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he death of the Rev. Jerry Falwell is prompting evangelicals to re-evaluate his impact on their movement. As a result, some are concluding it is time to divorce themselves from the style and narrow political agenda of fundamentalists.
To his credit, Falwell inspired million of evangelicals to take more seriously their rights and responsibilities as citizens in a democracy, but he also put a hostile face on a movement that had set out to engage, not enrage, culture.
Falwell became a polarizing fixture as he routinely demonized his political opponents. Two days after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, in an interview with Pat Robertson, Falwell blamed the events on "the pagans and the abortionists and the feminists and the gays and the lesbians ... all of them who have tried to secularize America."
Throughout the 1980s and 1990s, as Falwell and Robertson became the go-to media spokesmen for the conservative Christian movement, the labels "fundamentalist," "religious right" and "evangelical" became interchangeable in the public mind -- to the detriment of evangelicals.
Just one day before Falwell's death, I appeared on a Seattle radio talk show and a woman called in and asked quite sincerely, "Do evangelicals have any room for the irreligious, or doubters?"
The founders of America's modern evangelical movement--men like Carl Henry or Harold John Ockenga--would have viewed such a question as an admission of failure. Those men saw evangelicalism as the alternative to the narrowness and combativeness of fundamentalism. Theirs was a spiritual and intellectual movement with societal implications, not a political movement aimed at cultural dominance.
Given their desire for conciliatory engagement, how did evangelicals get sucked into a combative, politically defined culture-war?
After the ravages of the cultural revolution of the 1960s, as civic respect for religion evaporated and evangelicals saw repeated assaults on their values, evangelicals were ripe for politicization. Falwell challenged Christians to serve as a restraining force against evil, urging them to set aside theological and stylistic differences and to unite as a voting bloc aimed at wielding political power. Many evangelicals found the feisty fundamentalists well suited as co-belligerents in the rough and tumble world of politics.
Having jettisoned their conciliatory style in a political marriage of convenience, evangelicals also found their agenda narrowed. The focus shifted to "moral issues"--abortion, homosexuality and prayer in public school--which left no room for issues that had been of interest to many evangelicals, like justice for the poor, civil rights or environmental concerns.
Falwell opposed the civil rights movement in America and supported apartheid in South Africa. Just weeks before his death, he preached a sermon that dismissed global warming as "hocus-pocus" and a Satanic plot to distract Christians from the more important work of spreading the gospel.
For evangelicals, who have become defined by their political identity, most have concluded Falwell represented the old guard that simply needs to be replaced by a new breed of kinder, gentler political operative.
But a broad segment of evangelicals have also concluded that political activism must be subservient to their broader aims. They are ready to make a break from the "religious right." They believe evangelicalism must rebuild a holistic spiritual and intellectual legacy in which political involvement is an element, but not central. They recognize that their political allegiance is spread across the Democratic and Republican parties, while the religious right has operated as a wholly owned subsidiary of the GOP. They see the religious right's leaders--Falwell, Robertson and Focus on the Family's James Dobson--with their militant style and narrower policy initiatives, as fundamentalists who have caused evangelicals to abandon their original conciliatory style and broader policy interests.
This crisis in evangelicalism represents an opportunity for evangelicals to make their break with the religious right and to forge a new role as a loving, transforming presence in American culture. They can show the world, in no uncertain terms, that there is indeed room for the irreligious and doubters.
Dick Staub is the author of The Culturally Savvy Christian and the host of The Kindlings Muse(www.thekindlings.com). His blog can be read at www.dickstaub.com)