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Jerry Falwell, 1933-2007

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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.

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About Bob Felton

  • An interesting observation of a polarizing figure.

  • I will not mourn this man passing. While I would never wish death on any man, this one I will not miss.

    He has spread more hatred, bigotry, and misinformation than anyone on the planet.

    He was the thief that stole the Republican Party and turned it into a church deacons seminar.

    He started, and then had to disband the failed “Moral Majority” wich was neither.

    He tried to blame 911 as God’s punishment on America for not persecuting gays, and pro choicers, and wound up having to apologize for it after the outrage he caused just by opening his mouth.

    In death, this is definately one man that does not deserve to be turned into a saint, though tragically he will be.

    Jerry Falwell was a con man who lined his pockets with millions of dollars stolen from people that could ill-afford to contribute it, all on a lie that they were buying a ticket to heaven and salvation.

    I hope he rests in peace, and mercifully disappears from the world’s consciousness quickly…

    But that’s only my opinion

  • As a Christian who does not subscribe to the same neo-conservative views that many of my brethren do (and yes, we are out there), I have mixed feelings about Jerry Falwell’s passing today.

    However, I don’t think there is really any denying the impact — for better or for worse — that he has had on American politics, society, and culture over the past quarter century. For that reason alone, I think BC covering his passing was absolutely necessary and I’m glad somebody here had the cajones to step up and do so. Because I know I sure as hell didn’t.

    The thing that strikes me about Falwell is that unlike many of his contemporaries on the religious right — Robertson, Dobson, and the like — I always got the impression that his only motive was that he truly believed he was doing the Lord’s work. Again, rightly or wrongly so–

    Falwell’s Moral Majority and the “assist” they gave Reagan and the Republicans in the eighties were pretty much the blueprint for the marriage of convenience between Republicans and conservative evangelicals that continues to exist to this day.

    That said, I’ve just never been to reconcile that whole concept of the Republicans as “Gods Own Party” while it can be reasonably be said of their current standard bearer that he has among other things: sent many people off to die under what increasingly looks to be false pretenses; and meanwhile was slow at best to react to the plight of thousands here at home during the natural catastrophe that was Katrina.

    I also can’t quite get past the way these people so often seem to put poltics, power, and profits over “people” and the public interest, while exploiting such buzzwords as “faith” and values.” Color me naive, but to me, there is just very little about the Bush record I would equate with actions I would consider to be either “Christian” or otherwise “moral”.

    That said, I do think that Falwell sincerely believed he was doing the Lord’s work. Even his sworn enemies like Larry Flynt today had to admit today that he was a “decent man.” I just don’t find any reason to suspect otherwise in his particular case, whether I personally shared his views or not (and outside of his belief in Jesus, I mostly did not).

    I think he honestly believed he was doing what was right. For whatever that is worth.

    And again, his impact over the past quarter century is undeniable.

    Regardless of my own admittedly mixed feelings about Falwell himself, I thought this article was fair and even handed–a good job on a difficult subject.


  • I’ve said a lot of negative things about Falwell in recent years, but tonight, speaking with friends at church, I said this: This very evening, Jerry is talking with Jesus, and I bet Jesus is giving him a hard time. He’s in, of course, but Jesus is probably a but upset that Jerry didn’t keep his mouth shut more.

  • It has been said that when you speak of a one on their passing, you honor them.

    enough said.


  • J.J. Hunsecker

    “I think he honestly believed he was doing what was right.”

    What is that supposed to mean? Osama, Hitler, and Charles Manson believed what they were doing was right.

    Save the whitewash for the community theater production of Tom Sawyer.

    btw, really brilliant move on Jesus’ part to wait until Falwell gets to heaven before giving him a hard time.

  • J.J.,

    I didn’t expect that to be a popular comment with some people, and of course I know all about what they say the road to hell is paved with.

    I’m not a defender of the man either. Far from it actually if you knew me at all. But comparing anything he said or even did to the actions of Hitler, Manson, or Osama Bin Laden is just patently ludicrous.


  • daryl d

    Gosh, I’m really tempted to say a lot of nasty things about this article as well as Falwell, but I’ll refrain. All I can say is that I hope Falwell’s soul is judged the same way he passed judgement to people while using the term “Reverend.” I hope for redemption of his soul once he sees and feels the damage he has done. Wait a minute, I’m starting to sound like one of those religious freaks that I so often put down in my articles. You all get the point though.

