Though I normally don’t comment on the deaths of well-known people, I need to write about the loss of Jerry Falwell.
Al Mohler posted some thoughts on Falwell and the resulting comment firestorm caught me by surprise for its sheer mean-spiritedness on both sides. Even in death, Falwell proves a most polarizing figure.
I didn’t know Rev. Falwell at all. Never met him. I watched him preach a few times on TV, but honestly, I was more interested in following his ASL interpreter. (I was learning ASL at the time.) Falwell’s preaching didn’t do much for me.
I wish Falwell had not become the face of Evangelicalism. I cringed every time the press went to him or to Pat Robertson for comments on current events. But Falwell was a product of the South, and he spoke like a true Southerner: unashamed of his opinions and happy to let you know them. If you understood that, you understood the man.
So as much as I wasn’t a fan, I wish to comment on two important truths, one he reinforced and one he later said.
No matter what any Christian thinks of Jerry Falwell, he decisively answered a most important question that all Christians must consider: Does a sacred/secular divide exist?
For most of Christian history, the answer has been yes. Jerry Falwell said no. And I believe he was right.
We can’t underestimate the profundity of pulling down the curtain between the sacred and the secular. Many of us today fail to realize how much we’ve gained by understanding that all of life is sacred, and it loses none of its sacredness when it intersects with everyday living. Eliminating that divide better frames the Kingdom of God in its proper context. The Kingdom penetrates everything it touches when Christians advance.
Jerry Falwell believed that Christians should not be ashamed to enter secular realms with the Gospel. Before he came on the scene, too many of us lived a double life. He didn’t found the idea, but he made it popular for Christians to go into the highways and byways of the world confident in Christ.
We forget what it was like before Falwell, don’t we?
Sadly, while the idea reflects God’s heart, the execution of that mandate doomed itself by going too far. Instead of letting the light of Christ speak, we decided to make something happen. Like Moses striking the rock, we overstepped our bounds and made a laughingstock of Evangelicalism. We equated expanding the Kingdom into secular realms with attempting to rule it with a not-so-subtle iron fist. In effect, the mishandling of the elimination of the sacred/secular divide led to power grabs from overly smug Evangelicals, rather than a humble glowing of light from within the traditionally dark areas of life long ago abandoned by believers.
As for what Falwell said, this comment post-9/11 got a lot of press:
“I really believe that the pagans, and the abortionists, and the feminists, and the gays and the lesbians who are actively trying to make that an alternative lifestyle, the ACLU, People For the American Way, all of them who have tried to secularize America. I point the finger in their face and say, ‘You helped this happen.'”
Despite the fact that Falwell later apologized for the remark, I believe he was right—though not just in regard to the sins of those easy whipping boys.
For decades, America’s been gradually slouching toward Gomorrah. Some will claim the blame goes to the groups Falwell targeted in his comment. Others will say our lack of compassion for the poor, justice for the disenfranchised, and love for the least of these surpasses the sins of those other groups. Yet more will say that our materialism and pillaging of the planet at the the expense of other peoples and nations are the cause. Whatever the case, Falwell looked at 9/11 as a wake up call for the soul of our country.
Unfortunately, few of us seem to have answered that call. We just go on our merry way, humming a tune only we know, oblivious to signs of impending judgment.
So it’s hard not to see Jerry Falwell for what could have been. We Christians in America got Falwell for a spokesperson rather than a more Francis Schaeffer-like mouthpiece. Never one for subtlety, Falwell pushed everything fast, hard, and far. Excess toppled it all in the end.
Still, as much as some Christians are ashamed of Falwell for that excess, I can still thank him for making more of us aware of the truth that the Kingdom of God is not hemmed in. Christians do have a mandate to be salt and light in the most tasteless and dark places. If that’s ultimately his legacy, it’s a fine one to leave us.
24 thoughts on “Goodbye, Jerry”
Living in Virginia and having several friends that have attended Liberty University, I am close to the influences of Falwell. While even though I’m not much for the news and or watching evangelists and keeping track of all that, I can see Falwell’s idealism in others around me. I work at a Baptist Bookstore, (LifeWay), I have several Baptist and Pentecostal friends, we live near Regent University and the 700 club and Robertson, so I understand pretty well what Falwell was all about.
The Baptist that I work around and the Pentecostals are very godly people. I have a lot of respect for both of these denominations. While I question some of their doctrinal views, I admire their pursuit for holiness. In a Church age now where there are a lot of denominations and or local assemblies not focused on holiness and sanctification, it was a good witness for me to be active around the S.B.C. and the Pentecostal church.
But, I guess where I tend to distance myself from a more “Falwell” type of faith, is that, I tend to think that there is just a slight over focus on obeying the law within these churches. I hate to use the word legalism, but it does come to mind. But be that as it may, we must always remember that no is perfect. That is why ministry is so hard, especially for those that are in the public eye.
