In 1987, at the outset of the Pit (“Praise the Lord”) scandal, the Reverend Jimmy Swaggart solemnly announced that “the gospel of Jesus Christ has never sunk to such a level as it has today.” Never mind the Inquisition: it had taken Jim and Tammy Faye Bakker to drag Christianity to the very depths of depravity. Nobody could have guessed that a year later it would be the Reverend Jimmy’s turn to cry, once his sexual carryings-on came to light. We may never know if Swaggart’s denunciation of the Bakkers projected his still-secret guilt upon a pair of vulnerable rivals. What is clear is that Swaggart’s disgrace (and the Bakkers’), along with Pat Robertson’s cranky presidential crusade in 1988, made a mockery of what was supposed to be the great awakening of conservative evangelicalism. Rarely in modern times has a movement of such reputed magnitude self-destructed so suddenly.
Yet, as with everything connected to evangelical politics, appearances were deceiving. Although the evangelical right failed to turn itself into a successful Christian party (or fully convert the GOP), it nonetheless changed the nation’s cultural and political life during the 1980s. The key to this change lies in the career of Jerry Falwell. Before he disbanded the Moral Majority and beat a strategic retreat to his church and university in Lynchburg, Virginia, Falwell gave the country a sense of what it would be like to have an American mullah. During most of the Reagan years, Falwell seemed to be everywhere...
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