Last week, at the age of 73, Moral Majority founder Jerry Falwell died of an apparent heart attack.
Called by many the founding father of the religious right, the Southern Baptist minister was seen as both a uniter and a divider. Not only was he credited with bringing Christians into political activism, he was also blamed by some for leading to the polarization of American politics.
The Republican Party, in particular, is seen by some as having come to power through the efforts of Falwell and his religious right. Even today, many in the religious community continue to push for a stronger presence of morality in our legislative process.
During this past legislative session, I invited Dr. Bob Rogers, pastor of First Baptist Church of Rincon, to be our chaplain of the day in the House. Dr. Rogers spoke eloquently of the need to legislate morality and even went as far as to say “the question is not whether we should legislate morality, the question is rather upon what moral values shall we legislate.” After his message, Dr. Rogers was greeted by a large number of legislators who were obviously in agreement with his view.
The influence of the various groups such as the Moral Majority, the Christian Coalition, Right to Life and others is still felt today, especially on the state level.
Abortion, which for many years has been the litmus test for conservatives, continues to dominate the political agenda of many legislators. Gaining the endorsement of Right to Life has long been the goal of candidates in conservative districts. While a candidate has to oppose abortion to gain the endorsement of the group, things became a bit more serious a few years ago when the group decided that in order to give their public endorsement, a candidate had to oppose abortion in the cases of incest and rape. For some this was viewed as being more polarizing.
Legislation aimed at strengthening the moral values of our society is a common occurrence at the Capitol. This year we passed the Woman’s Right to Know Ultrasound Act that says that a woman seeking an abortion must be offered the opportunity to see a sonogram prior to obtaining the abortion. In 2006, a law was passed that gave pharmacists the right to refuse to dispense the abortion pill Plan B based on their moral objections and not have to face disciplinary action by their employers.
Faith-based initiatives that would allow churches and religious groups to receive government money to provide various services have long been debated both at the state and federal levels.
One of the most hotly debated issues during this past legislative session involved the Sunday sales of alcohol. While proponents of the movement pointed out that the issue polled heavily in favor of those approving of Sunday sales, many legislators were still skeptical. After Gov. Sonny Perdue, a non-drinker himself, hinted that he might veto any such legislation, many legislators breathed a sigh of relief. Nevertheless, the issue caused a dilemma for many who, although they were opposed to Sunday sales, felt very strongly in favor of letting local communities decide the issue for themselves. Although the legislation did not pass this year, it will be brought up again in the future.
As our society progresses and medical advances occur, so does the moral dilemma of science. Stem-cell research and therapy have brought the excitement of potential cures for long dreaded diseases and physical ailments. Last year, a Senatorial race in Missouri boiled down to this single issue as the deciding factor between the two candidates. With the help of actor Michael J. Fox, who suffers from Parkinson’s disease, the candidate in favor of federal funding of stem cell research turned out to be the winner.
During presentations for Appropriation requests this year, we heard from researchers from the University of Georgia who are on the cutting edge of stem cell therapy as they described the need for more state funding of these programs. Not only did they stress the medical miracles that may be discovered, they were also quick to point out the economic bonanza that this could bring the state of Georgia. A moral dilemma indeed.
Jerry Falwell may have died last week, but his movement and the attention his groups brought to the moral importance of government will live on.