Rev. Jerry Falwell had been dead perhaps only a few hours when the mixed reactions of columnists, editorial writers, reporters and others began to make their way into print and the broadcast media. The News & Advance of Lynchburg, Virginia – Falwell’s hometown – perhaps had the kindest remarks, calling him “a minister who loved the Lord and took seriously Christ’s admonition to carry the Gospel to the four corners of the globe.”

But Christopher Hitchens, author and atheist, whose column appears in Slate magazine, unleashed some of the most vitriolic comments that we’ve encountered so far. Hitchens’ column began: “The discovery of the carcass of Jerry Falwell on the floor of an obscure office in Virginia has almost zero significance . . . Like many fanatical preachers, Falwell was especially disgusting in exuding an almost sexless personality while railing from dawn to dusk about the sex lives of others. From his wobbly base of opportunist fund raising and degree-mill money-spinning in Lynchburg, Virginia, he set out to puddle his sausage-sized fingers into the intimate arrangements of people who had done no harm.”

While no other writers or editors we have sampled exhibited the hostility of Hitchens, many did find reasons to label Falwell a divider and an exploiter. The San Francisco Chronicle reminded its readers that after the 9/11 terrorist attacks “Falwell suggested that abortionists, feminists, gays and lesbians, the ACLU, and liberals had made God angry and had ‘helped this happen.’ After nationwide outrage at his comments, Falwell later apologized.”

Other Falwellisms that were resurrected in the past two days included this communication to feminists: “These women just need a man in the house. That’s all they need. Most of the feminists need a man to tell them what time of day it is and to lead them home. They hate men, that’s their problem.” To Falwell, South Africa bishop Desmond Tutu was a “phony,” Jews were “the Antichrist,” and the concept of global warming was “created to destroy America’s free enterprise system.” Falwell also said he hoped he would live to see the day that America would have no public schools, because the churches will have taken them over “and the Christians will be running them.”

One almost expects that most of these comments will be followed by a Don Rickels bailout such as, “Just kidding folks, just kidding.” But Falwell was deadly serious, even with such silly assertions that the cartoon character “Tinky Winky” was a gay role model, and thus was damaging the moral fabric of the kids clustered around the television set.

Where Falwell was right on target was his survey of the coarsening of American culture. It was the meltdown in moral leadership in Washington that enabled Falwell to create his Moral Majority, 6-million strong, which reshaped much of American politics and was instrumental in putting Ronald Reagan in the White House. Christian conservatives remained a driving force in the Republican Party through six presidential elections, and so far, every potential presidential candidate in the 2008 race has felt compelled to address Christian conservative agendas.

The concept of separation of church and state became very fuzzy under Jerry Falwell. To Falwell and his followers, the government was seen as a means to Christian conservative social aims. His religious doctrine seemed to be based on a vengeful and vindictive God, inclined to inflict grim punishment for “offenses” such as abortion, homosexuality, paganism, and various progressive beliefs.

Thus Falwell’s place in religious chronicles remains too significant to mark it with an asterisk in future histories. The question is whether the good or the evil he did will live after him.


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