Jerry Falwell, fundamentalist, dead at 73

Jerry FalwellThe news of the Rev. Jerry Falwell’s death will undoubtedly receive mounds of additional press coverage beyond what is currently out there. Two news organizations that have a tendency to influence the rest — The New York Times and The Associated Press — have already weighed in and their reports are worth a close look.

The question that is nearly impossible to answer conclusively is what Falwell’s death means to religion and its involvement in American politics (The Economist asks which presidential candidates and Bush administration officials will show up at the funeral). That theme will no doubt be onstage during tonight’s GOP debate in South Carolina. Four candidates — Romney, Giuliani, Huckabee and McCain — have already released statements.

Consistent in both the AP and Times obituaries is the reference to his fundamentalism. Since Falwell was himself personally independent from any religious denomination, it’s difficult to describe his brand of religious faith in a way that is not too broad or too specific as to risk inaccuracy.

However, since Falwell was a self-described fundamentalist, the descriptor works for us and for those who care about the Associated Press Stylebook.

Here’s more from the Times obituary by Peter Applebome:

Mr. Falwell grew up in a household that he described as a battleground between the forces of God and the powers of Satan. In his public life he often had to walk a fine line between the certitudes of fundamentalist religion, in which the word of God was absolute and inviolate, and the ambiguities of mainstream politics, in which a message warmly received at his Thomas Road Baptist Church might not play as well on the NBC Nightly News.

As a result, he was a lightning rod for controversy and caricature. He apologized, for example, after televised remarks suggesting that the 9/11 terrorist attacks reflected God’s judgment on a nation spiritually weakened by the American Civil Liberties Union, providers of abortion and supporters of gay rights, and after he called Muhammad a terrorist. He was ridiculed for an article in his National Liberty Journal that suggested that Tinky Winky, a character in the “Teletubbies” children’s show, could be a hidden homosexual signal, because the character was purple, had a triangle on its head and carried a handbag.

But behind the controversies was a shrewd, savvy operator with an original vision for affecting political and moral change. He rallied religious conservatives to the political arena at a time when most fundamentalists and other conservative religious leaders were inclined to stay away, and helped pulled off what once seemed the impossible task of uniting religious conservatives from many faiths and doctrines over what they had in common, rather than focusing on the differences that kept them apart.

The whole Teletubbies incident deserves mention, of course, but a few more details would help in fleshing out exactly what happened and how Falwell ended up being “ridiculed.” Was his church ridiculed for saying that Tinky Winky may be a homosexual character and some parents might want to know about that, or was it because everyone knew this anyway? Who was doing the ridiculing?

Falwell’s passing comes at an interesting time, because while no one will doubt that he had a powerful role in creating the movement known as the religious right, the 2006 election and the current (atypical) state of disarray in the 2008 GOP presidential nominating process makes one wonder what became of the movement that Falwell helped ignite. We will also never be able to find out whether Falwell would have declined to endorse Mitt Romney, a Mormon, over someone like, say, Hillary Clinton.

While we can expect statements in tonight’s newscasts and print stories from folks like Matt Foreman of National Gay and Lesbian Task Force, it will be interesting to see if statements like this one from the Rev. Bob Edgar, general secretary of the National Council of Churches, receive coverage:

“Some media pundits tended to think of Falwell as representative of American Christianity, but most church leaders, while claiming him as a ‘brother in Christ,’ strongly differed with many of his outspoken views, including his puzzling denunciation of the Teletubbies children’s TV program,” said the Rev. Bob Edgar, General Secretary of the NCC.

“He did perform the valuable contribution of taking stands that forced mainstream Christians to re-examine their positions and test their convictions,” Edgar noted.

Wait, so you’re telling me that Falwell did not represent American Christians? I would take that a step further and urge reporters to dig into the details that will show that Falwell not only failed to represent American Christians in general, but that he did not represent the entirety of American evangelical Christians. He was, in fact, a fundamentalist, and that is probably the best way to describe him.

On a final note, reporters should resist placing Falwell as someone who was close to the Bush administration unless they have good evidence for it.

