Wednesday, May 16, 2007

Jerry Falwell (1933-2007)

What if Ann Coulter, the mistress of hate-filled invective, carried with her whatever credibility comes from being the minister of a suburban mega-church?

Jerry Falwell, founder of the Thomas Road Baptist Church in Lynchburg, Virginia and of the Moral Majority, died yesterday in his office at Liberty University. In death as in life, Falwell was a polarizing figure. In fact, I've read comments that can only be described as "fighting words" from pacifists who have felt compelled to respond to the news of Falwell's death.

But why is Falwell's passing being noted here--on an IR blog?

I could point to Falwell's support for the repressive right-wing government in El Salvador during the 1980s or his opposition to sanctions against the South African apartheid regime. I could also point to his noxious comments in the aftermath of 9/11. Instead, I want to focus on his attitude toward women and its impact on U.S. human rights policy.

Let's start with an instructive contrast: Two Southern Baptists--Jerry Falwell and Jimmy Carter--came to prominence in the United States at about the same time. The two men differed on almost everything--including women's rights.

President Carter supported the Equal Rights Amendment to the Constitution. His administration signed the 1979 Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW). He appointed more women and minorities to federal courts than all of the presidents who preceded him combined.

Falwell, on the other hand, was a misogynist.

In 1989, Falwell said,

I listen to feminists and all these radical gals. . . . These women just need a man in the house. That's all they need. Most of the feminists need a man to tell them what time of day it is and to lead them home. And they blew it and they're mad at all men. Feminists hate men. They're sexist. They hate men; that's their problem.

Truly a Coulter-esque comment.

Falwell was a consistent opponent of equal rights for women. Key Republican leaders, including Senator Jesse Helms, later the chair of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, were encouraged by the support they received from Falwell's Moral Majority to steadfastly oppose ratification of CEDAW.

It would be a gross over-simplification to say that Falwell was responsible for the failure--right down to the present day--of the United States to ratify CEDAW, but religiously based opposition to feminism in all its forms (including the very basic form of support for gender equality) is part of what he has left us. James Dobson and Focus on the Family (along with its political arm, the Family Research Council) carry Falwell's misogynistic mantle today. Falwell may no longer have the ear of Republican senators and presidents, but Dobson does and he follow's Falwell's script.

It will be difficult for the United States to reclaim a position of leadership on human rights until CEDAW and the Convention on the Rights of the Child are ratified. And it will be difficult for that to happen until the Christian Right understands that Falwell and his successors have been wrong about women's rights.