Tuesday, May 15, 2007

The Death of Jerry Falwell

I just learned, upon visiting a Christian web site, that Jerry Falwell passed away today at the age of 73.

It might be assumed, on the basis of the fact that I share many of the views expressed by Pastor Falwell, that I was a great admirer of his. In some respects that's true, but I was always somewhat ambivalent about the man.

I certainly agreed with Falwell's strong opposition to legal abortion and homosexuality. I agreed that Christians needed to get involved politically rather than just acquiescing to every demand made by liberals who were blatantly opposed to Christian values and principles.

I also had to admire someone who started out with so little and built it into an enormously successful church (the Thomas Road Baptist Church), as well as Liberty University, from which sprang ministries such as the hip hop and rock music ministry of dc Talk. In terms of all of the above, I think it would be accurate to say that Jerry Falwell left a positive legacy.

On the flip side, there was Falwell's known tendency to get involved directly or indirectly in silly controversies (such as the one involving the Teletubbies), and to stick his foot in his mouth, much as another TV evangelist named Pat Robertson had also done on occasions. Some of Falwell's public statements were bereft of the love and charity which ought to characterize the lives of Christian leaders.

There was also the role Falwell ostensibly played in betraying another infamous TV evangelist, Jim Bakker. Bakker was hardly blameless, of course, but neither was Falwell. Overall, it was one of the uglier chapters in the history of conservative Christianity in this country, and it haunts conservative Christians to this day, in terms of giving some people an excuse to dismiss or ignore us.

I think one of Falwell's biggest liabilities, from the standpoint of public perception of the man, was his general demeanor. Normally, a nice smile is a good thing, but Falwell had a tendency to come across as rather smug and condescending. That's just my own subjective impression, and I freely admit that other people might see things differently. But I think that his overall demeanor frightened some people.

Admittedly, the people Falwell frightened were usually the type of people who, due to their radically different political opinions, would have been frightened by anyone who dared to challenge their dubious beliefs. But Jerry probably would have had more impact on such people if he had projected more of a sense of humility.

My own hometown, Springfield, Missouri, played a role in Falwell's life in his early years. Jerry studied at a very conservative Baptist college known as BBC (Baptist Bible College). Later, however, he switched from the more conservative Baptist Bible Fellowship International to the Southern Baptist Convention.

Not long ago, I read an online article which criticized BBC for inviting Dr. Falwell to speak at that college. According to the writer of that article, Falwell was far too "liberal" for such an invitation. I thought that was pretty funny, given the fact that Falwell was long regarded by the mainstream press as one of the most conservative Christian leaders in America.

But there was also a sad aspect to the article. It helped to illustrate one of the reasons why the Christian Church has often been ineffectual in terms of actually transforming our culture in any really significant ways. We have often been so busy bickering with one another over minor points of doctrine that we have failed to unite with one another in order to pursue common goals which we all ostensibly share. I think that one of Falwell's strengths was his recognition of the wisdom of forging alliances with other believers with whom one might not necessarily agree in every respect.

The bottom line, regarding Dr. Falwell, is that he was an imperfect human being (like the rest of us) who nevertheless loved the Lord and did a lot of good things during his lifetime. Anyone who accomplishes as much as he accomplished is bound to make a few mistakes along the way. Nevertheless, I fully expect to see his smiling face in heaven when I die.

UPDATE: If you want a really clear example of why I say that a lot of political liberals are hypocrites, just use one of the search engines designed specifically for searching blog posts (such as the one at and search for all blog entries pertaining to Jerry Falwell during the past 24 hours as of May 15, the day of his death. But don't do so unless you have a high tolerance level for obscenities and vile, hateful statements. More than a few liberals are rejoicing that Falwell is dead.

As just one tiny but typical example of the types of things which are being written by liberals who hated what Jerry Falwell stood for, consider this lovely statement (from someone who apparently doesn't quite grasp the basics of things such as capitalization and punctuation):

"while i am sorry for the family of mr. falwell, i cant say im disappointed he died. i just wish he would have taken all of his followers with him in a jim jones style mass suicide/murder extraveganza"
Let's see. Thomas Road Baptist Church, the church led by Jerry Falwell up until his death, has over 24,000 members, according to Wikipedia. So this particular blogger named "Buffalo Alice" thinks it's great that Falwell is dead, and that it would be even better if at least 24,000 additional people would drop dead immediately. Why haven't the authorities pegged this blogging nutcase as the next Cho Seung-Hui?

Of course, she would probably describe me as one of Falwell's "followers" too, since I share some of his beliefs. Which, logically, means that she would like to see me drop dead as well, along with virtually all conservative Christians throughout the land who sometimes agreed with Falwell.

What I find ironic is that many of the people currently saying hateful things about Falwell would like you to believe that they are strong believers in "peace and love" and things of that nature. It turns out that these so-called lovers of peace are every bit as capable of saying nasty things as Falwell ever was. In fact, I would say that the hateful things currently being said about Jerry Falwell far surpass the worst things he ever said about anyone.


Anonymous said...

interesting take...i did not know some of what you mentioned here about the did he betray baker?

Mark Pettigrew said...

I could be wrong, but my understanding is that Falwell offered to take Heritage USA off of Jim Bakker's hands temporarily in order to reduce Bakker's stressful responsibilities during a time when Bakker's situation was being very closely scrutinized by the government (due to the government claims which eventually ended up sending Bakker to prison) and by the Church (due to Bakker's illicit affair with Jessica Hahn). Bakker thought that was wise, so he voluntarily gave Heritage USA to Falwell, thinking that Falwell was planning to give it back to him once things had cleared up. But once Falwell had control of Heritage USA, he began making really hateful public statements about Bakker, and he never gave Heritage USA back to the Bakkers, contrary to what he had told them he would do. Bakker discussed some of those things in his book entitled "I Was Wrong", in which he acknowledged that the "prosperity doctrine" which he taught during the time when his TV ministry was very successful was biblically unsound.