SOURCE: August Pollak
[Editors’ Note: Jerry Falwell died on May 15, 2007. He will live on in thousands of Nightline, cable news, and C-SPAN videotapes, and stacks of direct mail in landfills. Falwell fought determinedly for the causes he believed in, and, to his credit, he at least did not appear to be getting filthy rich off his ministering, unlike some people. Campus Progress honors Jerry Falwell’s fighting spirit — and the ever-present threat of his way of thinking — by keeping this bio in cyberspace, written in the present tense.]
The Reverend Jerry Falwell has a bad case of Foot-in-Mouth disorder (a disease reaching epidemic proportions among right-wingers.) As recently reported by Campus Progress, on January 8, 2006, at the Justice Sunday III conference in Philadelphia, “Falwell told the heavily African-American congregation that he wished his ‘grandkids could grow up in the same America that I did.’ He notably failed to mention whether that includes the Jim Crow segregation laws that were prevalent in the America he grew up in.”
One of the most controversial figures in modern Christianity, fundamentalist Baptist pastor, televangelist and conservative activist Reverend Jerry Falwell has gained fame—and infamy—for his career of extremist and offensive commentary, particularly in times of national and international crisis.
Perhaps his most disturbing moment (though only time will tell) came two days after the September 11th terror attacks on the U.S. On a broadcast of the Christian television program The 700 Club, Falwell lashed out at those whom he saw as a threat to the moral crusade he and the Christian Right had been on for some 30 years, saying, “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.” After several days of public fury and high profile admonitions, Falwell offered a feeble apology: “I would never blame any human being except the terrorists, and if I left that impression with gays or lesbians or anyone else, I apologize.” Not terribly convincing from a man who has spent his life blaming anyone with whom he disagrees for America’s problems.
After two years at Lynchburg College and four years at Bible Baptist College in Springfield, MO, Falwell got his start as a religious figure at the young age of 22, when he became the first pastor of the Thomas Road Baptist Church. That same year, Falwell began regularly broadcasting his sermons on television and radio.
As a prelude to one of Falwell’s ongoing crusades – the inclusion of creationism in science curricula in public schools and state-sanctioned school prayer in the classroom – in his early years at Thomas Road, Falwell dreamed of an educational system that would provide a conservative religious education from kindergarten through post-doctoral degrees. In 1967, he founded Lynchburg Christian Academy (now called Liberty Christian Academy) and four years later, Liberty University. An accredited college with over 8,000 undergraduates, Liberty trains its students to be “visionary champions for Christ,” and to bring the mission and vision of Liberty into business and politics. Liberty’s conservative Christian values are articulated in its strict moral code of conduct, which is based on “an uncompromising doctrinal statement, based upon an inerrant Bible, a Christian worldview beginning with belief in biblical Creationism, an eschatological belief in the pre-millennial, pre-tribulational coming of Christ for all of His Church, dedication to world evangelization, an absolute repudiation of ‘political correctness,’ a strong commitment to political conservatism, total rejection of socialism, and firm support for America’s economic system of free enterprise.” In addition, students are expected to uphold “behavioral standards which include the prohibition of drug, alcohol and tobacco use, coed dorms, and sexual promiscuity” and a “modest dress code, reasonable curfews and respect for authority.”
