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Interview: Ed Dobson
Pastor emeritus of Calvary Church in Grand Rapids, Mich., Dobson worked for Jerry Falwell for more than a decade, and drafted the Moral Majority's platform. He later co-authored Blinded by Might, a book critical of the religious right, and recently published The Year of Living Like Jesus. This is the edited transcript of an interview conducted on Oct. 15, 2009.
How did you get to Lynchburg, Va.?
I graduated from Bob Jones [University] and couldn't get a job, and [Jerry] Falwell offered me to come work. It was the second year they had a college, and I figured that was better than what I was doing, which was digging graves. So I ended up going to Lynchburg till I found something better, which took 14 and a half years.
Tell me about the place. What was happening there?
The church was really exciting. It was packed every Sunday, lots of people coming to faith. The school, on the other hand, had 150 students, and it was barely above Sunday school level. But Jerry Falwell had told me one day he would have a Division I university, they'd play football, they'd have 50,000 students, and I personally thought he was a bit nuts. But it ended up coming true.
And this was what, 1972?
January of 1973 my wife and I moved to Lynchburg.
At that point, was Rev. Falwell engaged in politics?
No, not really. In fact, he was anti-political involvement at that time. As I recall, he had spoken against Martin Luther King Jr. and the marching, though he was against discrimination. But he just felt that Christians had a "higher calling," and that higher calling was to preach the Bible and love people.
Was that or is that a general feeling in the evangelical community about politics?
Yeah, I think it was the way people felt. You have to go back between 1900 and 1930, when evangelicalism and fundamentalism emerged and withdrew from mainline denominations, mainline schools and seminaries, and they began a movement all on their own that for the rest of that century was basically ignored by the media.
“We were desperate to have our voice heard and concluded that one way to get it heard was to register a bunch of people who had never registered and encourage them to vote.”
But because they were committed to winning people to Christ, the movement grew and grew and grew, so in many cities the largest churches were evangelical or fundamentalist. But in general, the idea was politics is dirty business. I mean, we ought to vote, but that was the limit.
How did Rev. Falwell ... become involved in politics?
When Gov. [Jimmy] Carter was running for the presidency, ... he did an interview for Playboy magazine that was highly controversial in conservative circles, and admitted that he had problems with lust. And Jerry Falwell, on his television show, mentioned that in passing and ended up getting a call from the head of Jimmy Carter's committee, asking him to back off. I think Jerry Falwell was shocked that he would mention something, and it would get that much attention. So early on, there was the idea that what Falwell said, especially on television, was being listened to by others.
Then in the … '70s you had Roe v. Wade. You had the general feeling that conservative religious values were being ignored in an increasingly secular public square. I think Falwell felt something has to be done, and someone needs to stand up for values that millions of conservative Christians share. And out of that was the founding of the Moral Majority in the late '70s.
So was there a television show and a radio show?
Yeah, he was on the radio daily, plus every week a one-hour television show called The Old-Time Gospel Hour.
And he had a pretty big audience?
Yeah, back in those days a huge audience.
Was it Roe v. Wade specifically that ignited this move toward activism, or was it a more general feeling?
I would say in looking back, it was driven by Roe v. Wade and also shaped by an increasing secularism in the public square. I think Jerry Falwell and many others felt that their values were not being represented or even listened to, and so this was a way to get people to listen.
Initially he did that on his radio and television show? How did he go about becoming an activist?
I think it happened rather quickly. Jerry Falwell, when he decides to do something, ends up doing it and doesn't check with a lot of people. He finally decided something needed to be done, he was the one to do it, so he started the Moral Majority. ...
How did you get invited in? What was your experience?
I felt at the time that Christian values were basically ignored by an increasing secular society, and that this was an opportunity, a, to get people registered to vote, and to influence the broader culture. So I felt at the time this was a significant step forward.
Tell me about how that worked. What was the process of getting people registered?
It worked primarily through churches. Falwell was a respected pastor in churches all over the country, and he had the ability then to influence pastors and local congregations. So they would do voter registration drives; they would pass out cards that articulated the values of each side, encouraging people to think through the issues.
What did you hope to achieve?