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  • Deacon John M. Bresnahan

    As a Catholic I have always had great respect for this man who was not afraid to defend traditional Christian moral values at a time so many Christians only want “their ears tickled” (St. Paul) and who was charitable to those who ridiculed and villified him. And it is amazing how many people in the media (especially the entertainment media) are so absolutely certain that the moral filth they spew out regularly isn’t at least part of the reason large segments of the Moslem world hate us and would love to see Babylon America destroyed for the evils we are propagandizing for around the world.

  • Bruce

    The whole Teletubbies incident deserves mention of course, but a few more details would help in fleshing out exactly what happened and how Falwell ended up being “ridiculed.”

    Yes, one of my pet peeves. Falwell was not the originator of the idea of a gay Tinky Winky, yet he gets labeled as such time and again in the mainstream press.

  • YetAnotherRick

    Regarding the Tinkie Winky Tizzie, it was some British gay groups that first identified Tinkie Winky as being gay about a year before the editor of Falwell’s magazine took note of this. It was a rather silly thing for the editor to mention it, but the resulting myth has been pretty funny to observe. I actually saved some info on this, but can’t find it now. I believe that Washington Post was one of the first, if not the first, to report on Tinkie’s Gayness.

    And concerning Falwell, his political influence is obvious, but he is quite overrated as an evangelical leader. I’ve probably heard over 4,000 sermons at evangelical churches, but I don’t ever remember hearing any references to him.

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  • Stephen A.

    In truth, he was, most likely, a Fundamentalist, in two ways. 1) in the sense that Fundies themselves accept it: that he believed in the Five Fundamentals of Faith (someone can correct me if that’s not so, I’m going on an assumption here, and maybe a faulty memory) and 2) that he stood firm on those fundamentals and other, less tangible ones such as family values. So the word actually works here – although I know the long discussions we’ve had here at GR about this word and it’s frequent (mis-)application.

    The way the media mean it, of course, is that he wouldn’t “compromise” on either of those meanings of fundamental and become “reasonable” (or “moderate”) in his approach to religion and social issues. So, he ended up being attacked by the MSM from day one because of this refusal. And I say, bravo for him.

    Then again, he did often say things that were either taken far out of context or were just plain head-scratchers.

    His influence on the political Right is undeniable and that hasn’t been overlooked in news coverage. Though I can hear the great angst and implication of this great ‘political evil’ of his accomplishment in the reporter’s mention of this fact each time it’s brought up.

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  • Irenaeus

    Edgar’s words that “most church leaders…strongly differed with many of his outspoken views” is sorely misleading. Most *liberal* church leaders, that is, heading up denominations like the ELCA, ECUSA, PCUSA, UMC, etc. Mainline Christianity is dying — for good or ill — and Falwell had many more fans and followers than Edgar or Barry Lynn, for that matter.

  • Deacon Eric

    Aside from the many individual episodes that will be recounted about Jerry Fallwell over the coming days, I think there are two main seismic changes he presided over, the fundamentalist takeover of the Republican party and making fundamentalism synonymous with Christianity in the public eye and to the media. As a Catholic, I still have people say “You’re not Christian, you’re Catholic,” and it was Falwell who really made that viewpoint a part of the mainstream American culture.

    Now I am pretty much at polar opposite of what Fallwell believed and stood for. However by all accounts he was a sincere and gracious person, dedicated to his beliefs. I’m thinkking today of that episode of “The Simpsons” where Marge imagines herself in Protestant heaven while Bart and Homer are in Catholic heaven. I hope to fly across that divide and spend some time with Dr. Falwell, where in the light of eternity we will both be able to laugh about how each of us was wrong in different ways.

    May he rest in peace.

  • Stephen A.

    Interesting to note that the nasty Hollywood tabloid site,, posted a pic of Tinky-Winky waving, without text, except for Falwell’s birth/death dates and his name.

    Cheap shot. Especially on a day when even Larry Flynt managed to say something nice about the man:

    My mother always told me that no matter how much you dislike a person, when you meet them face to face you will find characteristics about them that you like. Jerry Falwell was a perfect example of that.

