Wednesday, May 16, 2007

Learning The Lessons Of Jerry Falwell

On hearing that Rev. Jerry Falwell had passed my pastor told me, “I’m going to be a Christian, and not say a word.”

I am quite certain pastor Jim is a much better Christian than me, but I’m not sure remaining silent is the thing to do. Falwell was much too powerful a figure in American culture for Christians to remain silent now that he’s gone.

Of course, there are people who loved Jerry Falwell the man, not the political caricature we saw on our televisions blaming gays and feminists and the ACLU for the world’s ills. Those people are grieving now. I suppose the Christian response would be to acknowledge their loss and offer prayers for their comfort.

But beyond that, there are too many important lessons to be learned from Jerry Falwell’s life and mission to stop the “national conversation” there.

I didn’t know Jerry Falwell the man. Like most of us, I just knew the public figure. I did not like him and I am not sorry he’s gone. Yes, he mobilized Christians into a political force, which in itself is not a bad thing. But he did so in a way that hurt both faith and politics. There was nothing loving in his movement, not in its methods nor in its message. His 2004 essay, “God is Pro-War,” was just one of his many blasphemies. He lay down with strange bedfellows: cult leader Sun Myung Moon, corrupt lobbyist Jack Abramoff, and countless others. These were alliances formed out of a desire for power, wealth and influence. American Christianity will not soon recover from these Faustian deals.

CNN is still Reaganizing its coverage of Falwell’s death, interviewing Liberty University students who are in deep mourning, broadcasting pictures of Falwell “crowd surfing” at a sporting event 10 years ago. The image is of a beloved father figure, adored spiritual leader. There is no mention of the controversial Falwell we all knew, the man who uttered words of hate toward his fellow Americans, the sleazy deals he made. There is no balance in CNN’s coverage, just the myth. Why am I not surprised?

Friends and fellow bloggers have uttered many words of condemnation about Falwell over the past 24 hours. Since Falwell condemned many in his life, this is understandable. But we must make sure that we don’t miss the larger point.’s Alan Wolfe stated it well:
Instead of pondering Jerry Falwell's legacy, we would be better off asking how this man ever become a public figure in the first place. America has had more than its share of religiously inspired demagogues -- Dr. Fred Swartz, Billy James Hargis, Carl McIntyre come to mind -- but they are forgotten figures, marginal even to the times in which lived. One would like to believe that the United States has become a bigger and better country since the days when men like them preached about captive nations and denounced the pernicious influence of rock 'n' roll. But then there is Jerry Falwell. In death, as he did in life, he reminds us that demagoguery never dies; it just changes its form.

Indeed it does. Jerry Falwell is dead. His hatred for his fellow American is not. CNN’s reporter stated, “Even in death his message will live on.” This is not a hopeful thought but a sad truth.

There are still many powerful public figures who say that to love God you must hate your fellow Americans. There is still a media that wants to gloss over the truth in favor of a shiny, happy fantasy. We must fight against both.