The most memorable portion of the conversation, however, had nothing to do with Liberty. It was when my dad asked Dr. Falwell how his ministry was going. The reverend's jovial smile went somber and he leaned in closely:
"James, we've got the numbers. We've got the resources. We've got the leadership," he said. "I've spoken to conservative Christians in churches all across this country, and they know what is at stake. We've got to get serious about Jesus, and we need to call this nation back to its roots. It's time to stand for what is right."
But then he added, "We've got to get our folks to the polls next year, and we need to do a better job telling people what will happen if liberal Democrats remain in control of the White House. We must save this nation!"
My brow furrowed. Even a 17-year-old realizes when someone's answer doesn't match the question. Dad asked Dr. Falwell about his ministry, and Falwell answered with a strategy for acquiring political power.
Before leaving Lynchburg, I shook the preacher's hand, but I was unable to shake his comments. Our car rumbled back from the James River Valley to metropolitan Atlanta while I meditated on the reverend's words. Impressed by his presence and passion, I shared many of the same sentiments.
Dr. Falwell said we needed to get serious about Jesus. I wanted to get serious about Jesus. He said we needed to call our nation back to its roots. I wanted our nation to return to its roots. Dr. Falwell said it was time to stand for what is right. I wanted to stand for what is right. But even then, my teenage mind wasn't sure that he had effectively navigated how faith should mingle with politics. I'm even less sure today.
As we look back on more than a quarter century of political engagement by the religious right, two things now appear obvious.
The question we must now answer is not, "Can we save this nation?" but "Can we save our faith?"
First, partisan religion is killing American Christianity. The American church is declining by nearly every data point. Christians are exerting less influence over the culture than even a few years ago, organized religion no longer garners the respect of the masses, and two in three young non-Christians claim they perceive the Christian church as "too political." Church attendance is declining, and the percentage of Americans claiming no religious affiliation is rising.
As sociologists Robert Putnam and David Campbell argue, the church's partisan political alignment is at least partly to blame. In a recent article in Foreign Affairs they write, "In effect, Americans (especially young Americans) who might otherwise attend religious services are saying, 'Well, if religion is just about conservative politics, then I'm outta here.'"
The question we must now answer is not, "Can we save this nation?" but "Can we save our faith?" And the only way it seems we will be able to do the latter is through abandoning the partisan, divisive strategies adopted by the Christian right and begin engaging the public again in more prudent ways.