The outgoing chief of the declining National Council of Churches bid fellow Christian clergyman Jerry Falwell a very un-Christian goodbye. According to the Rev. Bob Edgar, a United Methodist minister and former Democratic congressman, Falwell lamentably believed that “apartheid and war were consistent with Christ’s teachings.” Edgar also was “puzzled” by Falwell’s supposed denunciation of the children’s program, the Teletubbies,” and its purportedly gay character Tinky Winky.
Most people, especially the clergy, do not speak so unkindly of the immediately just departed, heeding St. Paul’s admonition not to speak ill of the dead. Of course, adherents of liberal theology, of the sort that dominates Edgar’s church council, often prefer to dismiss St. Paul as the church’s first hetero-sexist.
Unlike Edgar and most of the NCC’s declining denominations, Falwell led a burgeoning evangelical movement in America. Fifty years ago, he founded Thomas Road Baptist Church with 35 members meeting in an elementary school in Lynchburg. Under Falwell’s pastorate, the church grew to over 20,000. Fifty years ago, the NCC was America’s premier religious organization, representing the mainstream of American Protestantism. Today, it is a shell of its former shelf, its member churches having lost millions of members, many of them now attending mega-churches similar to Falwell’s.
While entrepreneurial evangelical preachers across American continue to found surging congregations, para-church ministries, and schools like Falwell’s Liberty University, the NCC under Edgar was rescued from bankruptcy by donations from left-wing foundations. These secular philanthropies now provide more dollars to the NCC than do the organizations’ member churches. It’s an appropriate irony, as the NCC represents a dying liberal theology, it now relies on the unintended bequests of long-deceased robber barons.
The religious left, always jealous of the numbers and influence of the religious right, consistently reacted with anger to Falwell during his life. But on his death, even Jim Wallis, Al Sharpton, and Barry Lynn were relatively kind towards their famous ideological opponent. Of course, Lynn should be kind. His Americans United for the Separation of Church and State notoriously earned millions of dollars from direct mail pieces that vilified Falwell. But for Edgar, Falwell’s entrance into eternity was one more opportunity to condemn and slander.
“We may never understand why Jerry Falwell felt apartheid and war were consistent with Christ’s teachings, but we are grateful he was there to force us to examine our own consciences and strengthen our commitment to justice and peace,” was about as close to nice that Edgar came in his remarks about Falwell’s death. Edgar was particularly offended by Falwell’s support for the Iraq war, which he seemed to equate with support for South Africa’s system of racial apartheid. In contrast, Edgar has been unable since 9/11 to articulate the historic Christian just war position of nearly every denomination in his church council.
Edgar’s claim that Falwell supported apartheid is more calumnious. In the 1980s, Falwell publicly disapproved of then white-controlled South Africa’s racial policies, while also opposing sanctions and being skeptical about the African National Congress (ANC). His views were not very dissimilar to the Reagan administration’s. The ANC was then supported by the Soviet Union, allied with the South African Communist Party, and armed by the then-Marxist regimes of Mozambique and Angola.
The National Council of Churches at that time enthusiastically supported sanctions against South Africa, endorsed the ANC, and refused to criticize the horrendous human rights records of South Africa’s Marxist neighbors, many of which came to power with financial assistance from the World Council of Churches (WCC). The African National Congress likewise got help from the WCC. Fortunately, after the Soviet Union collapsed, the ANC’s Communist allies became irrelevant.
Apparently a stranger both to subtlety and historical accuracy, Edgar preferred to slander Falwell as pro-apartheid. More benignly but just as inaccurately, Edgar repeated the now eight-year-old canard that Falwell “outed” Tinky Winky of the children’s program, Teletubbies, which Edgar found “puzzling” and disturbing. In fact, Falwell never outed the children’s character, whom homosexual groups were already claiming as an icon, because the purple but seemingly male character carried a purse-like “magic bag” and had an upside down gay-pride-like triangle perched atop his head.
The National Liberty Journal, published by Falwell’s ministry, printed an article in February 1999, noting that Tinky Winky had recently had recently been featured in a Washington Post “in/out” column along with the recently “out” Ellen DeGeneres. The Associated Press then reported that Falwell’s newspaper was outing a Teletubbie. The story was probably first generated, or at least fanned, by Barry Lynn’s Americans United for the Separation of Church and State, whose news release smarmily barbed: “Who’s Falwell going to out next, Winnie the Pooh? Or maybe, Barney; he’s purple, you know.” Ha-ha-ha.
Falwell publicly denied having ever heard of the Teletubbies prior to phone calls from reporters. Later, he publicly posed with a Tinky Winky doll on his desk, insisting that his grandchildren were fans. But the mythology was firmly established that Falwell had outed a fictional children’s character, a purpoted fact repeated in countless Falwell obituaries last week, and which Rev. Edgar eagerly embraced to illustrate Falwell’s supposedly narrow absurdity.
Bob Edgar somewhat sanctimoniously concluded his news release about Falwell’s death: “It is clear that my Brother Jerry now knows the Truth we are all seeking, as he rests in the arms of a kind, loving and forgiving God.” Edgar can hope that his own obituary will be more accurate and fair than what he was willing to allow Brother Falwell.