Is one with Jerry Falwell a moral majority?

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THE BOOK OF JERRY FALWELL: Fundamentalist Language and Politics By Susan Harding Princeton University Press 276 pp., $26.95

If all the fundamentalists knew who to vote for and did it together," Jerry Falwell proclaimed in 1979, "we could elect anybody. If every one of these people could be intelligently taught and mobilized, brother, we could turn this nation upside down for God!"

Everyone has an opinion about the Rev. Falwell's Moral Majority. Most are at one end or the other of the spectrum. Considering the almost volcanic force of the encounter of millions of born-agains with secular America, Susan Harding's new study, suggestively titled "The Book of Jerry Falwell," has a curiously static quality. But it builds steam as it goes along and, taken on its own terms, has a good deal to say.

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Harding has brought the finely tuned eyes and ears of an anthropologist to her research inside Falwell's fundamentalist Baptist community. Her analysis is incisive and empathetic. Rather than examining the political clashes, she dissects the Bible-based rhetoric that shapes and drives the fundamentalist world view.

To fundamentalists, "Biblical narrators, past and present, tell histories, the way things actually happened," writes Harding. "Their stories ... do not represent history, they are history."

During the 1970s and '80s, Harding says, two crucial overlapping events took place. Fundamentalists, with Falwell at the helm, radically transformed themselves from separatist outsiders to full participants in American life. Simultaneously, Falwell forged alliances with like-minded leaders of other Christian groups, especially conservative evangelicals. By radically altering the rhetoric that millions of born-agains listened to via sermons and broadcasts, books and Bible-study classes, revivals and prayer meetings, seminaries and schools, a new phenomenon - the Moral Majority - was born. Falwell was "the major cobbler and distributor" of those "hybrid religious and political rhetorics."

Harding divides her study into two parts, "Rites of Origins" and "Rites of Revision." In part one, she invites readers to a Christian "witnessing" session - hers. Not improvised or casual, witnessing involves the focused use of oratory to turn a nonbeliever into a born-again believer. Next, she examines the watershed event that determined both the 50-year, "largely self-imposed," social exile of fundamentalists and the consolidation of America's self-image as a modern secular nation - the Scopes trial of 1925.

Part two looks at how Falwell defines himself ("his tales of grace in the midst of misconduct"); how the "Sacrificial Economy" works, attracting millions in donations; the revised rhetoric that "enabled a kind of born-again Christian cultural diaspora"; how Falwell's Moral Majority produced a predominantly white, male-centered, pro-family agenda; how Falwell consolidated the pro-life position by embedding it in the born-again gospel; the story of "the world's largest creation museum"; and, finally, the impact of the born-again telescandals during the late '80s.

Harding's postscript sheds light on the collision of modernity with "traditional Bible realism" and debunks the notion that Falwell and his fundamentalist constituency aren't modern. The postscript is a must-read, but in its proper sequence. It needs what comes before.

*Linda L. Giedl is a freelance writer in Boston.

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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