People expect within and outside of the church expect perfection. But even for men like Falwell and Robertson who train and practice to be as perfect and politically correct as possible are still fallible. But they still have a calling and a gift for sharing the gospel and training others to do so, so looking past their fallible remarks and their other mistakes, we must remember what they gave to the Church of Jesus Christ.
In His grace,
Thanks for the comment.
I hear what you’re saying about legalism. Again, I think some of that legalistic tendency is amplified by being in the South. It’s ingrained in the culture of the South. That doesn’t make it any less wrong, but it does make it easier to understand. Even then, if the South overdoes it, I think most of the rest of the country needs to pay a bit more attention to being obedient.
I’ve wondered what to think about Falwell. I wrote a bit of something on my blog in order to deflect some of the back-and-forth something like this might create.
Suffice it to say, Dan, I appreciate the tone you’ve taken, and agree with you in regards to the whole secular/sacred world thing.
As many faults as Falwell had, I think he got the sacred/secular thing right. And as I noted, too few of us understand what an enormously impact Falwell had for the good by stressing the elimination of that divide. The results are far from perfect, but that’s more a problem with our practice than a problem with that truth.
My first post here. I enjoy reading your Blog regularly, and I am constantly finding gems of wisdom and truth in your writing. Thank you for all your hard work.
Something about today’s post, however, has pushed a button…
I’d like to think Falwell the Media Figure was different than Falwell the Man — had I known him personally, I might have found Falwell the Man a good friend and fellow Christian, but people flocked to the Figure. The media emphasized Falwell’s more outrageous statements — and outrageous they were at times — setting up a strawman that is being knocked down even today. I’m not sure whether Evangelicalism tried to differentiate between the Man and the Figure; are we so desperate for leaders that we embrace controversial ones because they are able to command attention?
Your comments concerning Falwell’s 9/11 statement reminded me of these verses:
” ‘Now this was the sin of your sister Sodom: She and her daughters were arrogant, overfed and unconcerned; they did not help the poor and needy. They were haughty and did detestable things before me. Therefore I did away with them as you have seen.'” (Ezekiel 16:49-50)
Our 9/11 experience was indeed a wake-up call to our jaded American way of life, but I can’t excuse Falwell’s comments as such. If that is what he wanted to convey, he could have easily said, “We are a selfish, self-centered, greedy nation of individuals” rather than going on a tirade against specific forms of evil. But he would have alienated his political base. A true leader speaks truth regardless of the consequences.
I know we are hesitant to criticize “one of our own” — especially because Falwell spoke to the Gospel he believed in, and we have precious few people who can withstand the barrage of criticism like he did for so many years. In that regard, he is worthy of our praise. And maybe I’ve mistaken the Figure for the Man — what was published in the media was not representative of all he truly believed in — but when you have a microphone in front of you, you need to choose your words carefully, “seasoned with grace”. Truth will generate controversy all on its own, without the embellishment that I think Falwell will be ultimately remembered for.
Thanks for the kudos. Good to have you here!
You bring up an excellent point about the Figure vs. Man concept. Another blogger writing on Falwell noted that Falwell was constantly surrounded by bodyguards. That forces a distance on a person and makes them something other. I didn’t know Falwell personally, so I can’t say if that changed him or not, but I’ve got to believe it had some impact on him. The vitriol I saw on the comments section of Al Mohler’s commentary really opened my eyes to how many people absolutely hated Falwell with a passion bordering on frenzy. I can’t imagine what it’s like to live knowing people would take a baseball bat to your head without thinking twice about it.
I also think you may be right that Falwell took some pride in the controversy he generated, but I don’t know if we can ever know the thought process behind that. He was too much of a figure to make reasonable attempts at understanding his full motivations. We can say that it was all about the Gospel, but we can only say that. Falwell himself may not have even known. I don’t always know if my motives are 100 percent pure, so who can say about someone they don’t know at all except for his larger than life image in the media.
If anything, I think the surety of Falwell’s beliefs drove people nuts. We live in an age that pokes fun of anyone who knows anything for certain. We can’t possibly believe that anyone can be like that. Perhaps it’s the ultimate reason people vilified Falwell. If so, maybe that’s the best thing that can be said of him.
He told an NPR interviewer that his polarizing comments were useful in getting publicity. He once denounced Archbishop Desmond Tutu and was promptly given an appearance on “Nightline.” In this media hungry world, he knew how to tug the right strings in order to get what he considered to be the right kind of attention.
This is a great commentary, Dan.
