Journal of Southern Religion


Susan Friend Harding, The Book of Jerry Falwell: Fundamentalist Language and Politics, Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2000. 336 Pages.


Susan Friend Harding’s The Book of Jerry Falwell: Fundamentalist Language and Politics landed on my desk not long after Falwell’s comments on the September 11th terrorist attacks. Falwell said that God might be allowing “the enemies of America to give us probably what we deserve.” It seemed a good time to reexamine Falwell’s language and politics.


 
"In a Postscript, Harding takes aim at the common misconception that the 'biblical realism' of born-again Christianity is a rigid relic of premodernity. "  

 

The Book of Jerry Falwell, writes Harding, “is a study of the language by which many fundamentalist Protestants and their allies transformed themselves during the 1980s from a marginal, antiworldly, separatist people into a visible and vocal public force.”(ix) She concentrates on Falwell’s role in forging this transforming rhetoric which not only reconstituted the various kinds of conservative Protestants as “born-again Christianity” but also, she claims, changed “the rules of national public discourse, and the meaning of modernity.” (ix)

The book is divided into two parts. In the first, “Rites of Origin,” Harding provides fascinating discussions of the language of fundamentalist witnessing and of the pivotal role of the Scopes Trial in fashioning the “regime of secular modernity” (75) in which “the public arena was off-limits to openly Bible-believing voices.” (78)

“Rites of Revision,” the second part, is Harding’s extended examination of the particular rhetorics Falwell forged as part of the larger project of contesting and overturning the cultural verdict of Scopes and to place himself at the center of that enterprise. These include Falwell’s portrayal of himself as a “postbiblical character,” (27) the rhetoric of fund-raising, the concepts of gender roles and family, abortion, creationism, the reconciliation of political activism and premillennialism, and the “telescandals” of the late 1980s. (A surprising omission is any sustained discussion of Falwell’s rhetoric regarding homosexuality.)

In a Postscript, Harding takes aim at the common misconception that the “biblical realism” of born-again Christianity is a rigid relic of premodernity. “In short,” she writes, “what we are looking at is a kind of ‘flexible absolutism,’ or, more precisely, a rhetorical capacity and will to frame new and internally diverse cultural positions as ‘eternal absolutes.’” (275) 

There is much to appreciate and to admire in Harding work. She grasps the complex and fully human reality of the people who respond to Falwell’s rhetoric. Harding does not construct fundamentalists as a “problem” to be explained or to be solved. The implicit “know your enemy” agenda of much scholarship about political fundamentalism is absent. Even more impressive is that Harding manages to do this with only an occasional descent into tangles of post-structuralist jargon. Her writing is usually clear and lively, and is not only accessible to scholars in other fields but to a more general audience.

Harding’s focus on fundamentalist language may prove frustrating to readers who place as much importance on context as upon texts. Falwell’s rhetoric was important but events and practical realities need to be given equal weight. For readers less familiar with the historical setting of Falwell’s career, such as undergraduates, William Martin’s With God on Our Side provides a useful complement.

Methodologically, Harding positions herself, and invites her readers to do the same, “in the gap between conscious belief and willful unbelief.” She calls this stance “narrative belief,” and claims it “opens up born-again language.” (xii) There is much that Harding’s approach does open up, but I think we need to recognize its limits. How fully can we “learn how to hear Jerry Falwell as his people do” (xii) unless we pass over into belief and take on the real consequences of commitment? Harding’s gap between belief and unbelief may be distinct from unbelief, but it is also distinct from belief.

My greatest frustration was Harding’s decision to end her study with the late 1980s. The evolution of Falwell’s rhetoric on various topics since then would have been worth at least one chapter. The “Tinky Winky” controversy of 1999 occurred as the book was going to press, but Falwell’s decision to affiliate with the Southern Baptist Convention in 1996 and the anti-Clinton videos Falwell distributed in 1994 are cited only in passing. Falwell’s 1997 autobiography goes unmentioned. A fuller discussion of these and other developments since 1988 would have been helpful.

Even with these limitations, The Book of Jerry Falwell, is an admirable accomplishment and a significant contribution to the study of one of the most important figures and movements in American evangelicalism.

Justin Watson, Lafayette College

 

2001 by The Journal of Southern Religion. All rights reserved. ISSN 1094-5234


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