Shortly before noon today, the Rev. Jerry Falwell met his maker. I was in flight between Dallas and Atlanta when the appointed hour arrived, but upon my landing fellow blogger Marty Duren informed me that the founding pastor of Thomas Road Baptist Church and the chancellor of Liberty University was dead.
I suppose Jerry Falwell would have wanted to die behind his pulpit or in his study. Having enjoyed breakfast with Ron Godwin, Executive Vice President of Liberty University, Rev. Falwell retreated to his office and entered the eternal. Whatever you think of Jerry Falwell’s legacy, you have to admit he was a giant among men.
Students at Liberty University revered him. Evangelical pastors emulated him. Washington politicians courted him, and liberal elitists hated him. In all the years that Falwell fought pornography, we never opened our newspaper to read of his arrest at a peep show. For all his vehement condemnation of drug use and gay marriage, Falwell was never discovered with street-grade methamphetamines or getting sensual massages from paid male escorts. Sure he made a few verbal gaffes in this or that interview, but like the Bible says, we all stumble in many ways.
There was a time that I listened to him like an ancient Athenian would hearken to Oracle of Delphi. His words challenged and chastened three generations of American Evangelicals, and there is a sense that his passing marks the penultimate chapter of the Religious Right as we have known it. Only James Dobson remains.
Over time, I became ambivalent about Falwell’s agenda for legislative moral reform. Eventually, I became dispassionate. On the one hand, Jerry Falwell presided over the repatriation of disengaged religious conservatives previously absented the public square. Values voters, as they have become known, deserve the same privileges and prerogatives of voting, lobbying, and persuading their fellow countrymen through democratic means. Dr. Falwell helped us see that.
On the other hand, Jerry Falwell emerged as one of the most polarizing public figures of the 20th century. He played white-knuckle hardball, commanding an impressive voting block in the American electorate, a fact neither he nor his political adversaries ever forgot.
Perhaps, Jerry Falwell was among the last true believers. He had sworn on the altar of Almighty God eternal vigilance against every form of communism, liberalism, and atheism that threatened his vision of righteousness and virtue. Yet for a man professing that his battle was not against flesh and blood, he could wield some pretty carnal weapons. He was a man who possessed very definite opinions, and about whom many possessed the same. He was both visionary and vicious. He could speak softly when he wanted to, but he always carried a big stick.
In his seventy-three years, Jerry Falwell worked as hard to close abortion clinics as he did to open shelters for unwed mothers. He opposed euthanasia, and opened homes for the elderly. He worked for a better America, and history will reflect the degree to which he achieved his goal. In the end, Falwell was a champion for the cause of millions of people, and the sworn adversary of millions more. Today there are those who weep, and there are those who rejoice.
And then there are those who do both, mourning his death but celebrating that the Rev. Jerry Falwell has entered at last the city which has foundations, whose builder and maker is God.