  • I have no idea why something I wrote but for whatever reason wouldn’t post here when I did just now showed up here, but it did.

    Anyway, that is why there are two comments here from me saying esentially the same thing (comments #3, and #4). The first one originally wouldn’t post, and now hours later has.

    Go figure.


  • Genesis: Jesus he Knows Me

    You see the face on the tv screen
    Coming at you every sunday
    See that face on the billboard
    That man is me

    On the cover of the magazine
    There’s no question why Im smiling
    You buy a piece of paradise
    You buy a piece of me

    I’ll get you everything you wanted
    I’ll get you everything you need
    Don’t need to believe in hereafter
    Just believe in me

    Cos Jesus he knows me
    And he knows Im right
    Ive been talking to Jesus all my life
    Oh yes he knows me
    And he knows Im right
    And hes been telling me
    Everything is alright

    I believe in the family
    With my ever loving wife beside me
    But she don’t know about my girlfriend
    Or the man I met last night

    Do you believe in god
    Cos thats what I’m selling
    And if you wanna get to heaven
    Ill see you right

    You won’t even have to leave your house
    Or get outta your chair
    You don’t even have to touch that dial
    Cos I’m everywhere

    And Jesus he knows me
    And he knows Im right
    Ive been talking to Jesus all my life
    Oh yes he knows me
    And he knows Im right
    Well hes been telling me
    Everything’s gonna be alright

    Won’t find me practising what Im preaching
    Won’t find me making no sacrifice
    But I can get you a pocketful of miracles
    If you promise to be good, try to be nice
    God will take good care of you
    Just do as I say, don’t do as I do

    Im counting my blessings,
    Ive found true happiness
    Cos I’m getting richer, day by day
    You can find me in the phone book,
    Just call my toll free number
    You can do it anyway you want
    Just do it right away

    There’ll be no doubt in your mind
    You’ll believe everything I’m saying
    If you wanna get closer to him
    Get on your knees and start paying

    Cos Jesus he knows me
    And he knows Im right
    I’ve been talking to Jesus all my life
    Oh yes he knows me
    And he knows Im right
    Well hes been telling me
    Everythings gonna be alright, alright

    Jesus he knows me
    Jesus he knows me, you know…

  • I’m experiencing the same thing Glen. You almost don’t want to comment because you don’t know if there’s a delay or something.

  • “what other university president has done that?”

    you tell us. otherwise, this is a pointless comment.

  • Glen, Jet, or try thinking – “Now what could hold up my comment? I know, it’s that darn spam filter acting up again. Thank goodness the Comments Editor will come along and release it shortly…”

  • Thanks, Chris…

  • Dire Straits
    Ticket to Heaven:

    I can see what you’re looking to find
    in the smile on my face
    in my peace of mind
    in my state of grace
    I send what I can
    to the man from the ministry
    he’s a part of heaven’s plan
    and he talks to me

    now I send what I can to the man
    with the diamond ring
    he’s a part of heaven’s plan
    and he sure can sing

    now it’s all I can afford
    but the lord has sent me eternity
    it’s to save the little children
    in a poor country

    I got my ticket to heaven
    and everlasting life
    I got a ride all the way to paradise
    I got my ticket to heaven
    and everlasting life
    all the way to paradise

    now there’s nothing left for luxuries
    nothing left to pay my heating bill
    but the good lord will provide
    I know he will

    so send what you can
    to the man with the diamond ring
    they’re tuning in across the land
    to hear him sing

    I got my ticket to heaven
    and everlasting life
    I got a ride all the way to paradise
    I got my ticket to heaven
    and everlasting life
    all the way to paradise

  • Nancy

    Well, even if I am a woman, I have the cojones to speak ill of the dead: good riddance to bad rubbish! Today Jerry Falwell is hopefully in hell where he belongs; God knows he spent most of his life following his TRUE Master – & it wasn’t Christ.

  • Nancy, if Jerry actually made it to heaven, he’s probably really pissed that he didn’t get the throne chair directly to the right of Christ that he felt he deserved.

    They’ll probably put him in charge of the kitchen…

  • Chris (Comment #14),

    That being the case, could you delete my comment #3 then, as it says basically the exact same thing as my comment #4?

