Jerry Falwell, prominent Christian conservative and for many years the standard-bearer of America’s religious right, has died of an apparent heart attack. He was 73 years of age.
Falwell was born in Lynchburg, Virginia in 1933, and graduated from Baptist Bible College in Springfield, Missouri in 1956. That same year, he was ordained and founded the Thomas Road Baptist Church, today a 22,000-member megachurch. In 1968, Falwell began televising the sermons at his church under the title “The Old-Time Gospel Hour”, and in 1971 he founded Lynchburg Bible College, later to become Liberty University. Today, Liberty University has almost 8,000 full-time students, including a law school dedicated to training lawyers who will fight for Falwell’s vision of a theocratic, Christian America.
In the 1970s, Falwell became involved in politics, and in 1979 he founded the so-called Moral Majority to encourage Christian conservatives to be more politically active in causes such as outlawing abortion, censoring pornography, and dissolving the separation of church and state. Falwell’s group claimed credit for the 1980 election of President Ronald Reagan and took in millions of dollars in its prime, though he dissolved it in 1989 to focus on other activities. Falwell also briefly took over the PTL Club evangelistic organization from fellow religious conservative Jim Bakker after the latter’s public disgrace in a sex scandal and fraud conviction, in what some alleged was a hostile takeover. However, he permitted the PTL Club to go bankrupt just months later after apparently realizing the depth of its financial woes.
During the late 1980s and early 1990s, Falwell was the de facto face of the religious right in America. By the first decade of the 21st century, he had receded somewhat from the public eye, but remained a well-known and highly influential figure. Probably his most infamous remark was made on Pat Robertson’s 700 Club in the days after September 11, 2001, when Falwell asserted that God permitted the the terrorist attacks of that day to punish America for allowing abortion and non-Christian religions, granting equal rights to women and homosexuals, and separating church and state:
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 an American Way, all of them who have tried to secularize America, I point the finger in their face and say, “You helped this happen.”
Falwell was vehemently denounced for these remarks, and he later backpedaled and apologized, though he never explicitly retracted them and in fact stated that he still meant and believed what he had said and only regretted having said it “where a secular media and audience were also listening” (source).
As incidents like this show, Falwell tended to be a lightning rod for controversy, making numerous statements that displayed the religious right’s ugly face of hate and intolerance and their open desire for a theocratic state. From his open hatred of the feminist movement and homosexuals, to his fundamentalist opposition to evolution, climate change and other well-established scientific theories, to his desire to tear down the wall of separation between church and state, he stood for all that was wrong and abhorrent about conservative Christianity. Though he is now deceased, his legacy lives on, and his individual passing will probably make little difference in the grand scheme of things. For that reason, it would be foolish to express glee over his death. I opposed everything he stood for, and I still do; but if we who are on the side of right will ever triumph in this cultural battle, we will do so through persuasion and the power of ideas, not by waiting for our opponents to die. It saddens me that he spent his life consumed by hatred and the desire to oppress those who think and believe differently from him, but our efforts are now best spent working to keep others from making that same mistake.
At the time of Falwell’s death, the power of the religious right in America was and still is on the decline. However, we secularists and defenders of religious freedom underestimate them at our peril. Their power tends to rise and fall cyclically, and they have regrouped before. Though it is to be hoped that their current decline is permanent, it is far too early to assert that with confidence, and for that reason we must never take them for granted. I hope Jerry Falwell’s death does not inspire friends of liberty to relax their guard, but rather to man the barricades all the more vigilantly, to be tireless in our effort to defend what we know is right.
LATE-BREAKING UPDATE: Fred Phelps has announced plans to picket Jerry Falwell’s funeral. Grim irony? Religious hatemongers eating their own? What say you, readers?