Like most on the left, I can't say I will miss Jerry Falwell, the founder of the 'Moral Majority,' who died today at the age of 73.
Most of what you will read about him is true. Even people prone to exaggeration probably won't have to go too far to find plenty to write about him.
One thing that is undeniably true-- Falwell was an obdurate segregationist most of his life, and only changed when segregation was so far gone that it could no longer be defensible to be in favor of it. They needed a new vehicle and they found it. But it is not true that the 'Moral Majority' coalesced out of nowhere, as it seemed to when Falwell founded it in 1979 and claimed Jimmy Carter as its first victim a year later. I remember talking to a black minister back about 1980, and the topic of the 'Moral Majority' came up, and his observation was simple but powerful-- 'same old segregationists, new packaging.' As recently as the 1980's Falwell preached against interracial marriage and even at the height of its power, 'Moral Majority' never made even a pretense of being anything other than a nearly all-white organization. They maintained ties with the Council of Conservative Citizens and other 'just under the line' racist organizations.
That said, he does deserve some credit for being a political genius. He recognized the inherent power in numbers, and that there were millions of Christian evangelicals across the country (though mostly concentrated in the South.) This was a group that in 1976, had split their votes almost evenly between Gerald Ford and Jimmy Carter. But in 1980, Falwell had organized the 'Moral Majority,' and they played a huge role in sweeping the south (except for Carter's home state of Georgia) for Ronald Reagan that year. If you go back and look at election results for 1980, you will find that the margin in almost every state in the deep south was razor thin-- only 2,500 votes in Arkansas and no more than two percent in most other states. It is true that Ronald Reagan would probably have won the 1980 election without the 'Moral Majority,' but the 'solid south' would have stayed with Carter and likely have stayed Democratic for a much longer time. Further, Falwell's organization helped change it from being Democratic at all to being one of the most heavily Republican regions in the country (rivaling the much less populous high plains and north-central rockies as a bastion of GOP power.)
The views held by Falwell and his organization, which formally disbanded in 1989 (now its adherents are largely followers of Pat Robertson and other political evangelists) were repugnant to many liberals (including myself), but the fact is that he made the GOP a majority party by adding to the old limited-government, economy and freedom-driven Goldwater conservatives a new strain of conservatives-- cultural conservatives, and the power to turn millions of them out at the polls.
In 2000 and 2004, cultural conservatives certainly provided a boost to George W. Bush in two close elections. But recently they have started to sour on the GOP. After six years of the Bush presidency, they've seen him become involved in a seemingly endless war (with their sons and daughters, many of whom join the military, coming back in caskets)-- and at least a significant minority of cultural conservatives have begun openly questioning the moral underpinnings of starting a war as a means to advance policy objectives. They've seen President Bush fail during the years when he had a GOP Congress to do much about changing the culture of America to the way they want it, and they've seen their erstwhile hero only choose a conservative for the Supreme Court when conservatives in the Senate blocked Harriet Miers. Last year it came out that high level GOP strategists had privately joked about cultural conservatives and described them as ignorant and uneducated (some are, at that, but some have Ph.D.'s). Despite the President's restrictions on it, many states and institutions are moving forward with embryonic stem cell research. In Pennsylvania, Kansas and other places, voters have risen up and punished their candidates on school boards when they've overreached and tried to force creationism into the classroom.
Most importantly, the single issue that most defined cultural conservatives (almost with a fervor that one feels that it has replaced segregation in their list of 'non-negotiable values,')-- abortion-- seems to be going in the opposite direction from what cultural conservatives want it to go in. Despite a minor win on the 'partial birth abortion' ruling by the Supreme Court, nothing else seems to be going their way on it. The Republican frontrunner recently came out as being pro-choice (he said he personally opposes it, but is 'OK' with it if the court refuses to throw out Roe v. Wade-- something that cultural conservatives have made THE ultimate goal of their cause pretty much from the moment that Falwell organized them.) The 'morning after pill' has become commonplace, and is likely to be offered over the counter-- a move which will certainly make abortions rare, but one which does so by rendering it moot. Further, it is true that abortion has declined since the early 1990's, but what has changed since then is that years of sex education in schools has largely been successful and changed people's thinking about using birth control and avoiding unprotected sex. The quixotic attempts by conservatives to ban or restrict abortions have produced lots of legal bills and so far not have prevented a single abortion.
And in the end, even Falwell's most visible legacy, changing the color of the South from blue to red, may be a mirage. The old 'Dixiecrats' may now be Republicans, but let's face it-- in the old days they were often just as conservative as Republicans (so that for example in the early 1980's they helped Ronald Reagan effectively control the House by defecting en masse to vote with the Republicans on key pieces of legislation.) So now they actually are Republicans, but the change from conservative Democrats to conservative Republicans is a change in party label only, not ideology. In contrast, in other parts of the country, the 'Moral Majority' and similar organizations have not prevented a shift to the left-- some examples include New England, once described as 'rock ribbed Republican' and the place where Alf Landon won his only two states in 1936, but now a solidly Democratic region; Illinois, still known as the 'land of Lincoln,' and a state which tilted towards the right, is now out of reach for the GOP in anything other than a landslide election. California, the home of Richard Nixon and Ronald Reagan, and another solidly Republican state for decades, is now a reliably Democratic state. Pennsylvania and New Jersey-- two other traditionally Republican states that have trended sharply towards the left. In fact, if you compare the map of Jimmy Carter's close election win over Gerald Ford in 1976 with the election maps of George Bush's victories over Al Gore in 2000 or John Kerry in 2004, the first thing that you will notice is of course that the South has changed from Democratic to Republican. But then you will notice that the majority of the states that Democrats carried in the 2000 and 2004 election, had voted for Gerald Ford just about a generation earlier. And unlike the South, this represents an ideological change. In these regions of the country, Democrats are in general liberals. So if people have begun supporting Democrats, it is largely because they are now more liberal. For that matter, even Falwell's home state of Virginia-- where Richmond was once the capital of the Confederacy and going back to colonial days was the quintessential Southern state), has now become more purple than red; though Virginia last voted for a Democrat for President in 1964, expect it to be a major battleground in the next Presidential election.
And why is this? There are a lot of reasons, to be sure, but it is certain that one of the big ones is simply voters who don't want to be dictated to by American mullahs in the groups which have succeeded the Moral Majority (which itself formally disbanded in 1989).
And many cultural conservatives feel that their choice for President next year is between a guy who is openly pro-choice (bogeyman #1), a guy who they've never trusted and who they consider to be too willing to make deals that mainly serve himself and will probably sell them out if he gets elected (bogeyman #2) and a guy who many of them think is a heretic (bogeyman #3). But the simple fact is, that the failures of the Bush administration have simply made it unlikely that a true hardcore conservative Republican-- any straight up conservative Republican-- could win in 2008.
The years between 2000 and 2006 were what a generation (in fact, arguably several generations) of conservatives were building towards-- years when they had the control to do as they pleased and remake the government and society in their image. Well, they had the opportunity and the political capital, and it all got squandered in a stupid war in Iraq (as well as a few other projects that in the end were tangential to cultural conservatives like drilling in ANWR and the ill-fated attempt at privatization of Social Security). Then last year the American voters slammed the door shut on the era that conservatives since the darkest days after the Goldwater defeat had dreamed of and built towards. With the war in Iraq continuing to drag down the GOP, it looks like 2008 may be a rerun of 2006, making it increasingly unlikely that conservatives will be able to recapture that era of virtually unanimous control of the government again for at least another generation, if ever.
And so in the end, I would suggest that Jerry Falwell ultimately failed.