Listen, America! The Conservative Blueprint for America’s Moral Rebirth by Jerry Falwell (Toronto: Bantam Books, 1980. 237 pp)
Jerry Falwell was an evangelical, fundamentalist preacher. He founded Thomas Road Baptist Church in Lynchburg Virgina, Liberty University, and the Moral Majority. Falwell attended Baptist Bible College and became an outspoken voice for conservatism in the United States. Falwell died in 2007.
Thank You, Sir
Well-behaved children do not find trouble. If they speak kindly in a crowd, no offense is taken. If they covet nothing, no jealousy or harm of property could ever occur. To a certain extent and from the condescending tone of the title, Jerry Falwell’s Listen, America! flows from this reasoning. If a person, community, or country acts well, what could go wrong?
The Supposed Dangers of Moral Decay
The former leading voice of the disbanded Moral Majority, Jerry Falwell urges Christians to establish morality through political action. Although Listen, America! does not flow deductively (or inductively, for that matter), Jerry Falwell’s core thesis surrounds the concept of moral decay in the United States.
For Falwell, the prosperity of a nation is directly related to the morality of a nation. He writes,
“History books are replete with illustrations of how, down through six thousand years of human history, empires, governments, kingdoms, and nations have ceased to exist when they have fallen into sin” (22).
Setting aside the debate around what qualifies as sin (many could argue that the supposed pristine lifestyle of the founding fathers carried much sin), Falwell believes that the rise of liberalism and its acceptance of unhinged sin is a recipe for the downfall of the United States.
In order for America to avoid a precarious downfall, Falwell believes that all of society must realign with Christian morals.
“God is the Author of our liberty, and we will remain free only as long as we remember this and seek to live by God’s laws” (41).
Directly related to his belief in the core reasons for societal decay, Falwell contends that societal success exists only in correlation with enacting proper morals. Interestingly, these two premises do not elaborate on what to do. Jim Wallis, a Christian living on the opposite side of the spectrum could agree with these premises.
Christian Morals Defined
What differentiates Falwell from Wallis is the definition of Christian morals. Whereas Wallis sides with the poor, disenfranchised, and exploited, Falwell affirms the status quo. He states,
“The free-enterprise system is clearly outlined in the Book of Proverbs in the Bible. Jesus Christ made it clear that the work ethic was a part of His plan for man. Ownership of property is biblical. Competition in business is biblical. Ambitious and successful business management is clearly outlined as a part of God’s plan for His people” (12).
Charitably granting that Falwell has sources to back up these claims, capitalism becomes Biblically mandated.
The Morality of the Founding Fathers
Falwell traces these principles back to the moral superiority of the founding fathers of the United States. Hinting at America’s role as a present-day chosen society of God, Falwell asserts that the actions of the founding fathers create some sort of covenant with God. These principles, for Falwell, are diametrically different than the way government currently runs. He argues:
“When America was founded, the legitimate purpose of government was to protect the lives, the liberties, and the property of the citizens. It was not the purpose of government to redistribute resources or to enforce any particular results in the relationships and dealings of the citizenry among themselves. Simply stated, government was to protect the God-given rights of the people” (59).
Much like John Locke’s position on property and government, Falwell believes that God gifts humans with labor, property, and free enterprise. Government’s role, then, is to divorce itself from wealth creation and maintain the rights of the people in case of dispute.
Christians in Politics: A Social Engagement
|Photo by Mark Trammell|
Given Falwell’s premises, he urges Christians to right the proverbial ship, exerting the strength of the moral majority. He believes that God mandates Christians to remain active in politics and to legislate ethics in order to avoid the decay of immorality. Falwell suggests,
“The political process is really nothing more than a realization of the social process. For us to divorce ourselves from society would be to run into the kind of isolationism and monasticism that characterized the medieval hermits” (226).
Despite his clear opposition to the Christian communism of Walter Rauschenbusch, Falwell agrees with Rauschenbusch’s tenet of engaging with society. Where Rauschenbusch urges us to engage with society in order to alleviate social evils, Falwell, to a certain extent, wants Christians to engage with society in order to maintain the social ideals that Rauschenbusch would label evil.
In all honesty, much of Listen, America! bothers me. Logic is applied sparingly to the book and much of his assertions about communism seem to come from a position of fear. Born in 1985, I am not cognizant of communism and the fear it instilled in the West. Perhaps, the best modern analog is Islam? Nevertheless, Falwell’s claims seem wide-sweeping and unsupported.
God’s Covenant with America
Yet even if I grant him the overwhelming fear of communism and his questionable truth claims, Falwell’s assumptions regarding the superiority of the United States and capitalism feel absurd. Throughout Listen, America!, Falwell writes as if the United States holds exclusive rights to prosperity, economics, and salvation. I get the feeling that Falwell believes that God has selected the United States as his chosen nation, which, in some way, is similar to the relationship Israel held with God in the Old Testament, America’s citizens must follow God or face undesirable outcomes. I reject this position vehemently. God’s covenant through Jesus extends globally. To proclaim that one nation holds a privileged status with God is discriminatory at best and a grave sin at worst.
Intuitively, a well behaved group of people will achieve better societal results than a lawless group. Falwell believes that an America without a moral backbone is an America that doesn’t exist. In order for America to survive and thrive, the nation must return to its Christian morals. Falwell defines morals as a return to the conservative ways of the founding fathers and the free market economy. Yet, I critique Falwell for his misplaced assumptions in the covenantal relationship God carries with the United States. The U.S., while successful and certainly blessed, has no moral superiority to the rest of the world.
In short, don’t read Listen, America!
Verdict: 1 out of 5