Jerry Falwell threw me a curveball this week. I’ve spent the last six months on death-watch for D. James Kennedy, another agent of intolerance who conjures credibility by disguising himself as a man of God, who suffered a heart attack around Christmas and hasn’t been seen publicly since. The discovery of Falwell croaked on the floor of his office Tuesday morning was a surprise; he’d been off my radar, having not said anything appallingly stupid or offensive recently. We all wish we could make the world a better place, but it’s a rare and special person who actually makes it happen. Jerry Falwell did it merely by dying. For the first time in nearly 74 years, humanity can look optimistically across the horizon and behold a Jerry-Falwell-less universe.
What was it about him that made me despise him so, that made me so livid at the sight of him, that made my skin crawl? He was full of hateful bluster, absurdly small-minded and prejudiced against any system of belief or government that he felt conflicted with his crude and narrow interpretation of the Bible—but the same can be said about Kennedy, James Dobson, John Hagee, Pat Robertson, Robert Schuler, Benny Hinn—the list is depressingly long. What was it about Falwell specifically that made me want to whip my fist through the TV whenever he was on?
The arrogance, maybe. The ever-present confident smile that twisted his plump multi-chinned face. The unwillingness to budge from his dogma, even when it appeared to contradict itself (he once said that Jesus could even save the soul of Osama bin Laden—but that once he is saved, he must be executed). The stupidity, the refusal to accept scientific facts that threatened his feeble grasp of history as gleaned from scripture. Falwell’s stupidity was almost mythic; he opposed public education—not because he disliked what some schools were teaching, not just because he felt parents should be allowed to reclaim tax dollars to send children to private schools instead—he objected to the very idea of public, secular education. “I hope I live to see the day when, as in the early days of our country, we won't have any public schools,” he wrote in 1979. “The churches will have taken them over again and Christians will be running them. What a happy day that will be!”
But these idiocies—abundant as they were in Falwell—are all common traits of evangelists. With Falwell there was something else, something on top of all the rest.
Hypocrisy. Not just occasional, admitted-and-retracted hypocrisy—the kind we’d expect to see in the other men I mentioned, or in a politician—but constant, repeated, looming, inescapable hypocrisy that colored every thing the man ever did. It wasn’t that he was constantly being called on the carpet and forced to apologize—he rarely if ever actually apologized, and often would behave as though nothing had ever happened and his integrity was unchallenged.
In 1965 Falwell addressed his congregation at Thomas Road Baptist Church and said, “I must personally say that I do question the sincerity and nonviolent intentions of some civil rights leaders such as Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.” Thirty-eight years later, speaking to a crowd in support of Alabama Supreme Court Chief Justice Roy Moore, who had refused a federal court order to remove a gigantic monument of the Ten Commandments from the courthouse, Falwell invoked the memory of King in a far more positive context: “Like Martin Luther King and his army of a generation ago, we shall overcome.”
Nevermind how sickening it is to hear the spirit of a civil rights icon appealed to by a man like Falwell, as vocal an enemy of civil rights as there has been on television in the last fifty years, on the behalf of a buffoon like Roy Moore; had Falwell forgotten what he said from his pulpit in 1965? Had he forgotten that he and many of his fellow white conservative Christians had opposed the black civil rights movement, at least up until the writing was on the wall and they quietly surrendered? Falwell was an outspoken segregationist throughout the 1960s, and only changed his tune when it dawned on him that life as a white-supremacist preacher was about to become a lot more difficult, and far less lucrative.
He claimed to be a man of God. He spoke out in support of Roy Moore’s display of the Ten Commandments in a public building, yet how many of those supposedly treasured commandments did Falwell ignore during his career as an evangelist?
“Thou shalt not bear false witness against thy neighbor,” reads the ninth commandment in the grandiose King James Version. In 1994 Falwell bankrolled and promoted the video documentary The Clinton Chronicles, which claimed to implicate President Bill Clinton in the deaths of deputy White House Counsel Vince Foster and Commerce Secretary Ron Brown. The video also accused Clinton of using his power as governor of Arkansas to aid a cocaine-smuggling operation. Falwell produced and hosted an infomercial for the video which included an interview with a silhouetted “investigative reporter” who claimed his life was in danger for exposing the truth about Clinton. The “reporter” was actually the producer of the video, who later admitted that he was never in any danger and that the phony interview had been Falwell’s idea. The accusations made against Clinton were entirely false, which Falwell and company no doubt knew at the time.
“Thou shalt not avenge, nor bear any grudge against the children of thy people, but thou shalt love thy neighbour as thyself,” commands God in Leviticus 19:18. Rather than loving his neighbors, Jerry Falwell spent a great deal of time and money trying to ensure that millions of his neighbors would be forced to live as second-class citizens in their own country. When his attacks on the black civil rights movement ran out of gas, he retrained his sights on the gay civil rights movement. On a broadcast of his Old Time Gospel Hour in 1984, Falwell referred to the gay-oriented Metropolitan Community Church as “brute beasts,” quoting a verse from the Book of Jude. He went on to say, “But thank God this vile and satanic system will one day be utterly annihilated and there'll be a celebration in heaven.”
Falwell later denied ever having said it, and promised gay activist Rev. Gary Sloan $5,000 if he could produce a tape of Falwell making the statement. Sloan produced the tape, and a judge ordered Falwell to fork over the $5,000. Falwell appealed the decision, his attorney claiming the judge was prejudiced because he was Jewish (yes, we can also count anti-Semitism among Falwell’s many virtues). He lost the appeal and had to pay another $2,875 in court fees and sanctions.
For one last example of the man’s blinding hypocrisy, consider this: in 1978, Falwell told Esquire Magazine that Sun Myung Moon (a cult leader who claims to be the successor to Jesus, and that he and his wife are the “true parents” of all humanity) was “like the plague,” and called for Moon’s deportation back to his native South Korea. In 1997, with his Liberty University in serious financial trouble, Falwell accepted a $3.5 million gift from Moon, through two local Virginia businessmen, and proudly announced the rescue of Liberty U to viewers of his Old Time Gospel Hour. Falwell subsequently made trips to see Moon in South Korea, and attended Christian and Republican fundraisers with him. I’ve never been to Falwell’s church, so I don’t know first-hand what’s on the wall behind the altar; but if he were an honest man, it wouldn’t be a cross—it’d be a dollar sign.
Jerry Falwell’s hometown of Lynchburg, Virginia has an interesting and troubling history. It’s the home of Lynchburg Hospital, which used to be known as the Virginia State Colony for Epileptics and Feeble-Minded. From 1924 to 1972 it was the largest eugenics facility in the United States. Nearly 4,000 people—epileptics, mentally retarded, the “socially inadequate”—were sterilized at the Virginia State Colony. Falwell was born in Lynchburg in 1933. What a shame his mother did not fit one of the undesirable categories; if she had, the doctors at that monstrous place might have done the world some good.