Why Are Heavyweight Republicans Talking to "Has-Been" Falwell?

A February 8 Reuters article carried on The New York Times Web site, with the sneering title “Rightwing Warrior Falwell has Eyes on 2008,” depicts the Rev. Jerry Falwell mostly as a “far right” has-been. 

Tom Stoddard's comments on Falwell's age and “his silvery hair and heavy jowls” paint the evangelical leader as old and out of touch with today's culture.  The article is full of buzz phrases such as “his zeal is undaunted.” If Falwell were a liberal, the wording most likely would have been “his commitment” or “his courage.”  People who have views 180 degree opposite to Falwell are never called “far left.”

The article acknowledges, however, that Falwell has been approached for his support by several leading candidates for the 2008 Republican presidential nomination, including Sen. John McCain (AZ), former Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney and Sen. Sam Brownback (KS). 

John McCain, in particular, considers Falwell's support important, as Stoddard notes: “McCain pointedly spoke at Falwell's Liberty University in Virginia last year.”

An evangelical leader best known for founding the Moral Majority and putting the Religious Right on the map, Rev. Falwell is pastor of Thomas Road Baptist Church and founder and chancellor of Liberty University.  In recent years he has devoted less time to politics, focusing instead on building the university, which added a law school last year.

Stoddard's piece begins by commenting that “His influence may be diminished…” and promotes this theme throughout the piece. Assertions that “his influence has waned” and his “revived Moral Majority Coalition does not have the clout that its predecessor enjoyed,” are supported by a lone expert quoted in the article.

John C. Green, a political scientist at the University of Akron and Senior Fellow in Religion and American Politics at the liberal Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life, says, “[b]ecause of his prominence, Falwell still carries some weight among religious conservatives but he doesn't have the organizational power that he once had.”

That's probably true, but the article implies that it is because Falwell is out of touch, not because he has been focused on something else – Liberty University.

As with most articles profiling the Rev. Falwell, Reuters dredges up comments that Falwell made in the wake of 9/11, observing he “provoked a storm of derision when he said gays, lesbians and abortionists were partly to blame for the hijacked plane attacks in September 2001.”

Still, the Republican candidates must see something in Falwell that Reuters missed if they're trying to gain his endorsement for their presidential campaigns. 

Colleen Raezler is a research assistant at the Media Research Center's Culture and Media Institute (www.cultureandmediainstitute.org).