    I’ve never seen the spam filter delay a comment of mine for several hours only to have it pop up on screen quite suddenly before.

    I just don’t want to sound redundant ya know?

    Many thanx!


  • Glen, I’ve deleted the redundant comment as per your request. The spam filter can be a bit frustratingly random sometimes, but it’s basically doing a great job of protecting the site from literally hundreds of spam comments every day.

  • Baronius

    Falwell had the ability to say the wrong thing at the wrong time, in the worst possible way. I suspect he just gave up trying to say the right thing sometimes, knowing that it’d be mischaracterized anyway.

    My memory might not be perfect, but I don’t remember a single scandal involving Falwell or his organizations. Glen mentions Falwell’s contemporaries as Dobson and Robertson, but I’m inclined to think of Bakker and Swaggart, both of whom fell catastrophically. Maybe that’s that what some of us are trying to convey: the sense that he stayed loyal to his beliefs.

  • J.J. Hunsecker

    Glen, what’s ludicrous is your reading comprehension. I made no comparisons to his words and actions. Instead, I pointed out your defense of the man is no defense at all.

    “I don’t remember a single scandal involving Falwell or his organizations.”

    Wasn’t he supposed to take over Bakker’s PTL rather than liquidate it?

    Christopher Hitchens rightfully tore into Falwell on CNN last night:

    HITCHENS: The empty life of this ugly little charlatan proves only one thing: that you can get away with the most extraordinary offenses to morality and to truth in this country if you will just get yourself called Reverend.

    Who would, even at your network, have invited on such a little toad to tell us that the attacks of September the 11th were the result of our sinfulness and were God’s punishment if they hadn’t got some kind of clerical qualification?

    People like that should be out in the street, shouting and hollering with a cardboard sign and selling pencils from a cup.

    Video and Transcript can be found at Crooks and Liars

  • Leslie Bohn

    Mr. B,
    Surely you must be kidding. Mr. Falwell has been involved in controversy throughout his embarrassing career.
    In the 50s to the mid-60’s, he opposed what he called the “civil wrongs movement,” saying “When God has drawn a line of distinction, we should not attempt to cross that line.”

    In the early 70s, the SEC filed fraud charges against Falwell’s church. Falwell won the case, but his church was ruined financially.

    In the 80’s, he took over failing PTL ministries from his fellow televangelist, convicted defrauder Jim Bakker, and the organization went bankrupt a few months later.

    In the late ’90s, Tinky Winky.

    Of course, in September 2001, he said: “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.”

    There’s plenty more, of course.

    Today’s Slate.com has a nice litany of some of the hateful, ignorant things this fool has said over the years, and one can agree or disagree with any of them, but to claim he’s never been involved in “a single scandal” is bizarre.

  • What I want to know is, will they serve Campari at the wake?

  • zingzing

    ahh, campari… italy’s greatest single addition to my bellyhatch. 1 part campari, 1 part gin over cubed ice in a nice tumbler… oh my… i’m thirsty.

  • Baronius

    JJ and Leslie, there’s a difference between controversy and scandal. (At least I assumed that there were.) Offensive statements are controversies. Dead hookers are scandals.

    The PTL example makes my point. The Bakkers had ruined their church. They needed to bring in an evangelical preacher with an unassailable reputation. That was Falwell.

    The first thing I wrote about was his controversial statements. He said a lot of things that were stupid and/or wrong. And in one sense, it’s more important that a preacher communicates the right message than lives a good life… but not exactly, you know? He was a net plus to the evangelical movement, and I can’t say that about the Bakkers.

  • Falwell took over the PTL club and ran it into bankruptcy before he was removed. Hardly what I’d call a good and reputible move.

    Falwell’s own ministry was taking in 150+ million a year ten years ago, and this last year took in only 10.

    That speaks volumes

    Look up Falwell’s new worth at the time of his death, and check out the mansion he lived in, and you’ll suddenly see that he loved money and God was an afterthought.

  • Leslie Bohn

    OK, Baronius, what are these differences you assumed exist?

    I’d love to hear your definition of scandal that would not include the head of a church being prosecuted and going through a trial for fraud. And in what sense was he not “involved” in the Bakker scandal? Or wasn’t that a scandal?

