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.