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Jerry Falwell is Dead: How then Shall we Feel?

Moral Majority founder and fundamentalist TV preacher, Jerry Falwell was found dead in his office on Tuesday, May 15th, 2007. Falwell did more in his lifetime than most other fundamentalists for the last 150 years. In 1971 he founded Liberty University, which remains a premier fundamentalist educational institution, and at the time of his death the revenue from his ministry is over $200 million per year.

Personally, I’ve never had much influence from or experienced much association with Falwell or his brand of fundamentalism, despite my evangelical roots. In general I’ve found his political and theological orientation repugnant on numerous levels. So, in all honesty I am uncertain how I should feel about his passing. Certainly I’m not silly enough to happily think that the loss of Falwell will bring about any sort of positive change in the Christian subculture in the United States. There are plenty of his fundamentalist compatriots who will fill his shoes.

If anything, I only feel sadness for a life which, as far as I can see with my own convictions was very poorly lived. Falwell’s theological and political agenda was conservatism and the repristination of American civil religion in self-consciously Christian clothes. His agenda was sadly far off the mark from Christ’s call of discipleship, and self-surrender. I cannot help but remember Eberhard Bethge’s experience in attending Falwell’s church and being overcome with the disturbing similarities between it and the propagation of German Christianity during World War II under Hitler.

During the Civil Rights Movement Falwell openly criticized Martin Luther King, Jr. and the movement as a whole, preferring to call it the “Civil Wrongs Movement”. During these years, his “Old Time Gospel Hour” TV program hosted prominent segregationists like Lester Maddox, Governor of Georgia and George Wallace, Governor of Alabama. Of course, Falwell would go on to “change” his views on these things when the political winds definitively shifted away from such radical conservatism and open racism. Nevertheless the 1980′s found Falwell openly supporting Apartheid, speaking out against the U.S. imposing sanctions against South Africa and calling Bishop Desmond Tutu a “phony”. Also in the 1980′s he was sued by gay rights activists for his statements (preserved on tape) which called gay-friendly churches “a vile and Satanic system” that will “one day be utterly annihilated and there will be a celebration in heaven.”

And of course we all remember his famous statement made after 9/11 that: “I really believe that the pagans, and the abortionists, and the feminists, and the gays and the lesbians who are actively trying to make that an alternative lifestyle, the ACLU, People For the American Way, all of them who have tried to secularize America. I point the finger in their face and say ‘you helped this happen.’”

No mater what we make of Falwell’s sincere (or not) piety, ultimately his legacy is one of vitriolic power games, lying, racism, and deep hatred toward those who do not share his fundamentalist thinking. Ultimately, I am saddened for how Falwell chose to live his life, the convictions he chose to adopt, and the ways in which the sum total of his life and work run contrary to the message of the cross. Requiem in pace.

3 Comments

  1. a. steward wrote:

    Something that I have found particularly troubling is the way that vote-hungry conservatives have been willing to pander to a man whose convictions they completely oppose, simply because they know that Falwell had control over so many votes (here I’m thinking specifically of John McCain). Also, National Review Online has a symposium from some of it’s various contributors on the political legacy of Falwell, and a few things in there rememberances there are interesting to note: 1) Neo-Conservatives who arrived at their political position independently of any religious influence loved him, and never in their partnership with him were they ever met with a Gospel that contradicted any of their motives or goals. 2) A common refrain is that even if people vehemently reject what he stood for, they now have no choice but to deal with the power and influence he exerted, and that he changed the relationship between faith and politics in America, period.

    Thursday, May 17, 2007 at 12:41 am | Permalink
  2. Derrick wrote:

    One of the ironies of Falwells “progress,” in the area of the fundamentalist-Christian’s (and perhaps Christian in general) relation to the political arena is that the gospel is constantly the impetus, not for positive social reform, but as a makeshift device to refuse the “advance,” of “secular,” legislation. While I’m certainly not saying I’m pro-abortion, or (dare I say it, in a “tolerant” culture?) pro-homosexuality, the “gospel,” as used in parlance of the political arena, and as such, the increasingly “politicalized,” church has lamentably become little more–to use Barth’s terms–than the “Nein!” of an abstractly simple moral policing. Nothing irritates me more than when the task of evangelizing becomes even more difficult as “Christianity’s,” essence becomes parred down to bullet point summaries themselves limited only to “anti-abortion/stemcell research/homosexuality” or “pro (just?) war.” Where is the “Yes” of tending to widows and orphans (true religion!) or to the poor and derelict, or–God forbid–to the outcast homosexual or post-abortion girl or the drug addict? Or–and I think this is a huge issue–how can we as Christians so fervently interact in the “political” world except via a simultaneous ecumenical dialogue amongst ourselves? I find it a terrifying proposition that “Christianity” should be attempting to find a powerful voice in the political arena when we at the same time pay little interest to the fragmentation that threatens the political identity of the more fundamental Christological body we attempt to promote. In this way Christian political interaction becomes just another vehicle of fragmentation, both ecclesially and politically.

    I would like to say that the negative space of Falwell’s “no” has upon his death perhaps allowed more room for a “yes” of Christian political reform to take hold, but in this post 9/11 culture I am (to say the least) worried that the vacuum left in Falwell’s wake is simply begging to become even more ossified as a device of structural manipulation. Here’s to hoping that the majority of fundamentalists (and others) can resist the dissolving of Christian identity into little more than the function of an interest-group in the mechanical legislation of the state! (Yeah I know, this whole thing sounds really pessimistic, but its really late and everything is a little darker when you just cant sleep…. ;)

    Thursday, May 17, 2007 at 9:28 am | Permalink
  3. Halden wrote:

    Good thoughts, guys. I couldn’t agree more.

    Thursday, May 17, 2007 at 4:10 pm | Permalink

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