    His whole career was plagued constantly by scandal and controversy, as anyone who honestly looks at the facts of his career can see.

  • Dan

    I think you could say that he articulated the evangelical rights positions well.

    Whether you liked him or what he stood for, He could debate logically. He had an answer for everything. Calm and confident. Maddening for opponents.

    There’s a whole lot of liberals that will tell you 911 was for our sins. Not many are apologizing for it.

    My favorite Falwell moment–and I’m not sure if I’ve dreamed it up, because a quick google search didn’t turn up much–was when the Liberty mens NCAA basketball team made it to the 64 team championships. It seems like it was about 20 years ago and Jerry Falwell was the coach.

    Anyone confirm?

  • Northwest

    First, that was last year. A few more points, twice the women made it to the NCAA basketball playoffs and for the last three years have either won or been in the top five for Debating, even defeating all Ivory League teams. Finally becaue of Liberty University there are over 115,000 graduates with their degrees. I am a counselor and it all started with my degree from Liberty. Shall we mention all the lawyers, nurses, doctors and social workers and counselors that are out there serving because in 1971 a man that some have called a “PIG” started Liberty University.

  • I certainly congratulate you for graduating from the University of Hate. One thing for sure is that it has absolutely NOTHING to do with Liberty, despite the name!

  • Ivory League?

    I met some cool queer kids — yes, students who had just come out — during my visit to Liberty. Talk about a trip…

    I’m sorry, but if all those lawyers, nurses, doctors and social workers and counselors with LU degrees are spreading Falwell’s hateful messages, that is NOT a good thing.

    That said, condolences to those who loved and miss him. Any death diminishes the human family. And in the end, Falwell was what we all are: human and flawed.

  • I don’t mean to scare you NR, but according to CNN a lot of them work in important positions in the Bush Administration.

    No joke.

    … I wish it was

  • Leslie Bohn

    Yep. I’m responsible for hiring people at my job (only 5 or 6 people a year, I’m not in HR) and I won’t consider anyone from Liberty or Regent or any other “university” I know to teach bullshit. Their resumes go right in the trash.

    I urge anyone who would consider going there to consider this fact.

  • Jerry Falwell accomplished a lot of things in his lifetime–some, no doubt, were of benefit to others and many more, most certainly, deeply wounded a lot of people and brought mischief and grief to our political system.

    Like the central character in “Citizen Kane”, he was an enigma wrapped in a mystery, with many facets and more than one face.

    I met Falwell only once. He made a joke about the buffet we were both visiting, to start the conversation. He introduced himself and I answered that I recognized him from his mug shots in the post office, which he seemed to find amusing. He asked the usual questions one asks to get to know a stranger, and we chatted about the part of Virginia we were in, the food, and why we were there…celebrating my wife’s birthday…and so he graciously spoke to her and a friend with us. He introduced his wife. He was affable, pleasant, even charming.

    Now, the other side:the attack-dog preacher and self-promoter who learned to use the name of God, power of TV, prestige of his famous friends, and mass mailings to make a fortune, and to erect countless straw men he could publicly battle for the Lord, branding his opponents with distortions and exaggerations, smiling piously as he slid the knife in.

    His mailing lists included many unsophisticated elderly TV viewers and members of churches in other cities, and appealed to their guilt feelings for ever more money to keep his empire going and growing. And that empire expanded into broadcating, publishing, education–and, of course, politics, feeding his ego and giving him the power to command more attention and larger donations, so that he became a kind of secular messiah to those political friends he favored.

    What did Falwell say? What does Jerry want? Politicians came to him for annointing, and his sermons became more about issues of governance and political science than the Kingdom of Heaven.

    Did he have a right, even a duty to speak up against spiritual and moral failings in government? Certainly! But he carried it too far;it became “them vs. us”, not “we” together, first-and-foremost-Americans-all any more. As much as anyone, he is responsible for deeply polarizing our people, setting us one against the other and cutting away so much of the unity and national spirit that has always bound us uniquely together. That seemed to become his goal–the old love-it-or-leave it dictate, as Jerry tried to become a constitution unto himself. We didn’t need open-minded discussion and fair debate any more. We needed the power of a righteous prophet to dictate what was best.