That afternoon, I drove to the academy to pick up my kids, and I noticed Falwell in his truck, all alone. So I got out of my car, went over to the truck, got in the truck, and he was listening to the radio. And he kept saying: "I can't believe it. They're giving us credit for electing Ronald Reagan and for getting rid of a bunch of liberal senators." And I think he was partly shocked and partly thrilled at what the media was saying about the Moral Majority.
What did that feel like?
It felt great, because millions of Christians had been ignored, and now we had sort of marched into the arena with a bit of a vengeance, and we essentially had swung an election in favor of Ronald Reagan and the Republicans. So it felt unbelievable. ...
I then visited with Jerry Falwell to the White House, to the Mess Hall, met George Bush, met Ronald Reagan. It was pretty heady stuff.
… What was the biblical argument for engaging the culture?
I'm not sure we thought it all through biblically or theologically. I think we were desperate to have our voice heard and concluded that one way to get it heard was to register a bunch of people who had never registered and encourage them to vote. We didn't sit around in long arguments about theology of the Bible. The idea was, we need to "save the country," and this is one way to do it. ...
Did you have any interaction with [theologian, author and counterculture figure] Francis Schaffer?
Yeah. ... Francis Schaffer gave more philosophical, theological, biblical underpinnings to what Falwell was doing. ... He came to speak at Liberty [University] a number of times, and Jerry Falwell often met with him, listened to him, so I think there was a personal influence, and then the larger influence of his teaching.
What kind of man was Schaffer? ...
He seemed like St. Paul or some great hero of the faith, probably because he had this long goatee and long hair and dressed very European. But he was very thoughtful and quite philosophical, and he felt that the culture was eroding, not just in America but all over the world. I think he helped Falwell think through issues. ... I think Jerry Falwell took the best intents of Schaffer and translated them into political action. I'm not sure Francis Schaffer would have agreed with everything Jerry Falwell did.
Did you see his films?
What was your reaction to them?
Interesting. Cutting-edge for that time period, because evangelicals and fundamentalists weren't in the films. I thought they were very thought-provoking. ...
Why Ronald Reagan?
Was there anything else?
I think what put him at the head of the pack was the contrast with Jimmy Carter. Even though Jimmy Carter was a born-again believer and a Southern Baptist and went to Sunday school -- Reagan didn't do any of those things to my knowledge, but he represented values that we seemed to share.
So the idea was, it was about values.
Yes. It wasn't about who's the better Christian; it was about who represents and will defend our values.
So it wasn't about taking over government and returning to a Christian nation?
No, no, I don't think Jerry Falwell ever had the idea that he was going to "Christianize" America. I think there were some values that he shared and that millions of Christians shared, and all we wanted, initially, was for those values to be represented and defended. ...
What happens after Reagan is elected?
We go from being on the outside, that nobody cares about us, to being invited up to the big house.
But the problem is, when you get invited to the big house, you become one of many groups that are sitting at the table. And what precipitated the movement was kind of an absolutism. But when you get into politics, compromise, negotiation are part of the package, and it's very hard to go from being an outsider, articulating values, to being one of many at the table. ...
And how did you all address that?
I think initially we were just caught up in the movement and were excited that we were invited places where we'd never been before. However, we never really thought through a long-term political strategy. The Moral Majority was best at being against something as opposed to being for something.
What did Reagan do for the cause?
What did Reagan do for us in eight years of office? He gave us credibility, and he ultimately did nothing in terms of our long-term agendas, and especially the issue of human life.
Was the credibility worth it?
In retrospect, yes. At least our voice was being heard. And in addition to being invited places, Jerry Falwell was all over the talking heads on television, arguing about this, that and the other thing.
How did that help?
It was helpful to the degree that he kept the issues that mattered to him in the forefront. Plus, he was good TV. (Laughs.) ...
[Were public schools an issue you were concerned about?]
Yeah. I think there was a feeling that God was being expelled from the public schools, and this was something that was of great concern to Jerry Falwell and to people in the religious right. There was an increase in secularism in the public schools; that could relate to whether or not Bible clubs could meet, as well as the whole issue of evolution versus creation.
How big of an issue was the evolution versus creationism? …
It's down the list, but it certainly was of concern. The feeling among the religious right was you couldn't prove or disprove evolution, nor can you prove or disprove creation. So creationism ought to be taught as an optional way of looking at how the world was created.
