The various and sundry Republican presidential contenders will be stumbling over one another tonight–as they debate in South Carolina–and in the days ahead to curry favor with the religious right by expressing their sorrow at the passing of the Rev. Jerry Falwell.
It’s not that most of the Republican candidates really cared much for Falwell. Aside from Kansas Senator Sam Brownback, the most seriously evangelical of the bunch, none of the GOP runners really qualifies as a Falwell follower in the classic sense.
But the Republicans who would be President care for those whom Falwell claimed to speak for, the millions of fire-and-brimstone Christians in states such as Iowa and South Carolina who are expected to participate in next year’s caucuses and primaries. It may be true that Falwell had ceased to be a definitional figure on the Republican right some years ago–perhaps even before he blamed the 9/11 attacks on pagans and feminists.
But few of the Republican candidates will chance it when it comes to praising the preacher.
So get ready for the “Old Time Hypocrisy Hour.”
Arizona Senator John McCain got things rolling with a statement released just minutes after the announcement that the man who for many years was the face of evangelical politics in America had died from an apparent heart attack at age 73.
“I join the students, faculty, and staff of Liberty University and Americans of all faiths in mourning the loss of Reverend Jerry Falwell,” said McCain. “Dr. Falwell was a man of distinguished accomplishment who devoted his life to serving his faith and country.”
Distinguished accomplishment? Would that be when Falwell regularly featured segregationists Lester Maddox and George Wallace on his Old Time Gospel Hour television program in the 1960s? When he condemned the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. and referred to the civil rights movement as “the civil wrongs movement”? When he opposed sanctions against South Africa’s apartheid regime in the 1980s? When he produced an infomercial in the 1990s accusing President Clinton of orchestrating murders of journalists and political critics, even though he would eventually admit that “I do not know the accuracy of the claims”? When he attacked Teletubbies character Tinky Winky as a gay recruitment tool? When he asserted that the Antichrist “must be, of necessity, a Jewish male”?
Falwell is a fascinating and significant figure in American political life, a man worthy of study and serious consideration. But McCain did not always see the preacher as a servant of his country.