The Real Jerry Falwell

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One of the most profound testimonies to the power of modern media is how it can mold the images of famous people until the gap between perception and reality is a yawning chasm, and the image bears almost no resemblance to the real human being. By the magic of the image-makers, an untalented narcissist like Madonna is somehow transformed into an innovative musical icon, and a bloodthirsty totalitarian like Che Guevara becomes a youth idol whose visage adorns the T-shirts of American college kids.

You’ll probably never see undergraduates strolling campuses in T-shirts bearing the likeness of the Rev. Jerry Falwell, although the late evangelist is surely more worthy of emulation than Comrade Che. The same media power that turned a brutal killer like Guevara in a bogus hero has, just as bogusly, portrayed Falwell as a villain. The real Falwell was nothing like the hateful “right-wing TV preacher” stereotype that his media enemies created, and it is the real man – a generous Christian pastor and educator – that his widow portrays in her new book, Jerry Falwell: His Life and Legacy (Howard Books).

It was 1952 in Lynchburg, Virginia. Macel Falwell was playing the piano in Park Avenue Baptist Church when 18-year-old Jerry showed up for the service. His rowdy reputation preceded him. His father was a bootlegger who drank himself into an early grave, and young Jerry looked to be a chip off the old block. He was a brilliant student who skipped second grade and graduated high school at 16, but he was also a troublemaker who missed out on being named valedictorian after masterminding a scheme that enabled him and his buddies to eat free in the school cafeteria for two years on stolen lunch tickets.

Falwell’s mother, however, was a Christian woman who never stopped praying for her wayward son, and that day in 1952 Jerry had felt an urge to go to church for the first time since he was a little boy.

At Park Avenue, Jerry spotted the pretty girl at the piano and told a friend he’d like to ask her out, but the sermon soon put his mind on higher purposes. By the time he left church that day, he’d answered the altar call and become a born-again Christian. Six years later, he was pastor of his own church and Marcel was Mrs. Falwell.

By the time he became leader of the Moral Majority, the conservative organization widely credited with helping elect Ronald Reagan president, Falwell was a middle-aged man with a double chin who was quickly demonized by the liberal image makers as angry and intolerant.

In fact, as his wife of nearly 50 years testifies, he was cheerful and forgiving – and he didn’t always have a double chin. He was a lean, muscular three-sport standout in high school and captain of the football team.

His early athleticism perhaps accounts for the relentless stamina that Falwell displayed throughout his career. He was an evangelizing dynamo. As a young pastor, he tirelessly walked the streets of Lynchburg, knocking on the doors of 600 homes weekly to invite residents to the start-up Thomas Road Baptist Church.

Starting with 35 members, Falwell’s congregation grew so rapidly that when the church celebrated its first anniversary, more than 800 attended the service. That explosive growth was all the more miraculous considering that Thomas Road was started as the result of an acrimonious split at the Park Avenue church, where the pastor cast out many founding members, including the family of Fallwell’s bride-to-be.

Baptist leaders condemned Falwell’s new church and ordered him to leave Lynchburg, but the young minister, convinced he was following divine will, felt he must obey God rather than men.

As a result, the 22-year-old pastor and his flock were “disfellowshipped” (the Baptist equivalent of excommunication) by the national organization. For more than a decade, many Baptists – including some of his former seminary classmates – shunned Falwell, refusing even to speak to him.The “crucible of criticism” Falwell endured at the ouset of his career explained “the strength and courage Jerry showed during the Moral Majority years,” Macel writes. “This trial by fire . . . forged him into the man God needed to stand against public opinion.”

Stand he did, although like everything else about him, Falwell’s remarkable rise to national leadership of what became known as the Religious Right has been distorted by the liberal image-makers, who portrayed him as a hatemonger.

During the civil-rights era, Falwell criticized the movement’s religious leaders for blurring the distinction between church and state, the same grounds on which  liberals later criticized him. This fact was later twisted into the accusation that racial bigotry was the driving force behind the Moral Majority.

“Are you a racist?” a Yale student once asked Falwell when he spoke at the Ivy League school.

“I was at one time, but most of what you’ve heard about me is untrue,” he answered. In 1968, Thomas Road Church accepted its first black members and, by the time of Falwell’s Yale appearance, more than 400 of the church’s members were ethnic minorities.

Meanwhile, as he pointed out to the inquisitive Yalie, minority students accounted for more than 11 percent of the enrollment of Liberty University, which Falwell founded in 1971. The university was one of Falwell’s proudest accomplishments, swelling to more than 10,000 students by the time of his death last year. It was a tribute to Falwell’s leadership that Liberty became the alma mater of the Rev. Billy Graham’s son and Graham’s grandson.

Abortion was the issue that ultimately brought Falwell into the political arena and made him one of the most famous faces of the conservative movement in the 1980s and beyond. Fame was a mixed blessing, however, resulted in numerous death threats and assaults on Falwell’s reputation.

The scandals of the ‘80s that affected prominent televangelists Jim Bakker and Jimmy Swaggart hurt Falwell’s own ministry, even though no one ever accused Falwell of adultery or embezzlement. He was devoted to Macel and their children, and if anything was too generous for his own good, yet because of the disgrace of other high-profile clergymen, Falwell was often falsely tarred with the same broad brush of greed and hypocrisy.

Falwell helped bring millions of evangelicals into the mainstream of American political life as a driving force in the powerful and dynamic conservative movement, thus contributing to the West’s triumph over Soviet tyranny.

His widow’s memoir is a powerful testimony to the real Jerry Falwell, and it’s sad to contemplate that such a genuine revolutionary is unacknowledged by those legions of college students who prefer their Che Guevara T-shirts.

 

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–Robert Stacy McCain is co-author (with Lynn Vincent) of Donkey Cons: Sex, Crime, and Corruption in the Democratic Party. He blogs at The Other McCain.

(Photo used under a Creative Commons license courtesy Flickr user divemasterking2000.)

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