Jerry Falwell, found unconscious in his office Tuesday, expired at age 73, spent much of his life hurling maledictions, and it is probably best to let him speak for himself. He was, after all, a preacher.
In 1984, Falwell called the gay-friendly Metropolitan Community Church “a vile and Satanic system” that will “one day be utterly annihilated and there will be a celebration in heaven.” Members of these churches, Falwell added, are “brute beasts.” Falwell initially denied his statements, offering Jerry Sloan, an MCC minister and gay rights activist $5,000 to prove that he had made them. When Sloan produced a videotape containing footage of Falwell’s denunciations, the reverend refused to pay. Only after Sloan sued did Falwell cough up the money.
Falwell uttered countless epithets over his long life–in 1999 he warned that Tinky Winky, a character on the children’s show Teletubbies, might be gay–but his most infamous remark arrived on the morning of 9/11, after the terrorist attacks, when he proclaimed, “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.'”
Though Falwell’s influence waned in his twilight years–his approval rating among evangelicals, according to a 2006 Pew Poll, had drifted downward to 46 percent–his well-publicized gaffes continued to make him one of the most recognizable figures of the Christian right. While the names of evangelical heavies like Focus on the Family founder and chairman James Dobson and Family Research Council president Tony Perkins are unknown to most people, Falwell’s pudgy visage remains the symbol of the culture war his apostles have inherited. As Perkins wrote of Falwell in a newsletter after his death, “He was a pioneer whose legacy, marked by courage and candor, blazed the trail for all men and women of conviction to engage–boldly–on the great questions of our day.”
But for Falwell, the “questions of the day” did not always relate to abortion and homosexuality–nor did they begin there. Decades before the forces that now make up the Christian right declared their culture war, Falwell was a rabid segregationist who railed against the civil rights movement from the pulpit of the abandoned backwater bottling plant he converted into Thomas Road Baptist Church. This opening episode of Falwell’s life, studiously overlooked by his friends, naïvely unacknowledged by many of his chroniclers, and puzzlingly and glaringly omitted in the obituaries of the Washington Post and New York Times, is essential to understanding his historical significance in galvanizing the Christian right. Indeed, it was race–not abortion or the attendant suite of so-called “values” issues–that propelled Falwell and his evangelical allies into political activism.