    One of the dangers of relying on the authority of any “scripture” is that those who misinterpret or misuse that scripture can then claim to be the authority themselves. Falwell, unelected to anything, was certainy proud of his authority to dictate to governors, congressmen and presidents.

    Like “Citizen Kane”, a mixed legacy, indeed.

  • Jet in Columbus,

    Yes, I recall that CNN report. Not a surprise. In fact, one could say that GOP administrations provide a public service in that they offer an employment option for Liberty grads so that they don’t end up on the dole.

  • Leslie, I assume you work for some sort of political or scientific organization?

    Because if you’re hiring secretaries or paper pushers or general adminsitrative types, there’s no reason why the ideological content of an education at Liberty, Regents, Oral Roberts, Bob Jones or even Baylor would limit the ability of their graduates to do their jobs.


  • Nancy

    Yes it does, Dave. Frequently these places value ideology over content, & how can anybody learn to think analytically & independently if they’re at an institution that insists on unquestioning obedience & mind-control? I doubt very much an “A” from Liberty carries the same amount of effort or knowledge as an “A” from, say, UVA or even a good secular community college. Such institutions have not yet reached the level of detachment from political/religious ideology of such places as Georgetown, altho Baylor is probably close.

  • I think the best way to sum up my feelings about Falwell’s passing would be to compare him to the enthusiastic bully that you encountered every day on the school bus to and from school, and on the playground.

    In the span of 10 years between 1983 and 1992, Falwell and his allies succeeded in convincing people worldwide that I, as a gay man, was a pedophile, I was evil and corruptive toward all children, I spread AIDS just by shaking hands with them and was being put to diseased death as God’s and Jerry’s punnishment for not being “saved”, and that all good christians should hate me, and I should be captured, put in a burlap sack and dumped off the nearest bridge.

    Paranoid? If you didn’t live through the 80s with Reagan, Anita Bryant and Falwell, you could never understand it-and I wouldn’t expect you to.

    It was a lot like being a negro just after the civil war, only we were branded ever more dangerous because you couldn’t “tell” we were gay by looking at us, so the danger you can’t see is always more potent.

    I’m relieved he’s gone. He used the fear he himself created to gain power and the more power he acquired, the more he was corrupted.

    Near the end of his life, he even began bragging openly and publicly that political candidates couldn’t be elected without his personal blessing-witness last year John McCain and now this year Newt.

    I’m glad he’s gone, like I’m glad the bully is gone. I didn’t wish him dead, but I’m not mourning his passing either…

  • Nancy

    Well, I DID wish him dead, & I’m just sorry it was quick & painless. So there.

  • I admionly to fantasizing/killing him with the bloccritic’s blimp, but he survived alas

  • Nancy

    I remember.

    I’m not as nice as you are; there are plenty of people in the world in power I’d like to strike with a long, slow, painful, lingering illness, after having them suffer at the hands of medical science pursuing endless fruitless cures & palliatives, so that they suffer, & die, & more important, KNOW they’re suffering & dying. Like Reagan being aware of his alzheimer’s. Couldn’t have happened to a nicer old bastard…or his bitch black widow spider, Nancy.

  • It’s good to be an independent. Schadenfreude makes me ill.

  • Nancy

    Even independents can enjoy schadenfreude. I do.

  • Leslie Bohn

    I don’t care about ideology, Dave. This place teaches misinformation, so no thanks. I get scores of resumes and am always lookimg for any easy reason to eliminate one.

    And besides, whatever the job, wouldn’t you hire the person from the best school, other things being equal? These are the worst schools by most measures — the least competitive for admission, lowest-rated for academics, least qualified faculty.

  • Baronius

    Ah, the 1980’s. I was assigned to Bryant’s 62nd Mobile out of New London. We were tasked with rounding up all the gays in a five-state area, and put them into camps. Jet misstates one thing: the gays were treated like blacks before the Civil War. We even managed to keep them out of the voting booths through the mid-90’s.

    Of course, as Jet pointed out, they do sort of blend in. That’s how two or three of them escaped our nets, and by the Clinton years, they re-gayed the whole East Coast.

  • “we were branded ever more dangerous because you couldn’t “tell” we were gay by looking at us”

    However, we could tell by the way you were looking at us.

  • Don’t flatter yourself Matt.
    Ahh Baronious, I thought that was you in your brown shirt!