Falwell and the politics of intolerance in a democracy

The death of Reverend Jerry Falwell was an occasion for many Americans on the left hand side of the political spectrum to behave as badly as many right-wing Cuban exiles did when it became known that Fidel Castro was sick. Rejoicing over the death, or anticipated death, of a political foe is not only rude, it's a symbol of how vicious American politics have become.

Falwell was one of the architects of that viciousness. The message implicit in the name of the group through which he first mobilized the religious right, the Moral Majority, was that those who disagreed were immoral or amoral. The religious right's big "winning issue" for the last several years has been hatred of homosexuals. Its mirror image promotion of Osama bin Laden's idea of a holy war between Christians and Muslims has done grave damage to American foreign policy and, in the course of the Iraq War, the US Armed Forces.

It's therefore natural that the man made enemies.

But let us look back before his time to understand Falwell's historic accomplishment and beyond the USA to understand the challenge his life's work poses for democracy.

Christian fundamentalism was a 19th century idea, which allied itself with strains of nativism and racism and gained force early in the 20th century with the defeat of the Progressives on the one side of the partisan divide by the corporate interests within the GOP who opposed Teddy Roosevelt and on the other side by the disillusionment that came with a bloody and inconclusive World War I into which the progressive Democrat Woodrow Wilson led the United States. Its high water moments were the second major incarnation of the Ku Klux Klan in the 1920s, which took political control of many southern states and even the northern state of Indiana, and the passage of alcohol Prohibition.

The unpopularity of Prohibition, the ridicule to which fundamentalists were exposed in the 1925 Scopes "monkey trial" and the Ku Klux Klan's fatal 1930s alliance with the Nazis combined to drive the bulk of fundamentalists out of the American political realm and into an underground subculture that turned away from Hollywood films and television, popular music and literature, the social sciences and other wide areas of academic inquiry, and notions that those who are in some way different ought to be tolerated and allowed their dignified places in society. The last legal bastions of the earlier fundamentalist heyday were devastated by the civil rights movement in the 50s and 60s, which was largely led by Democrats.

And so that segment of fundamentalism that still voted switched allegiance from William Jennings Bryan's Democrats to Richard Nixon's Republicans, while many other fundamentalists remained aloof. It was televangelist Jerry Falwell of the Old Time Gospel Hour who led the mass of fundamentalists out of the cultural wilderness and into a powerful political movement that altered the landscape of American politics.

The religious right is primarily a white phenomenon but Falwell for the most part avoided reopening the old wounds of the civil rights dispute, and moreover turned his back on the strains of anti-Semitism within fundamentalism by embracing Israel and its far-right Jewish religious zealots.

From time to time the baggage of modern fundamentalism's Klannish roots would show, and over the years Falwell and his successors in the Christian Coalition behaved just as cynically and mendaciously and hypocritically as any other set of politicians. The alliance with the Republicans presupposed huge gaps in the fundamentalist idea that everything in the Bible is God's inerrantly true and divinely inspired word. There is no support for the idea of a jubilee among the corporate elite who bankroll the Republican Party, and it seems that the Moral Majority and Christian Coalition believed that they had found a way to thread the eyes of needles with camels. The religious right prompted a backlash in both the political and religious spheres.

But Jerry Falwell left this world with Christian fundamentalism again a major force in US politics --- just like Jewish religious fanatics are a powerful bloc in Israel, intolerant Hindu zealots are an important group to consider in India and the likes of Osama bin Laden find substantial support in Muslim countries. In Turkey and Iraq, in Israel and Palestine, in India and Indonesia, in Northern Ireland and South Florida, next door in Colombia and far away in Central Asia, we see different forms of the same question raised: what does a democracy, or a would-be democracy, do when a majority or a substantial minority of the population is intolerant of others in society?

The founders of the American republic in part answered that with the Bill of Rights and other parts of the US Constitution that, for example, bar any religious test for the holding of public office. The freedom of speech and the press and separation of church and state found in the First Amendment are essentially anti-democratic freedoms --- a majority may be able to elect politicians to legislate as it wishes, but the laws a majority passes are limited in that it is not allowed to prohibit the beliefs of a minority or suppress the expression of those beliefs.

It is, of course, the First Amendment prohibition against the establishment of a state religion that the fundamentalists most radically oppose. They're also big fans of suppressing the teaching or publication of scientific, political, social or religious ideas with which they disagree.

Do you think that we don't have these kinds of problems in Panama? Think again.

Polls show that Panamanians are ever more intolerant of those who disagree with them, and ever more exasperated with politicians of all stripes and public institutions of all varieties. Those in power look secure because nobody has presented an alternative that has captured the public imagination, but the politicians' fortresses are made of beach sand that won't resist a rising tide or even a high wind. Our presently dominant political tradition marches under a banner that recalls a coup that led to a 22-year dictatorship in which dozens of political adversaries were murdered. Another major political tradition carries the baggage of having for a time stripped all Panamanians of Asian, West Indian or Middle Eastern ancestry of their citizenship. People in this country tend to vote against whom they dislike the most, rather than in favor of some leader or plan of action. At least 36 journalists are facing criminal defamation charges, generally not for having lied but for having published uncomfortable truths. The majority Catholic church is carrying out a purge of its Liberation Theology left and losing members to energetically proselytizing Evangelical and Muslim denominations. President Torrijos's stump speeches are frequently vitriolic attacks on the chosen enemy of the moment, usually the left. We have masked cops breaking down doors and making mass arrests not on the basis of any reasonable suspicion, but on the basis of such profiles as young dark-skinned male slum dwellers with tattoos or non-millionaire foreigners in Bocas.

Our problems with intolerance in Panama are not the same as the challenges that the intolerant pose in the United States or elsewhere, but they are of a similar character.

Our best defenses against these sorts of menaces are not boorish celebrations when those with whom we disagree sicken and die. That sort of thing is not even appropriate when our adversaries are so intolerant as to preach hatred against ourselves.

The best defense is the truth, which in turn is only as strong as the courage of those who uphold it and express it in the face of threats or persecution.



A very strange defense

More than 80 percent of Panamanians are opposed to the capture of wild dolphins from our national waters. There are various reasons why this is so.

The Torrijos administration, most probably for undisclosed economic reasons that are personal to one or more top public officials, is trying to turn this around. However, despite an ever changing description about what the Ocean Embassy project is (the latest version is that it's a dolphin hospital), this effort has met with little success.

In San Carlos district, where Ocean Embassy is now promising 1,600 jobs (in writing, but not in a binding legal agreement), the public officials who support the dolphin capture project had to pack the crowd with kids to get just 60 people to show up at a demonstration in support of the project.

At that pathetic little gathering, Aquatic Resources Authority director Richard Pretto --- who more properly should play the role of dispassionate and impartial judge of the Ocean Embassy proposal --- waved his fist and called on that tiny group of San Carlos residents to "Defend what's yours!"

Let us set aside for a moment the notion that a tiny group of citizens in one district who have been promised jobs have more ownership rights in the dolphins who live in Panamanian waters than do the rest of this country's citizens, let alone more ownerships rights than the dolphins have in themselves. Let us accept, for the sake of argument, the concept of wildlife as mere property.

Still, if Panama's dolphins are just property that belongs to some identifiable small group of citizens, giving them to a foreign corporation is a downright weird way to defend this property.



Bear in mind...


First keep peace within yourself, then you can also bring peace to others.

Thomas À Kempis


You're not supposed to be so blind with patriotism that you can't face reality. Wrong is wrong no matter who does it or who says it.

Malcolm X


The highest result of education is tolerance.

Helen Keller



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