So if you had a list of cultural issues that were happening, what was at the top of the list of concerns?
I would say abortion. Secondly, the secularization of the culture, where pastors were being excluded from praying at public events; God was being taken out of the public square. You couldn't have crosses or menorahs on public property. All of that combined was disconcerting to people in the religious right.
What was driving the secularism? What did you all see as being the force behind it? Was it institutional? Was it the Supreme Court?
… The other side included secular media, Hollywood, public education, academia, liberal universities. We perceived all of them to be on the wrong side of nearly every issue.
What about the Supreme Court?
Yeah, the Supreme Court was part of that. And one of the powerful drives to get Christians involved was so we could elect a president who could then appoint conservative Supreme Court justices.
How did Reagan do on that front?
I think his first one was Sandra Day O'Connor, and in the middle of putting her forth, he called Jerry Falwell and said, "Look, I've talked to her, and everything is OK." So Jerry Falwell backed off confronting the administration about that choice. And what we have discovered is that when you put a person on the Supreme Court, there's no guarantee of how they will vote.
So that became a huge goal of the religious right, was to make sure the Supreme Court had the right people on it.
Yes, in hopes that ultimately Roe v. Wade would be overturned, that we would return prayer to the public schools, in hopes that lots of these issues could be solved at a judicial level.
And that would lead to what?
That would lead to a country that reflected its Judeo-Christian values.
Give me the definition of Judeo-Christian values. What did that mean to the Moral Majority? What did that mean to the religious right?
… The centrality of God in every culture; the family, as defined by a man, a wife and children. So it would be pro-family, pro-God, pro-life, the idea that life begins at conception. Those were the core values of what we would see as Judeo-Christian ideas.
The idea that America was meant to be Judeo-Christian -- talk to me a little bit about that. ...
In those days we would have argued from the Constitution, "We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal and are endowed by their Creator with inalienable rights." The idea that the Creator is mentioned -- it's not a secular state. It's a state that recognizes there is in fact a Creator.
And that Creator is Jesus?
The Creator would be God, in the broadest Judeo-Christian sense.
Did you have a sense at the end of Reagan's presidency, was there a deflation? Was there a frustration? Was there a questioning? Did anybody say, "What have we wrought here?," or "What have we gotten out of our efforts?" A lot of work, a lot of time, a lot of --
Money. I would say at the end of the Reagan era, we did evaluate what we had accomplished. First and foremost was the fact that we had encouraged millions of people who had been uninvolved to get involved in the political process. So I think we would argue that all of the time, effort and money was well spent. ...
In concrete terms, it was mobilization and not so much specific policy?
Yeah, we didn't dent the policy debate to a significant degree.
You eventually left Lynchburg. Tell me about that.
I was involved in just about everything Jerry Falwell did. I was an associate pastor at the church; I was a vice president at the university; I was on the board of the Moral Majority. I traveled and spoke for Falwell when he couldn't go places. I did radio, did television. I was involved in about everything he did and decided that at heart and core, I was a pastor. So I then began looking for a place where I could go and just preach the Bible and love people. ...
I think when I left, Jerry Falwell had already shut down the Moral Majority officially. I can't quite remember.
Tell me how that happened. Why did he shut it down?
I think he felt at the time that there were lots of other organizations that were now involved in the political arena. He started the Moral Majority because nobody was involved, and now there were all sorts of groups involved, and he felt it was no longer necessary to have a Moral Majority. ...
Yeah. When I came to Grand Rapids to pastor Calvary Church, I decided I didn't care what happened to America, and I didn't care what happened to politics. I was going to try and figure out what it meant to be a Jesus follower in the local church in Grand Rapids, Mich.
So when I arrived here, I refused all interviews with the media. For years, I refused to talk to the media. I got out of the circles of political activism and worked hard at living out our faith in this community. We got involved early on helping people with HIV-AIDS, no matter how they got it. We adopted the worst elementary school, gave them $50,000 to upgrade their library, provided over 200 volunteers that do reading and math, tutoring at the school.
So I decided, you can change culture, but it's one heart at a time, one school at a time, making a difference, and that politics, while it's attractive, really doesn't accomplish much.
