Jerry Falwell is dead. Conservative Protestants will need to draw straws to see who will take on the brunt of the hatred and contempt members of the fashionable class reserved primarily for the former head of the Moral Majority.
As the years accumulated, Jerry Falwell became the American media’s go-to guy for incendiary quotes on a variety of stories both because he was always happy to give them and because he occasionally left the encounters with self-inflicted wounds. After such moments the nation’s morning disk jockeys and office cooler comics had material for a week. The famed gay teletubby flare-up (it was the purple one!) and his blunt statement that God’s judgment for our mass moral failings was behind 9-11 stand as the most recent examples.
To remember Jerry Falwell as nothing more than a stock preacher character prone to gaffes would be a serious mistake, though. A mistake and an injustice. Because once upon a time, Jerry Falwell was a prophet and a crusader for social justice. He was also, in his way, a champion of Christianity as a worldview that affects all aspects of life.
Back in the 1960s Falwell was a standard issue fundamentalist preacher in Virginia. He training told him he was supposed to preach how to get saved. He didn’t care about ending segregation. Presumably, black folks could get saved somewhere else. In time, however, like legions of southerners, like Strom Thurmond, like Robert Byrd, Falwell publicly repented of his segregationist ways.
He kept preaching at that Thomas Road church that started so small and grew so large. Then, Roe v. Wade happened. Catholics were outraged. They’d been fighting for years to prevent the coming of just such an event. Protestants were out to lunch. The mainline clergy were too enlightened to think abortion wrong. Many of the more conservative Protestants tended toward indifference or acceptance based on notions about the separation of church and state. Few remember that such notions hid many a segregationist in the past. Church and state separation, you see, is just a dodge employed to get around facing implications of right and wrong. Truth be told, many of them probably found abortion more appealing than the public shame of a birth out of wedlock.
Christians like Francis Schaeffer and C. Everett Koop understood the injustice of abortion. They didn’t need the 3-D ultrasounds we have today in order to castigate “utilitarian ugliness.” Jerry Falwell was one of the first of the mega-church preachers to hear that message and to act. His Moral Majority took on a wide variety of issues, but abortion was always the driving force behind Christian political activism and remains so today. Few possess the historical acumen to know the early church was similarly concerned with the protection of unborn and newly born life.
There’s another key component to Jerry Falwell’s memory. The pastor of Thomas Road Baptist Church and the host of “The Old Time Gospel Hour” was also the founder and longtime chancellor of Liberty University. Against all odds, Falwell scraped and scrapped and kept the place together. Running a college is expensive and there’s no telling how many pastors and missionaries sent their children there for free or at deep discounts. Today, Liberty University has 9,600 students and a successful division 1 NCAA sports program. Though Liberty has often been discounted nationally because of its controversial founder, it will continue to train students, will continue to send them on to government service, will continue to send others on to advanced degrees. Falwell was a movement builder. It’ll take another 50 years before we have a fair idea of what he accomplished with Liberty University. William Martin of Rice University, a critic of Falwell’s, told Christianity Today that Liberty will stand as his greatest accomplishment.
Jerry Falwell’s legacy was that even though he failed to heed the cries of the oppressed African Americans, he did not continue his indifference in the face of exploding abortion statistics. It was that call to social justice, not tax cuts, not even the Cold War, that drew Christians into the Reagan coalition after so many had embraced the born-again Carter just four years earlier. Falwell was a relentless organizer and advocate. Though he began with ideas of a corseted Christianity ignoring temporal injustices all around, he ended insisting on the importance of the Christian faith for everything. The believer couldn’t hide from the world. At a time when many newsreels will replay his famous miscues, this is a call for some to remember that he was once a great champion of the unborn and for bringing the faith into the marketplace of ideas. Jerry Falwell was far from perfect. But what he had, he offered.
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