    I hated everything he stood for, but after meeting him in person, years after the trial, Jerry Falwell and I became good friends. He would visit me in California and we would debate together on college campuses. I always appreciated his sincerity even though I knew what he was selling and he knew what I was selling.

    The most important result of our relationship was the landmark decision from the Supreme Court that made parody protected speech, and the fact that much of what we see on television and hear on the radio today is a direct result of my having won that now famous case which Falwell played such an important role in.” (from Access Hollywood)

    While that last bit was really struggling to say something “nice” I guess I have to give Flynt some credit here. Too bad has such a lazy reporting staff. Access Hollywood puts them to shame, not that they’re the Washington Post themselves. But still.

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  • Str1977

    Deacon Eric,

    I am unaware what Falwell had to say on this but I am pretty much certain that the idea that Catholics are not Christian was not uncommon in America before him. After all, a couple of the states that later formed the U.S. were founded by Puritans.

    I had never before heard about the “Tinky Winky” affair. While I don’t agree with Falwell’s opinion (and while it doesn’t surprise me that this was started by a homosexual group claiming someone/thing for their own) I am again astonished: you may do very many things in this society but never ever criticize (rightly or wrongly) such an item of pop culture, be it Tinky Winky or Harry Potter. Anyone remembers Moody the Golden Calf?

  • Erik Nelson

    Str1977 is right. The idea that Catholics are not Christian did not originate with Falwell, and it has been a common belief by some fundamentalists for some time. The Tinky Winky incident is just another example of cultural “trutherism.” The narrative was changed to meet certain cultural and political perceptions of Falwell, rather than reality. It’s the fake turkey all over again. It’s a story just too tempting to doubt.

    As for Edgar’s comments, Falwell was (for good or ill) far more representative of American Christianity than Edgar and the National Council of Churches.

  • tmatt

    Does anyone have a solid quote in which Falwell actually SAYS that Catholics are not Christians? This is not a concept I have seen identified with him before and I’ve been following his career since 1981.

  • rw

    A quibble with the post…

    Since Falwell was himself personally independent from any religious denomination, it’s difficult to describe his brand of religious faith in a way that is not too broad or too specific as to risk inaccuracy.

    Actually, Falwell was a voting member (along with a cadre of other Thomas Road delegates) of the Southern Baptist Convention. He was also affiliated with a number of Baptist groups outside the SBC. Rather than decribing him as independent of any religious denomination, perhaps it is better to say that his personality and activism transcended any specific denomination – even though he had affiliations with the SBC in recent years.

  • Tim of Angle

    I must confess to being curious as to how a person can be “himself personally independent from any religious denomination” and yet be the pastor at a Baptist church and entitled to the honorific “Rev.”.

  • jim

    Actually, Falwell was known as an independent Baptist pastor. He later aligned with the SBC. Check your facts, folks.

  • dpulliam

    Regarding the Catholic thing, check out this reference in the Washington Post story on Falwell’s passing:

    When Falwell founded the Moral Majority in 1978, fellow fundamentalist Bob Jones called the organization “the work of Satan,” because it was making common cause with Catholics, Mormons and Jews in an ecumenical-political alliance. “Many people forget that Falwell had critics to his right,” Cromartie said.

  • Larry Rasczak

    I have to second Erik’s opinion.

    I was getting lunch yesterday when I heard the top of the hour news (3PM EDT) from ABC Radio about Fallwell’s passing. It was a 30 sec piece, 45 tops. Hard to put a man’s entire life into 30 sec.

    However I was shocked to see that it focused entirely on his post 9-11 comment. It replayed the comment then went on to a line about how this comment “pushed him FURTHER out of the American Mainstream”. (I’m not sure if “mainstream” was used or not, but I definitely remember the word “further” was used.”) There was no mention of how he turned a 12 member Church into a huge congregation, and a university complete with a law school. No mention of his political influence. No mention of his taking over the PTL, no mention of the time he went down the waterslide (in his suit) because PTL hit a fundraising goal. Not even a Tinky-Winky quote. (Though they did manage to source the quote they did use to “Reverand Pat Robertson’s 700 Club Program” and I think they managed to get in a shot at Robertson about being a source of outrageous statments from time to time as well. )

    It was pretty obviously a “hit obit”. Someone who did not like Fallwell got to do the piece. I’ve heard more objective obits for Talaban and Al Queda leaders that are killed.

