Chris Matthews on Jerry Falwell’s political legacy

Reverend Jerry Falwell was the major political voice of Christian evangelism.  His was the rallying cry heard strongest against those secular forces – removal of organized prayer from public schools in the 1960s, Supreme Court recognition of a constitutional right to abortion in the 1970s and the current advance of gay marriage and same-sex civil unions – which have molded Christian conservatives into such an extraordinary voting power.

121 million Americans voted in the 2004 election, a dramatic increase in electoral participation. Thirty million of them were self-described Christian evangelicals who voted 4 to 1 for President Bush.   Were the Republican Party forced to rely on its secular appeal such as tax-cutting and national security alone, it would not have won an electoral majority in 2004.  It simply could not get enough voters to the polls to outnumber the Democrats.

We see the impact of Christian conservatives in 2007 as Republicans look for the presidential candidate who can excite them and bring them to the polls in 2008.   No GOP hopeful currently fits that bill.  This explains the appeal of former Tennessee senator Fred Thompson who could quickly become the leading Christian evangelical in the race.

The death of Jerry Falwell reminds all of us who study politics that American, especially presidential politics, is driven by divisions in our society, most prominently those between voters who relish the social changes since the 1960s and those who see them as morally catastrophic.   The Reverend Falwell knew this divide well and what side of it he was born to lead.

Chris Matthews on Jerry Falwell's political legacy