Susan F. Harding, The Book of Jerry Falwell: Fundamentalist Language and Politics

Susan F. Harding. The Book of Jerry Falwell: Fundamentalist Language and Politics. Princeton, 2000.

Susan Harding’s masterful study locates language at the epicenter of the “born-again Christianity” that shook America’s political landscape in the 1980s. Pioneered by people like Jerry Falwell, this language consisted of powerful Bible-based narratives with which people made sense of their lives and transformed their culture. Falwell’s language morphed fundamentalism from a separatist movement into one with major presence in public life. Drawing on her extensive fieldwork among fundamental Baptists in Lynchburg, Virginia during the 1980s, Harding attempts to hear Jerry Falwell as his fellow Christians heard him, to understand the stories that mattered most to Bible-believing Christians of the “new Christian right,” to examine the kinds of worlds born-again discourse brought into being. In so doing, she takes aim at the popular misunderstanding of fundamentalists as supernaturalistic survivals of a premodern era, disenfranchised dupes incapable of dealing with modern reality. By her reckoning, born-again Christianity became politically powerful because it told stories many modern Americans found compelling. It offered complex narrative resources for engaging the modern world.

As an anthropological account of fundamentalist language, this book succeeds spectacularly. It would enrich any course on evangelicalism, the religious right, fundamentalism, or anthropology of religion. Harding opens with a careful explanation of her scholarly terms: fundamentalism (with a lower-case “f”) refers to a self-declared group of Christians committed to criticizing modern society and separating themselves culturally from it. Capital “F” Fundamentalism refers to Bible-believing Protestants globally: invented by Modernists, this denotes a supernaturalistic Christianity that supposedly refuses to come to grips with modern history, science, feminism, etc. Most of Falwell’s people called themselves Bible-believing Christians, evangelicals, conservative Christians, or—far more commonly—just plain old Christians. Evangelicalism separated from fundamentalism in the 1940s and 50s, but Falwell negotiated their rapprochement in the 1970s and 80s and gave birth to “conservative Christianity.” But the book offers much more than a precise set of scholarly terms. Its first chapter has become a classic in anthropology because it attends to the subtle ways that fundamentalist language shaped Harding herself during her research. In fundamentalist circles, you are either saved or lost—the language casts you as one or the other. Having come from a marathon session of “being witnessed to,” the lost anthropologist gets into a car accident and immediately thinks, “What is God trying to tell me?” She explains, “It was my voice but not my language. I had been inhabited by the fundamental Baptist tongue I was investigating” (33). Harding in the car is Archimedes in the bathtub. In her eureka moment, she discovers that conversion happens linguistically: “it involves joining a particular narrative tradition to which you willingly submit your past, present, and future as a speaker” (59). Harding takes it one step further. Since conversion happens linguistically, the critical anthropologist occupies a position of “narrative belief” (xii). The anthropologist cannot tell her own Christian story, but she believes her informants’ stories in all their details and knows why the story sounds like it does.

The Book of Jerry Falwell works at its best when examining the subject positions and discursive effects of born-again Christian language. Harding pays especially careful attention to the ways fundamentalist language works with gender. Falwell’s jokes, his baritone voice, his aggressive tone, his stories, his jeremiads, his rebukes of contemporary sexuality and especially (male) homosexuality, addressed men and expected women to “overhear.” Harding calls fundamentalism, especially the Moral Majority, a “men’s movement” because it implicitly privileged men, criticized men, and called men to repentance for their (usually sexual) sins (176-177). But she does not stop there. Although fundamentalist language spoke mostly from men to men, Harding calls Falwell a “flexible absolutist” (155). This runs counter to caricatures of Falwell as a simplistic antifeminist. Through the late 1970s and into the 80s, Harding argues, Falwell proved remarkably flexible with the kinds of behaviors and family structures that earned the distinction of being “absolute,” divinely ordained values. While he insisted that God appointed men as “heads” of their marriages, he came to consider companionate marriage the norm—quite a different set of “family values” than the fundamentalists of the 1940s had preached. Falwell insisted that women should submit to their husbands, but he softened his position on women working outside the home. Falwell was by no means a feminist, but he was aware of feminism and he did not respond to its effects in his community monolithically. Harding explores Falwell’s flexibility and other crevices of fundamentalist language with verve: its themes, its performativity, its multivocality, its ruptures, its hybridity, even its self-parodies.

For an anthropology of fundamentalist language, this book sings. As a historian of material culture, it raises two varieties of quibbles for me. First, the historical. The book frequently makes historical claims without sufficient justification. For example, Harding argues that Clarence Darrow’s nitpicking cross-examination of William Jennings Bryan at the Scopes Trial represented his attempt to out-literalize Bryan—supposedly, an old fundamentalist preacher’s way of defeating a theological adversary (73). The great agnostic Darrow played the fundamentalist language game better than the Great Commoner Bryan. Interesting idea, but Harding does not cite a source when she declares this is an “old” trick Darrow executes well. I cannot find any such argument in Larson’s definitive Summer for the Gods (1997). Here, I suspect that Harding reads the literalist one-upmanship of Falwell and his fellow preachers onto Darrow and Bryan. It’s a fascinating argument, but the historian in me chafes at the thought of doing this. Show me the source. Give me a footnote. If it’s a new argument, demonstrate its freshness by contrasting it to the stale. Shout new ideas proudly in your notes. Convince me by perching your claim atop a mountain of carefully read primary sources.

Next, materiality. This book oddly deemphasizes material and visual culture. For fundamentalists, Harding flatly declares, “spiritual realities are not communicated through sensuous, nonlinguistic means” (37). The demons in Jack Chick’s tracts beg to differ. So do the dinosaurs at the Creation Museum. Elsewhere, Harding skims over the vivid images (e.g.: babies in cages) of Schaeffer’s influential anti-abortion movies Whatever Happened to the Human Race?, but then lengthily exegetes narrative positions in Falwell’s book If I Should Die before I Wake… What could have become a voice in the wilderness priming us for Jason Bivins’s Religion of Fear instead becomes a narratological soup full of shaky typologies (Isaac is to Jesus as teen mom is to Falwell). I’m quibbling for a reason: scholars frequently dismiss fundamentalist visual and material culture as kitschy, propagandistic, or secondary to the textual-linguistic main event. Harding’s book does not completely ignore these sensory aspects of fundamentalist culture, but they always play second fiddle to language. For this reason, the book offers a powerful check to my scholarly instincts, a hill I have to climb to make my argument. Any of my future work in fundamentalist visual and material culture has to grapple with Harding’s thesis about the significance of language for this community. Period.