I was on NECN's NewsNight with Jim Braude tonight to talk about Mitt Romney, and then they had me stay on to talk a little about Jerry Falwell. So I thought I'd pop on here to explain what I was trying to say about him -- and why I say his legacy is the death of the libertarian strain of the Republican Party.
Evangelical Christians have traditionally concerned themselves with their own behavior -- making sure they live their lives by God's rules. And, of course, trying to persuade others to do so, for their own sake.
As it became apparent (particularly in the wake of the Scopes trial) that the public square was not going to remain sufficiently Godly, their response was to withdraw from the public square; take care of their own and their family's souls, and try not to let the ungodly ones lead them astray.
Then came the evil '60s and '70s when -- as you younger folks have probably learned from history books -- the ACLU invented drugs, promiscuity, divorce, single motherhood, abortion, homosexuality, pornography, violent television, sexually graphic movies, and women's lib. The ungodliness of society kept getting harder to ignore -- and they just wouldn't respond to the argument that they should change for their own sake.
Falwell's Moral Majority brought disgusted evangelicals back into the public square by arguing that those other people have to change for your sake. That is, that the immoral behavior of other Americans brings the wrath of God and nature upon all Americans, even those who did nothing wrong.
If that's the case, then you've got a powerful argument that the government should encourage, if not enforce, godly behavior; your seemingly private choices are in fact public.
That's the context for some of the most outrageous comments by Falwell and others of his mindset, blaming disease, natural disaster, or attack on America's ungodly behavior.
Falwell's approach gave evangelical Christians a reason to re-enter the public square (and lots of people to blame for their woes), and succeeded to the extent that the Republican Party was forced to adopt and internalize that argument. A party that had prided itself on libertarianism, and keeping the government out of each others' business, has almost completely abandoned that philosophy. You'll see plenty of examples of that in tonight's debate, I'm sure.
The thing is, political success didn't achieve any of the goals. All of the sins he set out to eradicate have instead thrived. Many of them have become more accepted and mainstream. The tactic was a failure.
More importantly, America has not been punished for its sinners; America has thrived. So the theory was wrong.
Yet Falwell's legacy continues to steer the Republican Party. Exhibit A: Mitt Romney calling for a ban on same-sex marriage, because of the harm it supposedly brings to "good" families -- as we mark the third anniversary of gay marriages in Massachusetts with no evidence whatsoever of that harm.