Sunday, May 20, 2007

Falwell Backlash

In a time of cynicism about public figures, there has been one curious exception. Death now bestows instant sanctity, as the prolonged TV wakes for Ronald Reagan and Gerald Ford demonstrated.

When the Rev. Jerry Falwell left us this week, he was extolled by John McCain, who once called him an “agent of intolerance,” followed by Rudy Giuliani rushing in to praise his polar opposite as a man “who was not afraid to speak his mind” and a paean from ever-eager-to-please Mitt Romney.

Before the Republican debate, the moderator headed off candidate gush with a blanket bow, but not before Mike Huckabee off-camera pronounced Falwell "a great man and a great influence for America and for Christ."

After these knee-jerk tributes, second thoughts started to seep out. Charles Gibson became a minor hero for not leading off with the news of Falwell’s death on ABC, and other voices were soon heard.

On CNN, Christopher Hitchens called the preacher “a little toad” who told Americans “the attacks of September the 11th were the result of our sinfulness and were God's punishment. People like that should be out in the street, shouting and hollering with a cardboard sign and selling pencils from a cup.”

In today’s New York Times, Frank Rich points out Falwell was “a laughing stock and embarrassment” to the Bush Administration and represented “the brand of religious politics being given its walking papers by a large chunk of the political party the Christian right once helped to grow.”

All evidence shows that in the 2006 election Democrats closed “the God Gap” among evangelical Christians. Why, then, are Republican Presidential hopefuls still pandering to Falwell followers on the theory that they are the key to winning the nomination?

By defying them on abortion, Rudy Giuliani may be onto some larger truth about 2008.

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