ONE of the stated missions of the Moral Majority, an evangelical political lobbying group founded by the late Jerry Falwell, was to “reverse the politicization of immorality in our society.” To achieve this, Falwell allied himself with the Republican Party, wedding conservative political agendas with evangelical Christian ideals. In his efforts to reverse the politicization of immorality, Falwell politicized religion and in doing so, did more to diminish the dignity of belief than he achieved in limiting the sinfulness of modern life.
During the ’70s, after a series of leftleaning Supreme Court decisions and an increasingly liberal subculture took root in the country, Falwell determined that mixing religion and politics was necessary to realize a more Christian society. He leveraged his booming voice, charismatic on-screen persona and his influence as a preacher in the realm of electoral politics. Falwell rewrote the history of American politics when he allied the Moral Majority with Ronald Reagan, playing an important role in Reagan’s landslide victory in 1980 over Jimmy Carter. The irony of this relationship, and one that serves to illustrate the inevitable hypocrisy that all preacher-turned-politicians must embrace, was that of the two presidential candidates, it was Carter who was more so the believing evangelical Christian. Reagan had little to do with the religious ethos of Southern Christianity. However, once Reagan guaranteed Falwell his full support against abortion, the future president rediscovered his religious roots and Falwell tasted the spoils of his first major political victory. Politics is never a one-way street, so if Falwell gained on abortion, he would have to give somewhere else. It is within this process, the one where politicians trade morality for power, that Falwell did the most damage to his faith and to public discourse in America. Religion can be a powerful voice for social change and is inherently capable of speaking truth to corruption and abuse of power. But all this ability is greatly diminished when the religious become guilty of similar excess.
The ramifications of this process become apparent in a poignant scene from the recent documentary, “Jesus Camp.” In it, an enthusiastic 12-year-old boy, steeped in evangelical ideology, rejects global warming as liberal nonsense. There is no reason for Christianity to take an ideological stand against protecting the environment. However, there is every reason for politicized Christianity, allied with Republican interests, to reject global warming on behalf of large oil companies. Religion is never more meaningless than when it becomes the pawn of political or economic ambition.
Muslims would benefit from realizing that they are as susceptible to these machinations as any other religious group. Falwell was by no means a pioneer in the field of manipulating religious sentiment for political gain. Many Muslim groups and organizations, most notably the Saudi and Iranian governments, have used Islam to achieve political goals that transgress any sense of morality. When politicians and governments are vested with religious authority, they will in almost every case abuse that authority to the detriment of the faith. Politics is necessarily a dirty game, religion is not. But when the two interact, religion does not clean up politics, it usually gets infected by it.
This is not to say that there is no place for religion in the public square. Islamic civilization is instructive in this regard. Although religion has always played a vital and important role in society, the greatest Islamic scholars were the ones who refused to have their ethical and moral dispositions determined by the needs of power. Instead, they served as a sort of check and balance to the policies of government. Muslims need to recapture this tradition of the role of religious authority in the political affairs of society. If Muslims learn anything from Falwell, it should be that religion, reduced to political ideology, does little for one’s faith and even less for society.