Does it somehow subvert evangelicalism if it's one heart, one soul? I mean, is there some danger there?
Yeah, there's a huge danger in getting too involved in the political process. You become co-opted by the process, and you end up as a voice out of many voices at the big table. You can either be a prophet who stands on the outside of culture and argues against the injustices, or you can be the king. I don't think you can be both.
So the prophetic voice is the road you think is most effective?
A prophetic voice that is accompanied by a life that cares about injustice. And I think the Moral Majority was good in getting the movement going. But now we care about creation and the greening of America. We care about poverty. We care about HIV-AIDS. We care about a whole list and litany of stuff, much more than just abortion or the secularization of America.
Does that somehow conflict with the political side of the movement? Is there a conflict that comes?
I think early on we assumed in the Moral Majority, if we elected the right people, we'd get the right kind of nation. Not true. Politicians are politicians. Even the best of them are still politicians; that the real hope of "revitalizing" America lies in living out your faith in radical ways in your own community: caring for the poor, the marginalized, the oppressed, the prisoner, so forth.
Let me go back to Rev. Falwell. You knew him so well. Tell me about him. Tell me about who he was and his character.
As I look back, there were two Jerry Falwells. There was the Jerry Falwell you saw on Larry King Live or FOX and Friends, arguing passionately about moral issues. And I think he did that because he felt someone needs to be a prophet.
The other Jerry Falwell, which is the real one, he was the kindest and most generous person I have ever met in my life -- funny, kind, a family man, a good husband, a good father, a good grandfather. He was really likable.
And as a preacher?
He was a good preacher -- better in the early days than in the later days, when he got into politics too much.
His televangelism is really what shot him to superstardom. Tell me about the power of that. ... Is it a positive thing?
I think overall it's a positive thing. And Jerry Falwell never bought in to being a superstar. I visited with him in the hospitals, did maybe 100 funerals with him. I remember the night we were visiting a guy who was an alcoholic, who broke beer bottles and got beer all over us. He was the real thing, intersecting with real people on a daily basis. He was not this superstar on television.
He was a practical jokester as well.
Do you have a favorite story?
Yeah. We were staying at the Fontainebleau in Miami, and we're staying at this suite because Falwell was thinking of bringing a convention there. So for a night they gave him a suite. And in the morning we're walking to breakfast, and he's banging on every door, gets on the elevator, and I'm stuck there in the hallway with all these rich people wondering who in the world is banging on their doors.
Did you tell them?
(Laughs.) No. No.
So he had a sense of fun, but almost a juvenile sense of fun, yeah?
Yeah. When you would go through one of those spinning doors, behind him, he would get out and then stop the door so you'd smash your face. (Laughs.)
You must have had a lot of fun together.
Yeah, we did. I miss him. And in fact, I still have his cell phone number on my contacts. I just can't get rid of it. ...
What was his legacy then?
I think the legacy is Liberty University and Thomas Road Baptist Church. I begged Jerry to get out of politics on numerous occasions, but he just felt it was way too important and that someone needed to bring a moral voice. The political involvement has come and gone; the school and the church continue. ...
Do you think the leaders of the religious right have lost their way or lost touch with prophecy? After 30 years, do people harden to a position?
I think the original leaders are either dead or dying. Whether it be James Kennedy or Jerry Falwell or Paul Wyrick, they're gone. There's a whole new generation -- Rick Warren, for example, in California, and others -- whose list of issues includes poverty, HIV-AIDS, caring for creation, and are much more nonpolitical in their passion and are working to solve issues at a grassroots level. In retrospect, I wish the Moral Majority had chosen that route. ...
What is the proper role in your mind of religion in American culture and in politics? What role should it play?
I'm not sure it has a huge role in the political system. It has a huge role in local communities, in dealing with injustice, speaking up for the poor and oppressed, visiting people in prison, clothing people, feeding people, helping in the public schools, working with people with HIV. I think that's where religion has its role in this broader culture. ...
It's sort of Billy Graham's message, is that one person at a time, one heart at a time.
Yeah, I think in retrospect, Billy Graham has been right all along, though he's had his dabbling in politics, some good and some bad.
He kind of said that was a mistake as well, no?
It's interesting, I mean, you reached the same conclusions.