    Now I personally think that the phrase “Journalistic Ethics” has moved from the realm of oxymoron, to punchline, to mythical creature (akin to the Griffon and Basilsk). That being said, I would have thought that there was some pretense of procedure that existed in a newsroom to keep people who have personal grudges from being the ones who do the obits.

    Is it really OK to let an angry gay liberal with a grudge write Falwell’s obit?

  • Michael

    angry gay liberal with a grudge

    Har. I admire Larry’s ability to combine the paranoid with the paranoia, giving him the insight to know the sexual orientation, politics, and disposition of a journalist based on a 35 second spot.

  • Larry Rasczak

    jim says “Check your facts, folks.”

    Ace of Spades has a good comment re fact checking and Falwells’ obit.

  • Mithras

    Another thing the newspaper obits don’t say about Falwell: How instrumental he was in radicalizing liberals and galvanizing them to action to fight the Religious Right. I remember being a teen in the 80s, seeing his smug, grinning face on the TV, and thinking that I had a role to play in stopping the rise of fascism in America.

    So, thank you, Reverend Falwell!

  • Stephen A.

    “mithras” writes:

    “rise of fascism in America”

    Liberal Paranoia?

    Believe me, Michael Moore has the same effect on the other side.

    I’m with Larry about getting opponents to write obits about people. Time Magazine came dangerously close to this with their “Top 100″ articles last month. They seemed to go out of their way to get angry, vengeful liberals to write about the few conservatives who made the list, but failed to do the same with Al Gore, et al.

  • Dan Crawford

    In much of the commentary on Dr. Falwell’s passing, I have seen very little mention of the role he played in Jim Bakker’s demise. The more we learn about his dealings with the Bakkers,the kinds of media manipulation he employed to take over their “Christian amusement park”, the less Christian his behavior appears. I have no particular fondness for the Bakkers but I believe that whole sorry episode could have been handled in a much more Christian way.

    My impression was that Dr. Falwell has tempered his tone in his last years – perhaps that is a misperception – but I hope that he learned that the power he so skillfully wielded bore little relationship to the power wielded by his Lord on the Cross.

  • George Harper

    Just a question regarding one detail. Are you sure about your claim that Falwell had no denominational affiliation? Baptist Press’s obituary ( notes that since 1996 his congregation, Thomas Road Baptist Church, has been affiliated with the Southern Baptist Convention.

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  • Larry Rasczak

    Thanks Steve,

    Just remember that the worldwide fight against fascism became much more popular in the fall of 1945. Prior to that date there was a certian reluctance to become involved upon the part of many people; but since 1945 it has gained a great deal of popularity and support. You may recall a similar thing happened to the anti-Communisist cause in the fall of 1989 and the spring of 1990.

    I’d also like to thank Michael for his kind words of admiration, but to be honest it was a rathere elementary deduction. I mean it was a national ABC news spot, and IIRC that means it had to be produced in New York. The sexual orientation, politics, and disposition of the writer was, therefore, self-evident.

  • Deacon Eric

    Just to clear things up: I did not mean to say that Falwell had said specifically that Catholics are not Christians.

    Prior to the rise of the religious right, while some fundamentalists held that Catholics were not Christians, it was still common in public discourse and the media to refer to Catholics and Protestants (and occasionally Orthodox). The movement begun by Falwell no longer referred to Protestant fundamentalist groups, movements or institutions as Protestant, but as Christian. So we hear of Christian schools, Christian movements, Christian clergy, etc. — all of which were evangelical or fundamentalist. When the fundamentalists insisted that they be referred to simply as Christian, this led to an artificial distinction: So if they are Christian, who are these other folks? Answer: Catholics, Orthodox, Anglicans, etc.

  • Michael

    I mean it was a national ABC news spot, and IIRC that means it had to be produced in New York. The sexual orientation, politics, and disposition of the writer was, therefore, self-evident.