I must be living under a rock because I never heard that Falwell quote. But it exemplifies my concern about the health of the church at large. If we claim such a high view of scripture, why haven’t we made it our priority to address the poor, the disenfranchised, and the least of these, and our materialism and lack of care of creation? These are the issues that abound in scripture–(creation as the whole of cosmos that Jesus redeemed through hisl life, death and resurrection). Maybe if we were to start there, making disciples as Jesus taught us using this model, hearts would be changed and the other sins would be healed.
I think the needs you mention are finally getting more due. The more we talk about it, the more it generates change. I think that creation care is also rising in the eyes of many Christians. These are all good things.
However, we must maintain a balance of these factors. We can easily go too far the other way and become a social gospel Church. Balance is always needed. So while I think it’s a good thing that we’re more aware of our lacks in addressing the poor and disenfranchised, we can’t overcompensate and lose everything else.
Yes I agree, there is a large part of the church that has drifted away from a serious focus on holiness and sanctification and that is why I do appreciate those churches who still understand the importance of these.
As a regular reader, I have been inspired and encouraged often by your writing, Dan, in ways that truly change me. Like Bob, I greatly appreciate all your hard work. Thank you. I must admit, however, that I have been struggling all day to wrap my brain around something you said in this post about Falwell: “Falwell was a product of the South, and he spoke like a true Southerner: unashamed of his opinions and happy to let you know them.” and in your comment to Dave: “I think some of that legalistic tendency is amplified by being in the South. It’s ingrained in the culture of the South.” As a fifty-something generations deep GRITS, married to another true Southerner, this was something I had never heard before. We were both raised in the church, in a denomination that has veered to the left in recent decades, which might be why these comments shocked me, but is this true? Are you referring to a particular denomination, or Southern Christians in general? I’m not offended – just curious. I live a bit of a sheltered, rural life at times. =)
Can’t speak for the true rural South, but the suburbs have a very distinct culture. We have some friends who moved to suburban Georgia and they quickly noted the extreme pressure to conform to a very rigid standard. Middle class to Upper middle class neighborhoods aspire to an almost Stepford-ish ideal. Our friends commented that women would do housework wearing pearl necklaces.
Christian circles only amplify that tendency. You can see it in Southern Gospel music and its performers. Whereas in the North you will see performers wearing different outfits, Southern Gospel groups still all wear the same suit. That conformity to a standard still matters. Same in the churches. Don’t get me wrong on that, though, there is something good about the dynamic that a certain standard exist. Sadly though, that same standard can be used to keep others deemed “unworthy” out. The wife that vacuums the rug in sweats, who doesn’t homeschool, doesn’t cook homecooked meals, and generally doesn’t conform, gets a “Well, bless your heart” from her neighbors. Translation: “Stop ruining the neighborhood.”
As for men, some of that “good old boy” thing still remains. If you’re not into the manly staples of NASCAR, hunting, fishing, and other sport, you might as well drive a rainbow-colored 2007 VW Beetle with a daisy in the vaseholder, interior decorate houses, and paint your toenails. Men are men in the South and women (and others) better know their place and not get too uppity about it.
Our friends used to joke about how pervasive those attitudes were (along with the truth I mentioned that everyone’s got an opinion and they’ll let you know it). I thought it sounded a little scary!
Sorry, but I forgot to say thanks for the kudos!
I’m a born and raised Alabama boy. Unfortunately, Dan’s diagnosis of Southern culture is not far off. Legalism is deadly in the South. It’s so bad that unbelievers associate Christianity with a list of do’s and don’ts. But the Bible Belt is eroding. Southern culture is being changed (sadly). Hospitality is one of those aspects that I wish we weren’t losing, but even the South is becoming individualistic. Dan is also right on with the general Southern mentality of telling people like it is. I hadn’t thought about it, but the moment I read it I nodded.
That is interesting, Elijah. Do unbelievers in the north see Christianity different than unbelievers in the south? One of the reasons that southern culture is changing, in the state where I live, anyway, is because of the people who have moved here and the lifestyle pace which many, including Christians, have adopted. But Dan has written about that very issue, so I know it is not a Southern trait. I think that those of us who still live in the rural south have been able to hang on to many of those aspects of Southern living that have appealed to many and I am grateful that I have been able to raise my children here.
Great post, Dan, I appreciate your kind words for Reverend Falwell. But…
Excess toppled it all in the end.
Been thinking hard about that, Dan, and not sure to what you refer. What was toppled? So far as I know, Reverend Falwell’s vision and earthly ministry lives on.
The Moral Majority was a vehicle for a season, and as you point out, US politics has not been the same since. I’m sending a daughter to Liberty University next year, and we feel blessed that she has the opportunity to study nursing from a Christian foundation and with an emphasis in the last year on Missionary Nursing, not a common major in secular (or Christian, for that matter) universities. And the 100,000 plus alumni of Liberty are impacting the world in a Christ honoring way that continues to grow exponentially each year of their lives.
