Tuesday, May 22, 2007

Jerry Falwell -- The Legacy

A quick chronology:

1977 – Jerry Falwell founds the Moral Majority
1977 – 1.31 million abortions performed in the U.S.[1]
2006 – 1.29 million abortions performed in the U.S. [1]
2007 – Jerry Falwell dies

Yes, I’ve heard the old saw about lies, damned lies, and statistics as well. But in this case the numbers surely tell us something. And it must be stated at the outset of any overview of the life of the recently deceased Reverend Jerry Falwell that the cause for which he labored so passionately was an abject failure. In terms of effecting social change, it simply didn’t work. It didn’t work in 1977, and it didn’t work in 2006. It didn’t work much in between, either, in the years when the Republican Party that Jerry Falwell championed controlled the White House for 20 of the past 28 years.

In the middle – in the thirty years that that admittedly skewed chronology skips over – was a life. It was a life characterized by private grace and public pugnaciousness, one of the many conundrums that those who seek to understand this complex man will need to address. Falwell was capable of blaming "the pagans, the abortionists, the feminists, and the gays and lesbians” for the September 11th attacks, and of labeling warnings about global warming as "Satan's attempt" to turn the church's attention from evangelism to environmentalism. He could also be generous with his time and money, and gracious to those with whom he disagreed. The Rev. Al Sharpton and pornographer Larry Flynt called him friend, a fact so startling that it should give pause to those of us in the Church family who disliked him. He started with a tiny congregation and turned it into a megachurch and multimedia conglomeration. He founded a thriving Christian college. And he very nearly singlehandedly lit the fire under the dormant derriere of the evangelical church and caused it to rise from its private, pietistic stupor and to scream out in pain and cultural indignation. There is much to admire. But oh, that cultural indignation.

The language that he used in his public pronouncements – that of the warrior, the battlefield, the crusade, the myriad enemies – tells us a lot about his worldview. For Jerry Falwell, the “world” wasn’t the field of lost souls, the unharvested crops waiting to be loved unconditionally into the Kingdom of God. The “world” was the adversary, full of secular humanists and relativists opposed to eternal truth, butchers and baby killers, queers and godless liberals. And if Jerry Falwell never abandoned the language of the evangelist, his was an evangelism by eradication.

Early on he crawled in bed with the Republican Party, and persuaded millions of other evangelical Christians to play the whore. It’s nothing personal, you Republicans. I would say the same thing if Jerry had crawled in bed with the Democrats. Predictably, the Republican Party used him, tossed him a few dollars every once in a while, and conveniently ignored him. Look at those abortion statistics again. This is Jerry Falwell’s great failure; his inability to differentiate between God’s eternal truths and the inevitable compromises and concessions that come with any political party bent on power and its own perpetuation. Jerry certainly read the Bible, and quoted from it liberally, ironically enough. Sadly, he never seemed to read the whole Bible, and he missed the parts about caring for the poor and oppressed, about sitting down and reasoning together, about a gentle answer turning away wrath.

And now he is gone. I couldn’t stand the man, although I admit my grudging admiration for some of the things he accomplished. He stood for some things that were right, and he stood for some things that were wrong, but at least in his public life he mostly stood up and yelled shrilly. For what it’s worth, I have the same tendencies. Speaking the truth in love is the damndest thing, and I frequently fall on one side or the other, and often enough fail at both. I suspect he was a great man, in both the great good and the great evil he accomplished. God grant him peace and eternal life. I hope and I pray that I am nothing like him, and I see every day how much I follow in his footsteps.

[1] National Right to Life Website


Anonymous said...


don't take this too personal, but i think you're a genius. this is not good commentary....this is great writing. keep yr helmet on.



caleb said...

also...fyi...the moral majority was formed in 1979 not 1977.


John McCollum said...

Damn you, Caleb and your facts.

John McCollum said...

Oh, and Dr. Smartypants Maskell? "Genius" is spelled with a "J."

Andy Whitman said...

I know. Never let facts get in the way of some high-falutin' rhetoric.

By the way, others have pointed out to me that it's unfair to compare the number of abortions in 1977 with the numbers of abortions in 2006, since the U.S. population has increased in the past thirty years.

So for those folks, and for all lovers of facts, I present some statistics that take into account population growth. Here's a year-by-year breakdown of the percentage of pregnancies that were aborted from the Center for Disease Control (CDC) in Atlanta.

2003 21.3%
2002 21.7%
2001 21.7%
2000 21.6%
1999 22.3%
1998 22.8%
1997 23.4%
1996 24.0%
1995 23.7%
1994 24.3%
1993 25.0%
1992 25.1%
1991 25.3%
1990 25.6%
1989 25.7%
1988 26.0%
1987 26.2%
1986 26.1%
1985 26.1%
1984 26.7%
1983 25.9%
1982 26.2%
1981 26.4%
1980 26.4%
1979 25.7%
1978 24.9%
1977 24.5%
1976 22.9%
1975 21.3%

Interestingly enough, the percentage of abortions grew significantly during the Reagan administration and dropped significantly during the Clinton administration. More lies, damned lies, and statistics. Aren't statistics fun? I'm not sure that any of this changes my original point that not much has changed in the past thirty years.

e said...

Andy, I agree with Caleb that this is a beautiful post.

But I also think you're giving Falwell too much credit for just catching the wave as it crested. I wrote a very long (and yet somehow still rough, stilted, uneven, boring) post as a rejoinder(?), a caveat(?), a morsel for your consideration(?).

i'm too tired to put any more into it now or to retype anything here. so i'll just leave the link. i don't disagree with you by and large. i just think we're too worried about jerry and what he stood for and not enough about the very large body of people that put jerry at the top of their kingdom for reasons that, at least if we're to take their words seriously, have almost nothing to do with what we mean when we say "moral" and everything to do with "preservationist."


Pilgrim said...

I liked N.T. Wright's comment on Falwell. My cousin's daughter attended Liberty. I have a lot of respect for some of the people who are connected with it. Jerry Falwell had his blind spots, but I think he did many things right, and he did what he felt called to do with vigor and dedication.