    They are actually written in DC. But it’s nice to see you’ve drank the liberal media bias conspiracy Kool-Aid so lustfully you are now telepathic. It’s quite an accomplishment. There’s a place for you on Fox News yet. :)

  • Scott Allen

    Looking ahead, whom will the MSM use as a caricature for all Christians? My guess is Pat Robertson. If he chooses to cooperate.
    But the new paradigm is that most conservative christian leaders have their own media empires and following. No doubt they want MSM publicity, but they also have experience with the negatives stirred up by providing knee-jerk press releases and interviews. I strongly suspect that the passing of Falwell will end the era of easy typecasting. The MSM will now have to create their leader of choice while simultaneously tearing him/her down. Not an easy proposition.

    Of course, we always have the occasional Vatican press release or papal quote. But even the MSM cannot pretend that such represent the convictions of all christians.

    Regarding the “catholic as christian” question that is really beyond the bounds of this Blog, unless someone can dig up a quote by Falwell to that effect.

  • Dennis Colby

    Hey, since we’re all so prickly about the use of the word “fundamentalist” unless it’s self-applied (as it was in Falwell’s case), how about we stop using the meaningless shorthand “MSM”? Let’s all pledge not to use acronyms to refer to vaguely defined amorphous groups of people. By doing so, we’ll enhance our ability to say what we mean while at the same time making ourselves more easy to understand by people who do not attend the same cell meetings as we do. How about it, folks?

  • Larry Rasczak

    “There’s a place for you on Fox News yet.”

    Oh…that’s a low blow my friend. The Koolaid I’m cool with, but FOX?

    Hey, I am over 40, lack any clevage, have a distaste for mindless sensationaisim, have a certian understanding of military and political affairs, and have not written a book… there is no way I could work at Fox! ;-)

    It is you that are talking of Koolaid, paranoia, and dark conspiracy here, not I. I do think the broadcast nets, CNN, MSNBC, and most major newspapers have a strong liberal/Democratic/Secular bias, but I do not attribute that to a conspiracy. You have to be very smart and very hard working, and very organized to run a conspiracy, so the very notion of a conspiracy made up of Democrats, Liberals, and and reporters is pretty much impossible from the get go. All three groups exhibit a grasp of strategy, history, and politics so incredibly poor that their plans and opinions make Valentinian III’s murder of Aetius look like a master stroke of foresighted brilliance. These people couldn’t run a toy boat across a bathtub, and their circulation numbers, their Nielsen numbers, and the stock price of the NYT proves it. Dark all-powerful media onspiracy? I think not.

    Back to the point… as much as I detest Angela Davis, even I would not consider it ethical to ask the local VFW Chapter to write her obituary. That however is exactly the sort of treatment Rev. Falwell got, at least in the spot I heard. It doesn’t take a member of the Psi Corps to know that whoever put that piece together had a serious ax to grind.

    Now maybe this was due to the one person in the newsroom that really had an ax to grind getting the assignement to do the piece, and them not putting their personal bias aside. If that is what happened then there is a serious problem with professional standards there.

    Alternatively it could have been due to there simply not being anyone in the newsroom that was capable of writing a fair obit for the Rev. Falwell. (See my VFW analogy above.)
    That points to not a much larger and more serious media bias problem.

  • Larry Rasczak


    Meant to say That points to not a conspiracy but a much larger and more serious media bias problem.

    My Bad.

    have to go off to my cell meeting now… it’s sacrifice night and it’s my turn to bring the goat….

  • Right Democrat

    As a Democratic blogger, I was disappointed although not surprised by some of the vicious attacks on Jerry Falwell since his death in some of the left-leaning “netroots” blogs.

    Jerry Falwell did play a critical role in developing the religious right as a poltitical force although in recent years other leaders like Dr. Dobson surpassed him in prominence.

    There is no question that the religious right has raised some legitimate concerns about family breakdown and the cultural pollution from the entertainment industry.

    My main objection to the religious right is how narrowly they have defined moral issues. Opposition to abortion and gay marriage is certainly consistent with Christianity but I would like to see more concern expressed about economic justice for working families.

    Telling it like it is doesn’t necessarily win popularity but it is also important to speak the truth in love. The problem with the religious right (and left) is that they end up being used as partisan political weapons.

