Fighting Fire With Fire

POLITICS

IT MUST HAVE felt good to be one of the folks who hackled Jerry Falwell when the fundamentalist preacher spoke at the Kennedy School's ARCO Forum last Monday. For many liberal college students. Falwell embodies the worst of the New Right's arrogant dogmatism and political backwardness, and his appearance provided a golden opportunity to shout "the Moral Majority is neither" right in the face of the man who founded that New Right lobbying group and gave it its presumptuous name. Snickering and hissing at Falwell released pent-up anger at the Reagan Administration's attacks on gays, women, Blacks, Central America, and the welfare state, making the preacher the fall guy for every conceivable post-1980 depredation.

The same frustrations seemed to motivate the questions fired at Falwell, both from the audience and the forum's two respondents, Wellesley College professor Steven Marini and Divinity School assistant professor Sharon Welch. Trying to expose the well-heeled evangelist as a pseudo-patriotic fraud and hypocritical apologist for genocide, questioners demanded that Falwell answer for just about very injustice in U.S. history, Welch charged Southern evangelists--and by implication their present-day followers like Falwell--with responsibility for slavery, and insisted that Falwell come up with a plan to prevent nuclear war, as if he personally had initiated the arms race.

Between the catcalls and the wild charges, the Falwell visit produced a pretty sterile debate. The K-School audience's shameful rudeness simply enhanced Falwell's poised image, and the preacher easily glided through the thicket of questions. When he had arguments ready, he used them. When stumped--us he was by a query asking why he opposes abortion but favors the death penalty--he resorted smoothly to his usual vapid rhetoric ("I want everybody to have the benefits of pluralism.") It was, on the whole, a silly evening.

Still, progressives can learn some serious lessons from the episode. The heckling and bitter questioning highlighted telling defects in much of the political thinking behind the Left's opposition to the religious Right. Falwell's critics Monday night seemed to be reasoning in the following way: Falwell and his ilk claim to represent the true and original "God-centered" American political creed--to be the Founding Fathers' real heirs. To thwart the appeal of the flag, then, liberals must prove the moral bankruptcy of the nation the flag stand for. This strategy inevitably dissolves a mixture of tasteless religion-baiting and crude anti-Americanism, as shown by the demonstrator's response of "racism" to Falwell's remark that "The Founding Fathers had only one thing in mind."

The first problem with this approach is that it's futile. You cannot debark Jerry Falwell; nor can you sway the most committed of the 70 million followers he claims. Reagan by itself, no matter how trenchant, is a notably weak weapon against Falwell-style zealotry. What did the askers of all those snappy questions Monday night expect Falwell to do? Was he supposed to say "Hey, you're right, I guess gays really are okay after all," and cancel his TV show?

More important, though, couching the attack on Falwell and the New Right in anti-American rhetoric plays right into conservatives hands. No doubt Falwell will incorporate his Harvard visit into future sermons; "You should have seen the abuse that they heaped on God and our Flag when I was at Harvard, that citadel of sin and secular humanism." And it will work. Liberal harping on Falwell's alleged links to every ill from Hiroshima to Wounded Knee reinforces popular impressions of an arrogant, morally perverse intellectual elite sympathetic to America's enemies.

MAKE NO MISTAKE--Falwell is a charlatan, and a dangerous one. His illiberal views on gay rights, school prayer, and national defense would, if enacted into law, imperil civil rights and world peace. But the preacher's enormous popularity is no mere media trick. He speaks to deep-seated feelings of confusion and discontent among the American people. Like 1930s rightist radio clergyman Father Charles Coughlin, Falwell provides Americans beset by hard times an answer to their problems: Return to tradition and authority. And he does so in terms that resonate deep within our collective imagination--God and Country.

The task for the Left, then, is not to jeer Falwell, or even, primarily, to combat his lobbyists on Capitol Hill. It is instead to build support among the millions who are searching for an alternative to the dizzying national crisis that has brought school closings, gang rapes, and factory shutdowns to their home towns. Many have already found their answer in Falwell and his friends. But many others sense that his answers are too simple--that socially irresponsible corporations and corrupt politicians, not gays and pointy-headed liberals, are to blame. They need articulate leadership. And that doesn't mean the spiritually lifeless neo-liberalism of Gary Hart and his ilk.

It does mean that liberals and socialists who want to build a grassroots coalition to rival the New Right should not be afraid to adopt the language and symbolism of religion and patriotism. The flag has indeed flown over courthouses in the segregationist South and Marine bases in Vietnam. But it has also marched at the front of CIO picket lines and civil rights demonstrations. Jerry Falwell, like Father Coughlin, claims God's sanctions for his cause; but so did Martin Luther King and Dorothy Day. Poland's workers, builders of the most successful democratic mass movement in this century, struggle in the name of Polish nationalism and the Pope.

There is as much liberating imagery as repressive to be found in the Bible and the Constitution; these sources of wisdom and inspiration need not remain the preserve of the misguided far Right. It is up to the Left to find a way to fit the democratic ideals of Americanism and Judeo-Christian justice into its broader program. There are already encouraging signs in the widespread Catholic opposition to the arms race and intervention in Central America, and in the rhetoric of such anti-New Right groups as People for the American Way and Americans for Common Sense. But liberals need to move still further, beyond the relatively narrow foreign policy and civil liberties constituencies to the broader public concerned with bread and butter issues. The Left must pursue an alternative vision of American Democracy, one that challenges corporate autocrats' right to decide working families' fates according to their own narow interests. That is the kind of democracy that Falwell and his friends secretly fear, but that they will never see until mere Falwell-baiting gives way to something more mature and constructive.