Is California Gov. Jerry Brown becoming the Jerry Falwell of the left?

Gov. Jerry Brown has brought morality into the debate over immigration reform and climate change. Jerry Falwell did something similar in the 1980s. The results weren't good.

Max Whittaker/Reuters
California Gov. Jerry Brown waits to speak during a news conference at the State Capitol in Sacramento, Calif., last week.

Gov. Jerry Brown (D) of California is at risk of becoming Jerry Falwell’s liberal twin.

As you may recall, the late Reverend Falwell was one of the founders of the contemporary religious right. In 1979, with conservative activist Paul Weyrich, he created the Moral Majority, an organization that mobilized religious people on issues such as abortion and school prayer. Falwell quickly became notorious for proclaiming certain issue positions as Christian and suggesting that those with other viewpoints were immoral or un-Christian.

Lately, Governor Brown has been doing the same thing.  During a visit to Washington, he said that GOP opposition to President Obama’s immigration actions is “at best is troglodyte and at worst is un-Christian.” He used similar language to condemn Senate majority leader Mitch McConnell’s fight against carbon pollution regulations. “President Obama is taking some important steps,”  Brown said on "Meet the Press." “And to fight that, it borders on immoral.” On the same program, he said that Sen. Ted Cruz’s stance on climate change renders him “absolutely unfit to be running for office.”

Before keeping up the insults, the governor might ponder what happened to the reverend. Falwell gained an enthusiastic following at first, but his overheated rhetoric put a low ceiling on his support. In 1981, a group of religious leaders  signed a statement objecting to “the moral criteria that many in the religious right use to evaluate candidates for public office ... the assumption that human beings can know with absolute certainty the will of God on particular public policy issues.”

Falwell even alienated conservative Republicans. “I would imagine if Jerry Falwell were to sit down and list 100 issues and his positions, I might agree with him on 98 or 99 of them,” former Rep. Mickey Edwards (R) of Oklahoma told The Washington Post. “But I personally do not believe if a liberal disagrees with me on an issue, that that person is less moral than I am. Those are not theological issues – there is no clear-cut Christian position on the SALT agreement. I oppose it on the grounds that it's not in the best interest of the United States, not that it's immoral.”

In a 1981 NBC poll, 27 percent viewed Falwell unfavorably, compared with just 7 percent who had a favorable impression. Ed Rollins, who ran President Reagan's 1984 reelection campaign, told a post-election conference: “Jerry Falwell, no question, is a very high negative.” 

Republicans increasingly kept their distance from him, and by the end of the 1980s, he had lost most of his influence within the party. His name, however, did remain prominent: right until his death in 2007, Democrats reaped millions in campaign contributions by using him as a bogeyman in fundraising letters.

Brown is the nation’s oldest governor. He is undoubtedly thinking of how people will remember him. He has done a lot during his very long career, and it would be a shame if he went out on such a sour, Falwellian note.

Jack Pitney writes his Looking for Trouble blog exclusively for the Monitor.

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