    As a Christian, I don’t want the Gospel to be confused with the platform of the Republican Party or the agenda of the conservative movement.

    I think that Jerry Falwell was sincere and did some good things another certainly misguided in some areas. He was certainly wrong in failing to support the civil rights movement but did help to raise awareness about the abortion issue among evangelicals. Thirty years ago, opposition to abortion was basically a Roman Catholic cause.

    Falwell was basically a country preacher at heart and a bit rough around the edges. With a softer approach and less partisan approach, I think that he could have done more for Christianity and social traditionalism. I am uncomfortable with shrill partisanship from the pulpit whether it comes from the right or the left – Al Sharpton for example.

    The Rev. Falwell no doubt won many souls to Christ through his church and media ministries. As a Christian who deals with a lot with post modern types, I do think that the shrill rhetoric of the religious right has aliented many from the Christian message.

    As David Kou pointed out in a Belief.Net column today, Falwell tried to change the culture through political involvement and failed. Kou noted in his post that “Roe v. Wade is still on the books and abortion, despite battles at the fringes, is an entrenched part of American life. In the last 30 years divorces are up, drug use is up, family formation is down, out-of-wedlock birth is through the roof, and on and on.”

    Christians need to be involved in both political parties but we also must recognize that leading more people to Christ is the best way to change the culture. Fortuantely, I think a new generation of Christian leaders generally recognizes this truth.

  • Joel

    In the ten years that I’ve been watching the AP wire come in, this is the first time that a well-known figure has died without the AP running an obituary. Not one of the articles about his death has been slugged as an obit. The closest they came was a PDF graphic that lists the offensive things he said in chronological order.

    The AP ran obits on Saddam Hussein and Idi Amin, but not on Jerry Falwell.

  • Dennis Colby


    I’m not sure the lack of “obit” in the slug matters in this case. The AP has run hundreds of inches on Falwell since his death, including a main story that’s an obit. Also, he’s included in the “Obituaries in the News” roundup.

  • Stephen A.

    Larry said:

    Just remember that the worldwide fight against fascism became much more popular in the fall of 1945.

    I see your point, Larry, but I think you’re taking it far too literally.

    The Leftist crowd – echoed by ‘mithras’ here – mean “fascists” in the derogatory sense that ALL conservatives, political or religious, who don’t accept their secularist, no-holds-barred, anything-goes view of society in which all values are relative, are “fascists.”

    It’s typical of the overheated, extremist rhetoric coming from both the political and religious Left these days, and it’s got to be exposed and stopped. Inasmuch as the media repeats the nutty conspiracy theories about an onset of “theocracy,” they need to be called on it, too.

  • Will

    As one of Frank Peretti’s characters notes, “the only
    conspiracy is the conspiracy of shared values.” Or,
    to put it less politely, there is no need to conspire
    because of the already-existing prevalence of groupthink.
    Now excuse me, I have a meeting of the Vast Rightwing
    Conspiracy to go to.

  • Dennis Colby

    You know, this is the same thing people on the left and right say about the press, and I’m really tired of it. What is the “groupthink” we’re talking about? Do we have specific examples of newsrooms? Is our beef against all newspapers, television networks, and radio stations? This is my problem with “MSM” exactly: it’s vague and undefined, exactly what people concerned with journalism are supposed to avoid.

  • Scott Allen

    Dennis, consumers know what “MSM” means: the broadcast television networks, the principal newspapers in every city, and all of the leading newsmagazines.

    Not precise enough? Then define it by negation. Not MSM: cable networks, second-tier newspapers, topical magazines, talk radio, the internet and blogs.

    I have a question for you. Who are “people concerned with journalism?” Just journalists? Or do consumers matter to you? I was a devoted consumer of MSM production for decades. I sincerely hope that the reason this troubles you is that you are (a) a journalist by training or trade, and (b) young and had a wide variety of media/information sources at your disposal…that created a media muddle in your mind.

    Regardless, you are doomed to frustration. The shorthand “MSM” will continue to be used because it has real meaning. It is not vague to those of us who lived through the dark ages when it was the only game in town and it is notable that its practioners still pretend it is.