror wasn’t hard to explain. As one of the leading figures of the Right’s counterattack on both liberal politics and cultural values, Falwell was deeply hated by liberals. His sanctimonious demeanor, and his willingness to voice his (in the view of most American Jews) antediluvian views on just about everything, made him a ripe subject for satire.
But what made Falwell, who avoided the sort of personal and financial scandals that make it easy to discount many of his fellow televangelists, really scary to liberals was that his mobilization of Christian conservatives helped change American politics. Although the Moral Majority itself had a short shelf life (it was disbanded in 1989), Falwell’s influence will live on long after him.
What must be understood is that his movement was not an attempt to undo democracy. Rather, it gave life to the well-founded fear on the part of religious conservatives that they were losing control of American culture. Despite the fact that they won a fair share of the election battles they picked, that verdict is unchanged. Take a look at the content of virtually any network television drama or comedy, let alone contemporary major feature films, and it won’t be hard to discern that Falwell’s views about abortion, sex and gay rights have not only not prevailed, but, in fact, have lost considerable ground.
As more than a few of his allies on the Right noted in the wake of the public’s unwillingness to support the impeachment of President Clinton, maybe the majority in this country wasn’t so “moral” after all. And given the fact that a pro-abortion rights candidate such as Rudy Giuliani has a shot at the Republican presidential nomination in 2008, it may well be that the tide has turned on these issues in the GOP itself.
But none of that explains why Falwell’s enthusiastic support for Israel was always something that many Jewish liberals felt ought to be treated with disdain. The excuses for this attitude always centered on the notion that his motives were tainted by his intention to evangelize Jews or notions about his wanting a Zionist triumph to set off the second coming of Jesus.