Yeah, I think so. The hope for our country is spiritual transformation. That includes a whole lot more than abortion. ,,,
Why were evangelicals attracted to George W. Bush?
I think at one time he was an alcoholic. He had some sort of born-again experience, so that attracts evangelicals to him, because we have all had some sort of born-again experience. Then secondly, he was pro-life, and that has become a core value in the evangelical community. So I think those two reasons would attract evangelicals to him.
It felt like a pinnacle had been reached in 2004. All the power of these 30 years had sort of come to gel in this man and this administration.
I'm not sure I would agree that all of the power had come to gel in the Bush administration. I would argue it came to gel during the Reagan administration, which even in very liberal circles is still respected.
Can you explain that to me?
I think time does something to administrations. Reagan, in many ways, was a hero to people in the religious right, though his wife consulted astrologers, he had been divorced. I mean, on the surface it doesn't look like he would be attractive at all to people in the religious right. But he was, primarily because of his stance on pro-life.
It always comes back to that one issue, you know?
Yeah, I think so.
Why is that?
I think the argument is that how you treat the least of these, and more specifically people who have no voice, then leads to how you treat everyone else. So the pro-life becomes the ultimate issue. Jerry Falwell used to say, "If a dogcatcher were running for office and he was pro-life, I'd vote for the dogcatcher."
If it always comes back to an issue, and then that one issue is non-negotiable, what happens then? Politics is about compromise. Living in a diverse culture is about compromise.
That becomes a huge hurdle for people in the religious right to overcome, because the truth is, I don't think Roe v. Wade will ever be reversed. We live in way too diverse a culture, and when you bring an absolute ideal to the table, it becomes offensive to those who don't agree with it. ...
I think he's representative of a diverse religious background. That's about all I would want to say. He's a complicated person, but he appears, at least on the surface, to be a genuine Jesus follower.
And that's important?
It is and it isn't important. It's not important to people in the religious right because the issue of life is more important to them. ...
There has been sort of this secular religious standoff going on in the country for a long time. Does Obama represent a breakaway from that at all? Tell me how you came to vote for him.
I did vote for him, my first vote for a Democrat in my lifetime. And I'm glad Jerry Falwell wasn't alive. He would have called me and said, "Edward George" -- that's what he called me when he was mad -- "what in the world were you thinking?"
I voted for him because I am pro-life and I disagree with Mr. Obama on the issue of life, but for me there's a whole lot more to being pro-life than protecting the unborn. It's people without health care; it's the poor, the oppressed. And I felt that Obama, since he had been a community organizer, understood the poor and the oppressed, and would be much more likely to take care of them than Sen. [John] McCain [R-Ariz.].
I also felt he was a peacemaker. Because of his background and specifically the color of his skin, I felt he had the ability to bring people together, and so I voted for him. I might have been wrong, I don't know. ... But I did vote for him, and I have no regrets.
Do you think he helps bring religion back into the public square?
He invited Rick Warren to pray at his inauguration, even though the gay community were not happy about that. He does quote the Bible. At times he sounds more like a black preacher than the president. But people in the religious right claim he just misuses the Bible. I don't know whether or not he does. I like him, and I pray for him.
What are your thoughts on the religious right now? Everybody's talking about the death of the religious right. Do you think that's the case?
No, I don't think it has died at all. I think it lives out in the people whom we registered to vote, who are not going to give up on politics. I think it lives out in people who feel called to political office. So I think it's lived out more at an individual level than as an organization. The organization has died, but the religious right is alive and well. ...
Yeah, I think the Christian Coalition would never have happened without the involvement of the Moral Majority. But like the Moral Majority, the Christian Coalition is in serious trouble, at least today.
What did you think of the work they were doing? It carried on, or was it a different tactic or form?
Obviously the Christian Coalition was a different tactic because they were running Pat Robertson for president. I'm not sure that Falwell ever had aspirations for political office. I think he was primarily, "Let's get people involved; let's make our voice heard," and having done that, was fully satisfied. I think Pat Robertson took it to the next step, actually running for president. ... [He] didn't do very well, because America is not into religious-right people running America. ...
