American evangelicals can trace their philosophical roots back to John Calvin, and the fingerprints of his theology are evident in our history. His was a particularly engaged form of protest against the papacy. Protestants felt that an intercessory priest and Pope were not necessary; the common person could engage Christ directly, without formal education. Protestants have therefore always been predisposed toward do-it-yourselfism. Calvin added a few of key elements that persist in the DNA of fundamentalism in America.
He introduced the idea of literal readings of the Bible--lacking the organization of the church, the Bible itself took the place of the priest. Since it was an intact text of the literal word of God, anyone who picked it up could use it as a blueprint for religion. Next, he believed in orienting society around the teachings (literal, in his theology) of the Bible. And finally, he introduced a strange doctrine of predestination:
Calvin, on the other hand, built his reformed church on the concept that salvation was not a choice, but was rather pre-decided by God from the beginning of time. This mean that individuals were "elected" for salvation by God; this "elect" would form the population of the Calvinist church.... It was incumbent on churches filled with living saints to only admit other living saints; this organizational principle was called voluntary associations. Voluntary associations are predicated on the idea that a community or association chooses its own members and those members, of their own free will, choose to be a member of that community or association.Falwell's theology, and his interest in merging society, religion, and the church, can be traced back in a pretty clear line to Calvin. In the language that he used and the way he ordered his organization, you can see this old predestination, the eternally damned and saved, populate his world. When he condemned the evil liberals and abortionists who caused 9/11, he was invoking the threat of the damed--and the danger that they brought through their association with good, Godfearing Americans. When some Christians overlook the fetid corruption that infests the Republican Party, they see instead the saved, those who commit small infractions but whose souls remain unstained.
The effect has been the poisoning, not joining, of both church and state. For those not party to this worldview, it is viscious and malignant. Public policy falls outside the realm of discussion--it will either be managed by the saved or damned, and the consequence is of transcendental proportion. That's why the resultant GOP movement was unyielding and disinterested in compromise. It is a purely undemocratic view; why on earth would you ever accede to the will of the damned, the evildoers? It has resulted in binary politics, us or them.
The same has happened in a far less noticed or documented way, within churches. The same kind of certainty and autocracy has taken hold in many churches; for liberal evangelicals, voting GOP is a matter of faith. And when politics become acts of theology, there is very little give in the system. Churches have driven away congregants for what appears absurdly petty: voting for the wrong candidate.
A lot of the invective directed at Falwell was tinged with a kind of certainty he would have recognized. Many are glad he's dead, confident that he was as evil and malignant as they imagine. But although his cultural legacy was most certainly malignant, I'm reluctant to say anything about the nature of a person I haven't met. Let us do him an honor he may not have done for those he disagreed with: let us treat his death with the respect any member of our community is due. It's the liberal thing to do.