Back in 2007 after the death of Jerry Falwell, famed atheist Christopher Hitchens took to the airwaves of Anderson Cooper’s CNN talkshow to blast the late Baptist reverend. He began by saying that Falwell certainly wasn’t in heaven “and it’s a pity there isn’t a hell for him to go to.”
From there he went on to attack Falwell for anti-semitism as well as his noxious comments after September 11 before claiming something that may not have been true of Falwell but almost certainly is of other prominent leaders of Falwell’s movement: that he was a fraud who didn’t believe a word of what he said but was in it purely to make himself rich and powerful.
You can see the full interview below:
Beeson Divinity School dean Timothy George and Summit Ministries director Jeff Myers both came to Falwell’s defense. Many other evangelicals were scandalized by Hitchens’ remarks and chalked it up to Deranged New Atheist Syndrome, a diagnosis which, given Hitchens’ book, did not seem at all far fetched, even if the reality beneath Hitchens’ public persona was more complex.
Regarding Falwell himself, Hitchens’ comments still seem out of line. Certainly the testimony of both Beeson’s eminently trustworthy Dr. George as well as that of a former Liberty student with no professional reason to praise him would suggest as much.
However, it now looks increasingly likely that, if Hitchens words were wrong, it is not because his critique was wrong but only that his subject was. If he said the same thing of Falwell’s son or Ben Carson or Mike Huckabee or, now, depressingly, Rick Santorum, he’d be exactly right. Indeed, I have wished more than once this election cycle that Hitchens were still alive, if only so he could give these charlatans the treatment their behavior so richly deserves.
For years, conservative evangelicals, including writers at this site, have tried to defend the religious right where we could, arguing that what we need is not a repudiation of the religious right but a better religious right. We needed a religious right more understanding of how institutions work. We needed a religious right that understood that fighting a culture war requires actually having a Christian culture. We needed a religious right that paid as much attention to daily rituals as it did to world views. But the religious right’s overall project was basically sound and the men leading it were trustworthy. That’s what we told ourselves. So we defended many of the men who have now proven themselves to be so cowardly and lacking the very thing they said the secularists and liberals were missing—a moral compass.
In 2007 we even endorsed Huckabee in the presidential primary. All of that seems depressingly naive and short-sighted this side of Trump 2016. There may have been good leaders in the religious right—Falwell Sr. was probably one and Francis Schaeffer and C. Everett Koop certainly were—but the conduct of these aging leaders during this campaign season is shameful and fully merits the strongest condemnation from serious believers.
It is also a cautionary tale about seeking to acquire power and influence while lacking the sort of Christian practice necessary to sustain virtue in the teeth of success. We chased fame and prestige as it is defined by the world and we had it… for awhile. It’s just too bad it clearly cost us our souls. Now the party we pledged ourselves too and which clearly never saw us as anything more than useful idiots is ready to kick us to the curb. But rather than standing by our principles, the purported moral voices of the old religious right are cravenly throwing themselves after the scraps that a racist, womanizing, vulgar, and laughably insecure rich boy brushes off his table.
Nine years after Hitchens’ blistering attack on Falwell, conservative Christians stand on the edge of exile, facing a dark and uncertain future in which our colleges and universities’ very existence may well be in jeopardy and in which our religious liberty is likely to disappear under the weight of a Hillary presidency and a Supreme Court stacked with Clinton appointees. And you know what? It’s no less than we deserve.
Our only hope may be that our exile will be like that of the southern tribes of Israel, who were preserved thanks to a faithful remnant and in time was even restored to the land, rather than that of the northern tribes whose banishment proved permanent. Even so, if we do suffer the same fate as the latter group, we will have no right to complain.