That's a great question. For Jerry Falwell, I never knew him to be unduly influenced by getting close to power. But I think for most of the rest of us, it kind of skews you. I mean, when you go meet with the president, whatever you intended to say, you tend to accommodate where he's coming from. There is the idea that power will influence what and how you say what you say, though for Jerry Falwell, I never saw that.
I was just happy that -- since I grew up in Ireland -- I was eating at the Mess Hall at the White House. (Laughs.) I was walking one day with Jerry in Washington, D.C., to the Blair House to meet with Menachem Begin, who was prime minister of Israel. Jerry had his "Jesus First" pin on, so I said to him, ... "Maybe you need to take your pin off so you won't offend the prime minister." And Falwell never missed a beat. He said, "They take me; they take Jesus with me," and did not take the pin off, which ultimately I respected, that here was a guy, it didn't matter who he was meeting with; he was who he was. ...
At one point Jerry Falwell was voted the most hated man in America. He really did inspire hatred at a certain point. What was that about?
I think it's because Jerry was so absolutist about what he believed, and that offended a lot of other people and ended up generating hatred toward him. ...
You wrote that you've come not to like the word "Christian," and you've come not to like the word "evangelical." Can you explain that a little bit?
If you go to other parts of the world, the assumption is, if you live in America you're a Christian, and that bothers me. The word "evangelical" -- evangelicals are known for what they're against, not what they're for. And evangelicals in the broader culture are characterized by the religious right. So I really don't like the word "evangelical" either, or the word "Baptist," because there are so many of them, and they don't necessarily get along.
I wonder if you can expound on that a little bit: "Evangelical" means "religious right." Is it because it represents a political movement?
Yeah, I think it's because it represents a political movement. Now, there are people like Ron Sider and others who are left-leaning but evangelical at the same time. So evangelicalism is a lot broader than what people perceive it to be. But I still don't like the term. ...
Moral Majority, where does it stand in evangelical history? What's the significance, looking back on it?
I think in evangelical history, it will go down as an attempt to get more people involved in the political process. However, the footnote will read, "But they entered the political process without fully understanding or articulating a larger political philosophy of engagement."
And if you could do it differently, what would you do? Is there anything you'd do differently?
If we had to do it all over, I would have argued for thinking through a more detailed political philosophy, understanding the limits of religion and the limits of politics. ...
The early years, it seems that you've got two ideas going, where politics is a dirty business, but you also have this desperation that your voice is not being heard. ... Was it a frustrating feeling watching what was going on around you, a feeling you had to jump in?
His son Jonathan, who after Falwell's death took over the church, was with his dad one day. He's a young kid, high school at the time, and Jerry is talking about all of the things that are wrong in America. And Jonathan says, "Well, Dad, you need to do something." And I think that was a significant turning point, where Falwell realized, "Maybe I can." That was a significant event in triggering the founding of the Moral Majority.
That's interesting. So they were just having a conversation --
Yeah. And Falwell's talking about Roe v. Wade, the secularization of the culture, Hollywood, the media, that nobody is speaking for us. And Jonathan says, "Well, why don't you do something, Dad?" ,,,
What is secular humanism? ...
Probably better to define humanism that humans are the center of the universe; that there is no God, no Creator, no powerful being; that humans become the measure of life and the world in which we live. Adding the word "secular" is somewhat redundant, because if there is no God, then it is secular.
And obviously there is a conflict if you're throwing God out?
Yes, I would say that taking God out of public schools and the public square, prohibiting the use of religious symbols on public property, all are secular humanism working its way through the political system. And from the point of view of a person of faith, this is dangerous, because once you take God out of the picture, there's no higher power. So I think evangelicals marched into the square to say: "Wait, wait, wait. Wait a minute. Let's get back to the idea of God." ...
[What did it mean when Reagan said,] "I know you can't endorse me, but I endorse you"?
... When Reagan said, "You can't endorse me, but I endorse you," was a huge event, because for the first time, someone running for president said publicly, "You're OK."
Why was that important? What was so significant about that?
Because we had been on the fringes of the culture. I think evangelicals were considered obscure, sweat-drenched Appalachian hillbillies, for lack of a better term. In other words, no one respected us. And for someone running for president to affirm us was very significant. I think evangelicals, once that was said, lined up behind Reagan en masse. ...
Published October 11, 2010