Whatever took Jerry Falwell's life was swift; he ended breakfast with a friend at 9:50 this morning, and was found dead in his office at 11:30. Worldwide reaction has been almost as swift and vehement as whatever killed him.
From Andrew Sullivan: "Since I can think of nothing good to say about him, I'll say nothing. And pray for the repose of his soul."
Said Albert Mohler, "The death of Dr. Jerry Falwell today brings an end to one of the largest lives of our times."
My own view of Falwell is more complicated than either of these.
In Falwell's hands the Good News, and the United States Constitution, were something crude and childish, and I couldn't listen to him without squirming with embarrassment. I would marvel that anybody listened to anything he had to say. And as a founding father of the so-called Religious Right he created a movement that today is disruptive and unwholesome and, with its power to veto — but not select, or elect — a Republican presidential candidate, his heirs may very well force upon the party a certain loser that gives the presidency to some damn fool Democrat resolved upon retreat from the global terrorism now facing us. One hopes otherwise, but Falwell's legacy could be ruinously costly to all of us.
Moreover, Falwell had a sort of blustery, Boss Hogg presence, and could play the poor-pitiful-beleaguered-by-Satan-me routine better than almost anybody. When Bill Keller goes into his theatrical, Churchillian-defiance against Satanic cults bit … well, he got it from Falwell — the Master.
And yet, unlike all the others among the leadership of the evangelical right — and I've been watching them for some five years now — Falwell is the only one I've never been able to actually dislike. I'm convinced that, as loopy as he was, as clumsily as he so often spoke, as cynically manipulative as his poor-me routine could be, Jerry Falwell was a man who sincerely endeavored to do right as he understood it and, unlike virtually all of his peers in the Religious Right's leadership, he did it without malice.
Research the life of James Dobson; there's no end of the tales of sharp business conduct, and of vengeance that borders on the maniacal. Research the life of Ralph Reed; the stench reaches to High Heaven. Research the life of Pat Robertson; Ralph Reed was his understudy.
You can't find, about Falwell, the stories of malice and underhanded dealing that you find about so many of the others.
Falwell lived modestly relative to any of these, and founded Liberty University. He attended the funerals of Liberty University students who died in military service, and would conduct the service if asked; what other university president has done that? He was, by all accounts, including the accounts of many, many Liberty University students, unusually accessible, a man who seemed to genuinely enjoy his association with them. He rejected the segregationist past in which he was raised and began his career, and never denied or sugar-coated his error, striving endlessly and sincerely to put it right. Lynchburg's blacks have accepted his apologies, have joined and supported his church, and who am I or anybody else to say they're wrong?
He did not, so far as I can tell, hate anybody — not even, as the violent reactions have it, gays. He simply believed the Bible says it's wrong, and so it is, and that's that. Nothing personal.
I see him as wildly wrongheaded about so much, but consistently, sincerely, and as his name become an almost iconic object of ridicule as the years passed, courageously well-intended about everything — one of a kind, a gen-u-ine American original. R.I.P.