What many Christians see as excessive zeal for promoting the Word of God, others admire as a level of frankness admirable in this day and age of pc that is slowly but surely draining the American character of its Christian heritage and community.
Toppled? Surely not. Rejected by many? Of course.
Toppled = Overreached, overextended, and ultimately failed.
I would say that pretty much describes what happened to the Christian agenda in Washington and on the forefronts of the culture wars. There was a better, more humble, way to go about putting more Christians into positions that made the best use of their salt and light.
What happened, though, was that Christians thought themselves to be (as someone else in the comments noted) “kingmakers” and sometimes even kings themselves. But that attitude short-circuits all attempts to bring the Gospel into the public square. In fact, what has happened is that many people are now polarized against the Gospel because they equate the Gospel with the moralism that Christians attempted to install in all aspects of our culture.
That attempt has absolutely failed, even by the standards of people who championed that very cause. Cal Thomas’s and Ed Dobson’s book Not by Might clearly highlighted that massive failure, and, I believe, nailed the reasons why it failed, the reasons I’ve outlined here and in other posts on this blog.
In other words, I’ll stick with toppled.
In other words, I’ll stick with toppled.
If the Supreme Court overturns Roe v Wade in the next few years, you may have to re-consider. 🙂
There was a better, more humble, way to go about putting more Christians into positions that made the best use of their salt and light.
And that is…?
Having been a part of anti-abortion groups like Operation Rescue, I think I have some qualifications to say that Roe is not the issue and people simply don’t get that the issue is the human heart.
It doesn’t matter if the Supreme Court overturns Roe. Any overturning would send the issue back to the states. Maybe a half dozen states then eliminate abortion from their state. The rest don’t. Women from the abortionless states then go to a nearby abortion state to get their abortions. Little winds up being gained in the long run. You can’t legislate away the evil in the human heart.
As for the better, more humble way …
Christians go into the darkness to SERVE others first, not to get their moral agenda into place. Sadly, it seems that in many cases the serving got left out. Instead, rather than building bridges as servants, Christians burned bridges as moralists. The result is now that no one wants to hear what we have to say about Christ because they’re sick of our lack of service and tired of our constant grousing about morals.
Yes, we blew it all right.
Take faith, Dan, it’s not that bad. Christ’s work still goes on, every day. He triumphs despite our humanity, and is always ready to let us try again. You know that.
The bible is pretty clear that a whole bunch of people just aren’t going to trust in Christ, even if our welcoming bridges are built with humble hearts and Northern-style tact 🙂 On the other side of the coin, the chosen ones continue to come to Christ, sometimes even through fire and brimstone. God’s ways are indeed mysterious.
All I know is, active consciousness of Christianity’s impact on society is much more pronounced (and discussed!) today than it was 30-40 years ago. Huge portions of the world’s populations are coming into the Kingdom. And more people today, in several cultures of the world including ours, are outright vicious against the faith than they were then.
Why? Not because of improper presentation of the Word, the contradictory lifestyles of Christians, our sad attempts at moralism, or any of the other things we blame ourselves for. Simply because the Word itself is being presented more openly and widely than ever before.
Wheat and tares, brother…
Jesus said to share it with them, and that’s what Reverend Falwell did, at all levels of society. He rests now, in peace.
Regarding Dan’s comments to Patricia,
I’ve lived in the South for 40 years now and I’m a Southern Gospel music fan as well. That’s an extremely stereotypical description of how people who live in the South dress and behave. At least you stopped short of using the “R” word that Jeff Foxworthy popularized.
I know plenty of men who never hunt, fish, or care about NASCAR. It takes a lot more evidence than that to be called a sissy. As for Southern women dressing up to do housework, that’s just pure fantasy. There may be a tiny, tiny minority of Southern women who do, but these aren’t nearly as common as the uppity Yankees who moves South only to never cease grumbling about how much better everything was when they lived in Philly.
You’re a little closer on how typical Southern Gospel quartets dress, but that is changing as well. Their name is probably a bit ironic, but the most outrageous example I’ve ever seen of a group wearing matching suits is the Northmen. At the following link is a photo of one of your groups from the North wearing matching PINK suits at the National Quartet Convention. (I suppose they want to stand out among all the dark suits.)
Most of the more recently established, up-and-coming Southern Gospel groups dress like this:
I’m just repeating what our transplanted Northern friends relayed. Perhaps as outsiders, they saw it more readily because they were looking for differences. They noted the extreme pressure to conform to a unified standard and that standard included what I commented on.
When we lived in the Bay Area, if you wanted to make business deals, you had to play golf. Getting involved in NASCAR is the way to do that in the South. If that’s a stereotype, I don’t know what to say. That’s what our friends experienced. And they saw it everywhere.