While Jerry Falwell’s death was a notable blip on the national radar screen that many of my readers in other parts of the country have forgotten already, it is still front page news in central Virginia. And, as that is where we live at the moment, Karen and I have been bombarded with the imagery since Tuesday when I heard the then-breaking news.
There was significant debate for the next 24 hours or so about the legacy that Falwell, the proclaimed “face of the religious right,” left in his wake. Some conservative Christians swear he was the most profound Evangelical leader of the last century, and other, often more liberal Believers, disagree strongly. Karen spoke with a co-worker the day of Falwell’s death that was having a complete meltdown because she feared that her family members who had recently come to faith would now fall away because Falwell was gone. I saw local newspaper photos that night of thousands of students at Liberty University gathering to pray for Falwell (why pray now? He is where he is, it’s a little late to pray at this point). Throughout the media bombardment, I was consistently amazed at how so many Christ-followers seem to deify this man.
His legacy? My opinions are predictably mixed. There are ministries that exist in central Virginia, such as a substance abuse treatment facility and a crisis pregnancy shelter, that were founded by Falwell (indirectly through his church) that, Scripturally, are the truest embodiment of Christ’s love that we can show. There have certainly been many people, although much more conservative than myself, who have come to faith through his church and schools. Certainly, there is a positive aspect to Falwell’s legacy.
Unfortunately for Believers everywhere, there is also enormous damage to our faith that is the result of Falwell’s legacy. A Christ-follower who has been afforded the media spotlight has the responsibility to represent Christ well, and, as anyone who can recall a portion of the bigoted hate speech that Falwell engaged in can conclude, he failed tragically in that regard. Falwell enforced a spirit of denominational divide among Evangelicals that taught hate and rejection of anyone who didn’t view the faith from a hyper-conservative mindset. Falwell divided and hurt more than he demonstrated love, yet a faith in Christ is all about love.
Donald Miller questioned whether or not anyone who makes comments of the nature of Falwell’s post 9-11 rant against gays and abortionists truly has any fear of God. I agree with that. Perhaps Falwell had developed the audacity to put words into God’s mouth. Perhaps he was guilty of simply not thinking before something flew out of his own mouth. Having met Falwell through a mutual acquaintance a few years ago, I can say that he seemed genuine enough for me to go with the latter conclusion. However, it was a brief introduction and Falwell, a politician at heart, was gifted at presenting an image, so…who knows?
I do know from many conversations with those who reject the faith because of things that they have heard the likes of Falwell say, however, that he did damage to Christ’s cause that he may only now be realizing. Anderson Cooper interviewed the ghost-writer of one of Falwell’s autobiographies Tuesday evening. The ghost-writer, after years of close friendship with Falwell, came out after working on the book. He said that Falwell stopped speaking to him. He and his partner then moved across the street from Thomas Road Baptist Church and began attending services, but he stated that Falwell still refused to speak to him. That isn’t Christ’s love. Ostracizing someone because of their sexual preference or political opinion, or anything else, isn’t what He told us to do. How tragic that it is what we have a reputation for doing.
The ghost-writer’s closing comments to Anderson Cooper were deeply saddening to me. While I can’t quote them from memory as I write, he said words to the effect of this: Falwell’s personal attitude was to “hate the sin and love the sinner.” His actions, however, were such that he encouraged dramatic amounts of hate to the gay community. Karen made the point when we talked about that interview later that perhaps Falwell’s silence toward this man was political rather than personal in nature. In my mind, that’s even worse, because it’s image management, not substantive faith.
The ghost-writer also told stories of how Falwell would comment as to how he loved it when his ratings increased after saying the things he said. Again, a religion of image management begins to emerge.
I’m saddened for Falwell’s family and their loss. I’m saddened for the loss experienced by the lives he touched in a positive way…certainly they are many. But I’m brokenhearted by the lives he hurt, damaged, and possibly shattered with the things he said, and for the people who were turned, perhaps forever, away from a Jesus that they mistakenly equated with Jerry Falwell…and certainly, they are many more.
Christ-followers have much to live down. We have much to change. We have many people who are seeking and uncertain to show that Jesus Christ is not synonymous with Jerry Falwell.
Indeed, He is far from it.