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.
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As with his positions on abortion and homosexuality, the basso profondo preacher’s own words on race stand as vivid documents of his legacy. Falwell launched on the warpath against civil rights four years after the Supreme Court’s Brown v. Board of Education decision to desegregate public schools with a sermon titled “Segregation or Integration: Which?”
“If Chief Justice Warren and his associates had known God’s word and had desired to do the Lord’s will, I am quite confident that the 1954 decision would never have been made,” Falwell boomed from above his congregation in Lynchburg. “The facilities should be separate. When God has drawn a line of distinction, we should not attempt to cross that line.”
Falwell’s jeremiad continued: “The true Negro does not want integration…. He realizes his potential is far better among his own race.” Falwell went on to announce that integration “will destroy our race eventually. In one northern city,” he warned, “a pastor friend of mine tells me that a couple of opposite race live next door to his church as man and wife.”
As pressure from the civil rights movement built during the early 1960s, and President Lyndon Johnson introduced sweeping civil rights legislation, Falwell grew increasingly conspiratorial. He enlisted with J. Edgar Hoover to distribute FBI manufactured propaganda against the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. and publicly denounced the 1964 Civil Rights Act as “civil wrongs.”
In a 1964 sermon, “Ministers and Marchers,” Falwell attacked King as a Communist subversive. After questioning “the sincerity and intentions of some civil rights leaders such as Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., Mr. James Farmer, and others, who are known to have left-wing associations,” Falwell declared, “It is very obvious that the Communists, as they do in all parts of the world, are taking advantage of a tense situation in our land, and are exploiting every incident to bring about violence and bloodshed.”
Falwell concluded, “Preachers are not called to be politicians, but soul winners.”
Then, for a time, Falwell appeared to follow his own advice. He retreated from massive resistance and founded the Lynchburg Christian Academy, an institution described by the Lynchburg News in 1966 as “a private school for white students.” It was one among many so-called “seg academies” created in the South to avoid integrated public schools.
For Falwell and his brethren, private Christian schools were the last redoubt. Rather than continue a hopeless struggle against the inevitable, through their schools they could circumvent the integration entirely. Five years later, Falwell christened Liberty University, a college that today funnels a steady stream of dedicated young cadres into Republican Congressional offices and conservative think tanks. (Tony Perkins is among Falwell’s Christian soldiers.)
In a recent interview broadcast on CNN the day of his death, Falwell offered his version of the Christian right’s genesis: “We were simply driven into the process by Roe v. Wade and earlier than that, the expulsion of God from the public square.” But his account was fuzzy revisionism at best. By 1973, when the Supreme Court ruled on Roe, the antiabortion movement was almost exclusively Catholic. While various Catholic cardinals condemned the Court’s ruling, W.A. Criswell, the fundamentalist former president of America’s largest Protestant denomination, the Southern Baptist Convention, casually endorsed it. (Falwell, an independent Baptist for forty years, joined the SBC in 1996.) “I have always felt that it was only after a child was born and had a life separate from its mother that it became an individual person,” Criswell exclaimed, “and it has always, therefore, seemed to me that what is best for the mother and for the future should be allowed.” A year before Roe, the SBC had resolved to press for legislation allowing for abortion in limited cases.
While abortion clinics sprung up across the United States during the early 1970s, evangelicals did little. No pastors invoked the Dred Scott decision to undermine the legal justification for abortion. There were no clinic blockades, no passionate cries to liberate the “pre-born.” For Falwell and his allies, the true impetus for political action came when the Supreme Court ruled in Green v. Connally to revoke the tax-exempt status of racially discriminatory private schools in 1971. At about the same time, the Internal Revenue Service moved to revoke the tax-exempt status of Bob Jones University, which forbade interracial dating. (Blacks were denied entry until 1971.) Falwell was furious, complaining, “In some states it’s easier to open a massage parlor than to open a Christian school.”
Seeking to capitalize on mounting evangelical discontent, a right-wing Washington operative and anti-Vatican II Catholic named Paul Weyrich took a series of trips down South to meet with Falwell and other evangelical leaders. Weyrich hoped to produce a well-funded evangelical lobbying outfit that could lend grassroots muscle to the top-heavy Republican Party and effectively mobilize the vanquished forces of massive resistance into a new political bloc. In discussions with Falwell, Weyrich cited various social ills that necessitated evangelical involvement in politics, particularly abortion, school prayer and the rise of feminism. His pleas initially fell on deaf ears.
“I was trying to get those people interested in those issues and I utterly failed,” Weyrich recalled in an interview in the early 1990s. “What changed their mind was Jimmy Carter’s intervention against the Christian schools, trying to deny them tax-exempt status on the basis of so-called de facto segregation.”
In 1979, at Weyrich’s behest, Falwell founded a group that he called the Moral Majority. Along with a vanguard of evangelical icons including D. James Kennedy, Pat Robertson and Tim LaHaye, Falwell’s organization hoisted the banner of the “pro-family” movement, declaring war on abortion and homosexuality. But were it not for the federal government’s attempts to enable little black boys and black girls to go to school with little white boys and white girls, the Christian right’s culture war would likely never have come into being. “The Religious New Right did not start because of a concern about abortion,” former Falwell ally Ed Dobson told author Randall Balmer in 1990. “I sat in the non-smoke-filled back room with the Moral Majority, and I frankly do not remember abortion ever being mentioned as a reason why we ought to do something.”
As the Christian right gradually transmuted its racial resentment into sexual politics, Liberty University began enrolling nonwhite students and Thomas Road Baptist Church integrated. In the irony of ironies in 2006, at Justice Sunday III, a rally for the confirmation of Supreme Court nominee Samuel Alito, a man who belonged to a white-only “eating club” at Princeton University, Falwell haltingly rose to sing “We Shall Overcome.” Beside him stood Martin Luther King Jr.’s niece, Alveda King, an evangelical antiabortion activist.
On the day of Falwell’s death, Republican presidential frontrunners fell over one another to memorialize him. Arizona Senator John McCain, who in the 2000 presidential campaign had called Falwell an “agent of intolerance,” then spoke at the 2006 graduation ceremony at Liberty University, praising Falwell as “a man of distinguished accomplishment who devoted his life to serving his faith and country.”
Mitt Romney, the former Massachusetts governor whose Mormon faith is listed as a cult by Falwell’s Southern Baptist Convention, hailed him as “an American who built and led a movement based on strong principles and strong faith…. The legacy of his important work will continue through his many ministries where he put his faith into action.”
Rudy Giuliani, the thrice-married prochoice former New York City mayor, gay rights advocate and erstwhile cross-dresser, was also profuse in his praise of Falwell. “He was a man who set a direction,” Giuliani said. “He was someone who was not afraid to speak his mind. We all have great respect for him.”
The gushing eulogies of Falwell by leading GOP presidential hopefuls demonstrated the preacher’s earthly limitations and his enduring influence. Under Falwell’s guidance, the Christian right subsumed much of the Republican apparatus and now holds the key to the presidential nominating process. McCain, Romney and Giuliani may never see eye-to-eye with Falwell, even in heaven, but in the end they paid fealty at his grave.
They’re all Jerry’s kids now.