Moral Majority

Mitt Romney faces the Moral Majority

When the Rev. Jerry Falwell founded the Moral Majority in 1979, many fundamentalist pastors were appalled by his decision to wade into the muck of politics. Even more shocking, Falwell said this would be an interfaith project from the get-go, one open to conservatives in many flocks -- including the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. The goal was to focus on the moral convictions that united believers in different faiths, not the scriptures, creeds and theology that separated them.

Clearly, Mitt Romney or a campaign staffer did his history homework before the candidate arrived at Liberty University to embrace the Rev. Jerry Falwell Jr., and address the class of 2012, as well as -- via mass media -- millions of conservative Christians who have shunned him, or worse.

"People of different faiths, like yours and mine, sometimes wonder where we can meet in common purpose, when there are so many differences in creed and theology," said Romney, in an address that included many references to faith and family. "Surely the answer is that we can meet in service, in shared moral convictions about our nation stemming from a common worldview."

Over in the faculty section, this "people of different faiths" passage hit home for the well-known author and Christian apologist Gary Habermas, who has taught at Liberty for 31 years and currently leads its philosophy department.

"I'm surprised that he said that, that he chose that combination of words," said Habermas. "You see, he's not really talking to our people, alone. He's talking to the whole Southern evangelical presence that he needs at the polls this fall. He knows they need to hear from him on this issue."

In particular, it was significant that Romney acknowledged that some theological disputes are so basic -- such as disagreements about the nature of God -- that the creeds of ancient Christianity divide Mormons from Trinitarian Christians.

"I was surprised that he was so clear in pointing out this fact -- that we are different, that our theologies are so different," said Habermas. "He needs to say that, to acknowledge that, before he can go on to say that we can still work together."

Obviously, Romney knew that his audience included many who were upset that he was delivering the commencement address, said the Rev. Tal Davis, who for many years led interfaith evangelism projects for the Southern Baptist Convention. It was smart for Romney to gently acknowledge this and, thus, preempt some critics.

"I thought he was refreshingly candid," said Davis. "He wasn't trying to ignore or gloss over the obvious. He was saying, 'I'm not here representing my church. Our faiths are different. I'm running for president. Let's move on.' "

The candidate certainly knew to quote or praise heroes that would appeal to his listeners, including John Wesley, William Wilberforce, C.S. Lewis, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Viktor Frankl, Martin Luther King, Jr., Pope John Paul II, Billy Graham, Rick Warren, Chuck Colson and, of course, the late Jerry Falwell. He also alluded to recent church-state conflicts, at one point drawing sustained applause with the simple statement: "Marriage is a relationship between one man and one woman."

The times are so tense, noted Romney, that the "protection of religious freedom has also become a matter of debate. It strikes me as odd that the free exercise of religious faith is sometimes treated as a problem, something America is stuck with instead of blessed with. Perhaps religious conscience upsets the designs of those who feel that the highest wisdom and authority comes from government. ...

"Religious liberty is the first freedom in our Constitution. And whether the cause is justice for the persecuted, compassion for the needy and the sick, or mercy for the child waiting to be born, there is no greater force for good in the nation than Christian conscience in action."

Liberty University's founder would have applauded those words, as well as the fact that a Mormon leader delivered them, said Habermas. While the Moral Majority organization no longer exists, some of its strategies have become part of America's political landscape.

"Mormons were always a crucial part of that coalition, from day one," said Habermas. "Everyone knew that we had our differences, but we were still trying to stand shoulder to shoulder. ... The key is that everyone needs to know that we are not trying to blur or combine our theologies."

Jerry Falwell, gay-rights activist?

It isn't shocking when leaders of the Human Rights Campaign praise people who have taken stands to back the civil rights of gays, lesbians and bisexuals.

But it certainly raised eyebrows when the gay-rights group publicly thanked the Rev. Jerry Falwell. The result was an odd little news story that, at first glance, made about as much sense as the Southern Baptist Convention throwing a party for its friends at the Walt Disney Co.

The story began with Falwell defending volunteer legal work that Supreme Court nominee John Roberts did during a key court battle over homosexual rights.

"I may not agree with the lifestyle. But that has nothing to do with the civil rights of that part of our constituency," said Falwell, on MSNBC's "The Situation with Tucker Carlson."

"Judge Roberts would probably have been not a good very good lawyer if he had not been willing, when asked by his partners in the law firm, to assist in guaranteeing the civil rights of employment and housing to any and all Americans."

Falwell plunged on, denying that he had changed his stance on extending "special rights" to homosexuals as a minority group. Equal access to housing and employment are basic rights, he said.

"Civil rights for all Americans, black, white, red, yellow, the rich, poor, young, old, gay, straight, etc., is not a liberal or conservative value," said Falwell. "It's an American value that I would think that we pretty much all agree on."

It was half a loaf, but gay-rights leaders grabbed it.

The Rev. Mel White of Soulforce -- a group based near Falwell's evangelical empire in Lynchburg, Va. -- immediately set out to verify if his former employer had meant to say what he had said. Before coming out as a gay activist in the early 1990s, White was a seminary professor and superstar ghostwriter who worked with the Rev. Billy Graham, Pat Robertson, Oliver North, Jim Bakker and, yes, Falwell.

How well does White know Falwell? Twenty years ago, he wrote his autobiography. The men have matched wits and sound bites ever since.

After reading Falwell's remarks, White immediately touched base with Ron Godwin, the former executive director of the Moral Majority.

"I asked him three questions," said White, during a trip last week to Washington, D.C. "I asked, 'Did Jerry say it?' He said, 'Yes.' I asked, 'Did Jerry mean it?' He said, 'Yes.' I asked, 'Will Jerry retract it?' He said, 'No.'

"I said, 'Thank Jerry for that.' "

Godwin confirmed that he talked to White on a recent Sunday morning, which isn't strange since White and his partner Gary Nixon frequently attend Thomas Road Baptist Church to monitor what Falwell says about sexuality and politics in the pulpit. They have been known to stand up in silent protest when the preacher says something that they believe is wrong.

Members of Falwell's team, said Godwin, cannot understand why White and others think the religious broadcaster has changed his tune on crucial issues linked to sexuality, marriage and civil rights. In this case, Falwell was merely restating his belief that homosexuals should not be denied civil rights they have as individual American citizens.

"We're not talking about the unique and special rights that are assigned to people in protected minority groups," said Godwin, who is now president of Jerry Falwell Ministries. "I understand that Mel has a strong desire to gain recognition for his cause. ... But Jerry Falwell is what he is and this 72-year-old Baptist was not trying to send some kind of subtle, oblique message that he has changed what he believes."

Obviously, White disagrees. He believes that, whether he wants to admit it or not, Falwell has changed some of the language that he uses to describe homosexuals and, in disputes that are theological as much as political, those words matter.

"I have known Jerry a long time and I think this was a serious change in his life," said White. "Never before has he said that he recognized us as a class -- as a protected class -- like other Americans. Now he has included us as gay and straight, right in there with black and white, man and woman, rich and poor, young and old and everybody else. That's important."