In 1979, Falwell founded the Moral Majority movement, which became one of the country’s largest conservative lobbyist organizations, viewed itself as the protector of morality, and campaigned on issues it believed central to upholding its Christian conception of moral law. It officially dissolved in 1989, but in 2004 Falwell founded the Moral Majority Coalition, to be, according to its website, “a 21st century resurrection of the Moral Majority.” The Moral Majority was founded as a tool to influence the Republican Party platform and help get religious right-wing candidates elected. Falwell once said, “If we are going to save America and evangelize the world, we cannot accommodate secular philosophies that are diametrically opposed to Christian truth… We need to pull out all the stops to recruit and train 25 million Americans to become informed pro-moral activists whose voices can be heard in the halls of Congress.” (Moral Majority Report, September 1984)
Falwell has spent 50 years pulling out all the stops. His offensive remarks in the aftermath of September 11th are only one example of his determination to attack those who stand in the way of his goal of “saving America.” Among the issues Falwell and the Moral Majority have spent years condemning are legalized abortion, gay rights, and of course, the absence of religious teachings in public schools. But its first big target was the Equal Rights Amendment, a proposed—and nearly ratified—constitutional amendment to guarantee equal rights for women. In characteristically classy Falwell form, he said of the ERA, “I listen to feminists and all these radical gals… These women just need a man in the house. That’s all they need. Most of the feminists need a man to tell them what time of day it is and to lead them home. And they blew it and they’re mad at all men. Feminists hate men. They’re sexist. They hate men; that’s their problem."
If you think the good Reverend has mellowed over the years, think again. In 2004 Falwell called the National Organization for Women (NOW) the "National Order of Witches," announced that he was going to invite People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA) to a gathering of Christian men called "Wild Game Night" so that they "can sit there and suffer," and called Americans United for Separation of Church and State "an anti-Christ" group.
Falwell has been violently outspoken against homosexuality. In 1984, his all-too-vocal revulsion cost him $5,000 after losing a court battle to gay rights activist Jerry Sloan. During a TV debate, Sloan questioned Falwell about a homophobic remark that had been published a year earlier in the Advocate. Sloan charged that Falwell had called the gay-oriented Metropolitan Community Churches "brute beasts" and repeated the exact quote, arguing that Falwell had said, “Thank God, this vile and Satanic system will one day be utterly annihilated and there will be a celebration in heaven!” As Sloan repeated Falwell’s remarks, a very flustered Falwell denied ever having made them. Having read the quote in the Advocate, Sloan recognized it when listening to a Sunday broadcast of Falwell’s Old Time Gospel Hour and ran out to purchase a tape recorder so he could record one of two repeat broadcasts of the show later that night. Sloan insisted he had recorded it, and an outraged Falwell promised $5,000 to anyone who could produce a tape. Like the sore loser he is, when Sloan did in fact produce the tape, Falwell refused to pay, and Sloan successfully sued.
In 1999, Falwell’s homophobia provoked ridicule like never before. In an article he edited and published in National Liberty Journal entitled, “Tinky Winky Comes Out of the Closet,” Falwell cautioned parents that the purple Teletubby character was in fact a homosexual role model. The evidence? For one, Tinky Winky had the voice of a boy but carried a purse. And if that’s not proof enough, the article said, “He is purple – the gay-pride color; and his antenna is shaped like a triangle — the gay-pride symbol.” Falwell defended himself against the media storm of criticism, saying, “As a Christian I feel that role modeling the gay lifestyle is damaging to the moral lives of children.” Steve Rice, a spokesman for the company that licensed the show in the U.S., responded by clarifying that the bag Tinky carries was not a purse, but a magic bag and “The fact that he carries a magic bag doesn’t make him gay.’‘ He added: “It’s a children’s show, folks. To think we would be putting sexual innuendo in a children’s show is kind of outlandish.”
The Tinky Winky incident wasn’t Falwell’s first encounter with mainstream media ridicule, however. In 1994, Falwell released the straight to video documentary The Clinton Chronicles: Investigation into the alleged criminal activities of Bill Clinton. The video, a smear campaign in a box consisting of unsubstantiated rumors about the President and First Lady, caught the most flack for a fictional interview with an “investigative reporter.” The silhouetted reporter portrayed in the film, who claimed to be afraid for his life and accused Clinton of orchestrating the deaths of several reporters and personal confidants who had gotten too close to discovering the truth about his illegal activities, turned out to be the producer of the documentary. The producer, Patrick Matrisciana, admitted to the fabrication after a reporter commented on the similarity between his voice and the voice of the silhouetted reporter. "Obviously, I’m not an investigative reporter," Matrisciana admitted, "and I doubt our lives were actually ever in any real danger. That was Jerry’s idea to do that…. He thought that would be dramatic."
