Jerry Falwell was declared dead at 12:40 p.m. on Tuesday, May 15. Bulletins about the gravity of his condition had abounded on news Web sites as soon as reports surfaced that he had been found unconscious in his office earlier in the morning.
Death is a singularly unpleasant matter for people, including journalists, to discuss. They expect that even the harshest critic of the deceased will listen to oft-repeated parental and social columnist advice: “If you have nothing good to say, say nothing.”
On May 15, most of the people who actually had encounters with Falwell on radio and television followed that scenario. So did I – with some important qualifiers. I called him “passionate” and “never yielding” but noted that he “politicized religion and failed to understand the genius of our Constitution.” I also pointed out that “I disagreed with just about everything Falwell stood for.”
This relatively restrained criticism was anchored in the 100 or so media clashes I had with the man over the last 20 years. It would have been foolish not to have acknowledged our deep divisions the day he died. Not everyone played nice. Pundit Christopher Hitchens appeared on CNN’s “Anderson Cooper 360” and blasted Falwell with a ferocity I cannot ever remember seeing on television news.
To what end does anyone say anything about the dead? Let me try this: It is important to put a life in perspective immediately so that an uncorrectable mythology doesn’t develop. With Falwell, most commentators said that he “apologized” for blaming civil libertarians, feminists, gays and Pagans for the horror of Sept. 11 because this caused God to lift his mantle of protection.
But the “apology” wasn’t really one. Falwell said he wished he hadn’t named specific groups and acknowledged that God hadn’t told him that his mantle had been lifted. Falwell’s horrendous remark concluded that 9/11 gave “us probably what we deserve” and for that I could find no apology to the victims or the public. Indeed, a fund-raising letter under the signature of one of his sons after this so-called “apology” blamed the whole ruckus on evil liberals and insisted it had all been taken out of context.
The first person to put me on the air live when Falwell’s death was announced was Ed Schultz, one of the few successful progressive talk show hosts. He asked about my personal relationship with Falwell, and I had to concede that it wasn’t warm. The very first sentence of my book Piety & Politics is, “The Reverend Jerry Falwell doesn’t like me.” He was always very belligerent with me on television. Over the years, he called me a liar, asserted I “was paid by Al Gore” and repeatedly insisted that I’m not really a minister.
Some of Falwell’s conservative allies asked me why he seemed to dislike me so much. I’m not a psychologist, but I have thought that he hated the fact that I am not embarrassed to be both a Christian and an advocate for the right to believe or not believe anything or everything in matters of theology.
It is also important to point out that when a person dies who has had a conventionally “successful” life (and perhaps did have a major impact on electing many members of Congress and a few presidents), his or her “success” often comes at the expense of others. What Falwell would have described as “victories” were viewed very differently by others.
Women denied access to reproductive choice as Falwell worked to cut off federal funding and create an atmosphere of fear that led many doctors to stop performing abortions have reason to see themselves as his victims. So do members of the gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgendered communities who saw zealots fueled by Falwell’s narrow interpretation of the Scriptures deny their rights. Speech matters; that is why it is important to protect it. When it comes from a powerful national pulpit it can have tremendous power to heal or open wounds.
Falwell was not always in the business of mixing partisan politics and religion, or even policy discussion and salvation. In the 1960s, he told evangelicals to focus on winning souls for Christ and not work to elect your favorite politician to the White House. He changed.
First, he joined politically with other evangelicals to try to retain tax exemptions for racially discriminatory private religious schools. (To his credit, Falwell later renounced his support for segregation.) In l979, he was given the chance to run the Moral Majority. He decided to focus on a very narrow range of hot-button social issues and employ increasingly ham-fisted demands that his moral views be written as legislative fiats – or politicians would suffer consequences at the polls.
One can only wonder what would have happened if he had worked from his powerful national pulpit on other issues, from peace to the environment, and had spoken out against policies he found unethical without partisanship or electoral threats attached.
I don’t celebrate the death of people. I would have gladly celebrated the demise of Jerry Falwell’s ideology, though. But it did not die with him. Unfortunately, the flammable mix of religion and politics will continue for the foreseeable future.Barry W. Lynn is executive director of Americans United for Separation of Church and State.