Friday, November 8, 2013

Who is Jerry Falwell?

Who is that guy holding Tinky Winky?
The other day in my Introduction to History class at Messiah College I was talking about a former student who wrote her senior honors thesis on Jerry Falwell and the rise of the Moral Majority.  (I discuss this student in chapter 7 of Why Study History?)

As I began to explain how my former student had to put aside her liberal politics and beliefs in order to empathize and understand the world according to Falwell, I noticed that many of the 20 students in the class were giving me strange looks.

After a few minutes I figured it out. I asked the students how many of them had ever heard of Jerry Falwell.  Only two hands went up.  I then told them that Falwell was the founder of Liberty University and nearly everyone nodded.

Here are my initial thoughts about this conversation:

1.  Evangelical students today do not identify with the Christian Right's founding generation.  They really have no clue about Falwell apart from the school he founded.

2. Evangelical students really have no understanding of the history behind the movement in which many of their parents came of age and which probably informed the kind of households in which their parents raised them.

3.  Messiah College students, while no less pious, tend to be a bit less connected to the evangelical "movement" or "subculture" than students at other Christian colleges. Falwell and the other founders of the Christian Right did not have a great influence on many of them.  I compare this to the couple of visits I have made to Wheaton College in the last few years where there is a definite sense that "evangelicalism" is a major part of the identity of the college and the students who attend it.  (But to be fair, most at Wheaton would not identify with Falwell as much as Billy Graham or Christianity Today).

For the record, I also asked them if they had ever heard of Billy Graham.  Almost all the hands went up and no one thought he was a professional wrestler.

What else should I make of my students' failure to know anything about Falwell?