Yesterday, my biography of Jerry Falwell – God’s Right Hand: How Jerry Falwell Made God a Republican and Baptized the American Right – was published by HarperOne. This is the first real biography of Falwell since 1984 and I encourage everyone to buy the book either at your local independent bookstore or at Amazon. Here is the link.
I don’t want to give away the book, but I thought I would share with you, my regular readers, some of the things I learned that surprised me while working on this project, and not only about Falwell.
First, I learned just how consequential a human life can be. Falwell changed the perception of what it means to be a Christian in America. If you changed the perception of what it means to be a Christian in Sweden or France, that might not be such a big thing, but in America, the most religiously observant post-industrial society in the world, that is a very big thing. When I began the project, a friend said, “How fascinating. I am sure the fact that Falwell was loathsome is the least interesting thing about him.” I did not find Falwell loathsome, although I shared few of his views on religious or political matters, but my friend was right. Even if you did, that is not the most interesting thing about him. Jerry Falwell changed the cultural landscape in profound and enduring ways.
The entire process also occasioned a sense of persistent déjà vu: I had not realized how much today’s Republican Party leaders still rely on the Falwell playbook. The Tea Party is not, as some have suggested, an essentially secular group of libertarians: They rely heavily on some of the same rhetorical tropes about American exceptionalism that Falwell first devised. It was once famously said that the Church of England was the Tory Party at prayer. It can be said today that the Tea Party is the white evangelical church when it is discussing the federal budget.
This was my second book but my first biography. My first book – Left at the Altar: How the Democrats Lost the Catholics and How the Catholics Can Save the Democrats - was what is called an “argument” book. An argument book is very hard to organize. You must constantly ask and answer questions like: Having stated my thesis for this chapter, do I set out the caveats first or assemble the rationale for the thesis first and then add the caveats? Writing a biography was much simpler because chronology is a great organizing mechanism.
I think some readers will be surprised that, apart from the Introduction and the Epilogue, there is not a lot of my thinking in the book. This is Falwell’s story, not mine. It was, in fact, somewhat easy to keep myself out of the text: As a liberal, Democratic Catholic, every day I worked on this book felt like waking up inside a photographic negative. The issues that engaged Falwell were the same ones that engage me, the relationship of religion to politics and culture, but everything seemed in reverse or out-of-place.
One of the first things I had to decide was whether or not to conduct interviews with people who knew Falwell or to rely exclusively on the written record. I opted for the latter course. In the first place, I had the luxury that there was ample documentation of Falwell’s public career. The Lynchburg Daily News & Advance, which started as two papers, one in the morning and one in the afternoon, was a great local newspaper and they did a great job covering their hometown celebrity. Because there was so much documentation at the time, including praise and criticism of Falwell, I decided not to rely on interviews with those who knew him. The value of a contemporaneous document is higher in my estimation than a retrospective looking back, especially by critics. Falwell could answer contemporaneous criticisms, but he cannot answer criticisms offered today with the benefit of hindsight. To include criticisms offered in 2011 that Falwell could not answer seemed unfair, and to include commentary from his acolytes but not his critics seemed unbalanced. And, in the event, there were plenty of documents available. Throughout the researching of the book, I continually recalled the words of my mentor, Msgr. John Tracy Ellis: “No documents, no history.” Blessings on the writers and editors at the Lynchburg Daily News and Advance.
While I used many libraries and archives, I was largely reliant upon the archives at People for the American Way. The organization was founded as a direct response to Falwell’s Moral Majority and they collected clips of everything they could about Falwell. The archives at People for the American Way has been sent to UC Berkley and is being digitized, which will make it more accessible to researchers, but I enjoyed going through real paper copies and transcribing them. There is something about transcribing documents, rather than cutting, copying and pasting on a computer, it sticks in the mind better, or at least it sticks better in my mind. This process lengthened the time needed to research the book but it made the process of writing much faster. The data was not “out there” but had largely been internalized. The digitization also produced an episode that is funny in retrospect but was frightening at the time. I came into the office one day and the interns were packing up all the files into boxes. I only had about one month’s worth of work left, or about a shelf of files, and was terrified that they would be denied me. The nice people at People for the American Way agreed to let me hold onto the files I still needed and they shipped them to Berkley when I was done. I shall always be indebted to them for this kindness.
I was very grateful that I did not uncover any evidence of personal scandal in Falwell’s life. Of course, if I had found out he had a mistress, that would have sold more copies of the book, but it would have diverted attention from what was truly important in his life, his public career. There is this weird belief in our culture, no doubt with roots in Freudianism, that we need to delve into a person’s inner life to really understand him. There is something to this, of course. But, for most public figures, what matters is what they did and why and, in the case of Falwell, he was not shy about explaining why he was doing what he was doing. How much does it really matter if a public figure is especially kind to his cats or if he occasionally strayed from his marriage vows? Was FDR less consequential because of Lucy Mercer? Thankfully, and unlike many other televangelists, Falwell’s personal life was above reproach and so the readers can pay attention to how Falwell impacted the nation, which is what is significant.
One of the things that most surprised me was that Falwell had this great capacity for friendship, even with people with whom he disagreed. He invited Ted Kennedy to give a speech at Liberty University and the two men became friends, even while they continued to raise money for their causes by demonizing each other. Once when Falwell was in Florida to give a speech, he learned that Kennedy was at the family’s Palm Beach compound and that Rose Kennedy was very ill. Falwell contacted the senator and paid a visit and prayed with Mrs. Kennedy. Subsequently, when it came time for Falwell’s son, Jerry, Jr., to apply for law school, Ted Kennedy wrote one of the letters of recommendation. In Washington today, too often people socialize only with those who agree with their politics. This not only makes compromise more remote and makes our politics nastier, it shows a bad set of values: friendship is more important than politics.
If you want to know more, you need to buy the book and read it. But, I wanted to share with all of you something of how and why I wrote the book that I did. I hope you will enjoy reading it as much as I enjoyed writing it.