Inside Falwell's moral universe

November 18, 2001|By Andrew Bard Schmookler

ORKNEY SPRINGS, Va. - I don't think Jerry Falwell should have felt compelled to apologize for his well-known post-Sept. 11 remarks because they were "inappropriate."

After all, if Mr. Falwell was right - if indeed the almighty creator of the universe is angry with America because we have pagans and homosexuals and civil liberties organizations flourishing among us, and if God withdrew his protection from America because of that anger and allowed the terrorists to bring down the World Trade Center and obliterate a chunk of the Pentagon - that seems like something really important for us to know.

What seems salient to me about Mr. Falwell's remarks is not that they were offensive or inappropriate but that they provide a glimpse into his moral universe. This moral universe is not Mr. Falwell's alone, as I can attest from my conversations with callers to my talk radio show in Virginia's Shenandoah Valley. And it's a universe that would frighten me to live in.

If Mr. Falwell is right, for example, it means that God agrees with the terrorists, and not with us, on the crucial question: "Is the deliberate targeting of innocents a legitimate way to attack one's enemies?"

That question is crucial because it's what differentiates our nation's way of fighting our foes from the means employed by terrorists. And if God regards it as appropriate to punish America by allowing an attack that kills indiscriminately the offending and the blameless - and neither the WTC nor the Pentagon is a hotbed of homosexuals nor pagans nor civil libertarians - it would seem that the ruler of the universe agrees with the terrorists on the question of legitimate targets.

If Mr. Falwell is right, that would mean God also opposes the American system of limited government, as enshrined in the Bill of Rights. What else can it mean to say that because of the pagans among us, God is angry not just at the pagans but with America itself?

The American idea of liberty is dedicated to the proposition that individuals have the right to make choices - even bad choices - in some fundamental realms of their lives (specifically including religion), and that the power of the state should not be used to compel some "right" choice as dictated by authority. But if God is angry at the nation because some citizens have chosen wrongly, that implies that God regards the Bill of Rights as an abdication of national responsibility.

Indeed, the list of offenses that Mr. Falwell claims have provoked God's anger suggests that, in that moral universe, what matters is whether people obey the voice of authority. All the offenses he lists - including the beliefs in false gods, sexual practices that the God of the Bible regards as abominations and the efforts of organizations to limit the power of governing authorities - are about maintaining a top-down hierarchical order.

Had a voice from heaven informed me that God was angry with America, I'd have imagined us guilty of a different kind of offense. Mr. Falwell says nothing of the reasons for God's anger or the ways humans can be cruel to our brethren or about the ways that those in positions of power can exploit those under their dominion.

When I imagine God judging this mighty nation, He would be concerned above all about whether we had pursued our own selfish national interests without giving sufficient weight to the legitimate concerns of weaker people.

Have we worked as hard as we should have, the justice-loving God I imagine would ask, to create a world in which justice, rather than raw power, governs how conflicts are resolved?

Have we shown a willingness to subordinate ourselves to good treaties and international law, rather than maintaining our freedom to "do what we can"?

When we've wielded force, have we properly weighed the lives and blood of the innocent people of other nations in relation to the value we place on our own lives and blood?

When we shape the world's economic relations, have we been as attentive to the needs of the voiceless poor in relation to the desires of the dominant rich, as justice and compassion would dictate?

It occurs to me that from the people who inhabit Jerry Falwell's kind of moral universe, I have never heard that either they or the God for whom they speak is much worried about those kinds of questions. I cannot recall ever hearing Mr. Falwell, or anyone else from that quarter, condemn any American action for being morally wrong despite its serving our desire to extend our wealth and power. But I have no direct access to divine judgment on America. I can only say that the moral order of which Mr. Falwell has given us a glimpse is not one I would wish to have ruling our universe.

Andrew Bard Schmookler is a writer living in Virginia's Shenandoah Valley.

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