In fact, it turned out that over a three-year period, a conservative political organization with ties to the Rev. Falwell paid out over $200,000 to individuals who made damaging allegations about President Clinton’s personal conduct. These allegations included a charge that Clinton had protected an Arkansas-based cocaine smuggling operation while he was governor and questionable statements made by state troopers who suggested that Vince Foster had been murdered, both of which helped create pressure for multimillion-dollar federal investigations.
False witness against his neighbors? Not very Christian of you, Jerry. But to be fair, maybe Falwell thought the video sales would help Liberty University pay off the massive debt it had accrued. Luckily for him, Liberty University’s debt was bought and forgiven by the Christian Heritage Foundation – which was reported to be a front for the Unification Church. Yes, that’s the church of Sun Myung Moon, the Korean cult Messiah who made billions off of the Unification Church, also known as the Moonies. In exchange for the $3.5 million Moon generously handed over to save Liberty, Falwell publicly advocated for President Reagan to forgive Moon’s tax evasion conviction. Falwell caught a lot of heat from his supporters for lending undue credibility to the Moonies. Moon had always claimed to be Jesus Christ’s successor, a claim that one would think would present some conflict for Falwell.
Most recently, Falwell has joined in the Christmas spirit shared by so many of his right-wing colleagues. Last November, in concert with the conservative legal organization Liberty Counsel, Falwell launched the "Friend or Foe Christmas Campaign," which promised to file suit against anyone who spread what the group sees as misinformation about how Christmas can be celebrated in schools and public spaces. In his weekly "Falwell Confidential" e-mail he implored the 500,000 recipients of the email to "draw a line in the sand and resist bullying tactics of the ACLU and others who intimidate school and government officials by spreading misinformation about Christmas." Last December, Falwell and the group threatened to sue the Ridgewood Elementary School in Dodgeville, Wisconsin, for changing the lyrics to “Silent Night.” As it turned out, the whole story was a fraud, pumped up by none other than Bill O’Reilly. The song the children were performing was from a 1988 copyrighted play called “The Little Tree’s Christmas Gift.”
Maybe if Falwell is better behaved this year Santa will give him the gift of a real scandal to get upset about.
“I sincerely believe that the collective efforts of many secularists during the past generation, resulting in the expulsion from our schools and from the public square, has left us vulnerable.” – After the 700 Club broadcast wherein he had blamed civil libertarians, feminists, homosexuals, and abortion rights supporters for the terrorist attacks of Tuesday, September 11, 2001, speaking to The New York Times, quoted from Dick Meyer, "Holy Smoke," CBS News (September 15, 2001)
“I hope I live to see the day when, as in the early days of our country, we won’t have any public schools. The churches will have taken them over again and Christians will be running them. What a happy day that will be!” – America Can Be Saved, 1979 pp. 52-53, from Albert J. Menendez and Edd Doerr, The Great Quotations on Religious Freedom
“I do not believe the homosexual community deserves minority status. One’s misbehavior does not qualify him or her for minority status. Blacks, Hispanics, women, etc., are God-ordained minorities who do indeed deserve minority status.” – USA Today Chat, quoted from The Religious Freedom Coalition, " The Two faces of Jerry Falwell"
“I think Muhammad was a terrorist. I read enough by both Muslims and non-Muslims, [to decide] that he was a violent man, a man of war.” – 60 Minutes (CBS) (September 30, 2002)
“…You’ve got to kill the terrorists before the killing stops and I am for the President—chase them all over the world, if it takes ten years, blow them all away in the name of the Lord.” – CNN Debate with Jesse Jackson (October 24, 2004)
Illustration: August J. Pollak