Who was Jerry Falwell?
Jerry Falwell (1933 – 2007) was an American evangelical fundamentalist Southern Baptist pastor, televangelist, and a conservative political commentator. He was the founding pastor of the Thomas Road Baptist Church, a megachurch in Lynchburg, Virginia. He founded Lynchburg Christian Academy (now Liberty Christian Academy) in 1967, Liberty University in 1971, and cofounded the Moral Majority in 1979.
Falwell and twin brother Gene were born in the Farview Heights region of Lynchburg, Virginia, the son of Helen and Carey Hezekiah Falwell. His father was an entrepreneur and one-time bootlegger who was agnostic. His grandfather was a staunch atheist. Jerry Falwell married the former Macel Pate on April 12, 1958. The couple had two sons and a daughter (Jerry Falwell, Jr., a lawyer; Jonathan Falwell, a pastor; Jeannie, a surgeon).
He graduated from Brookville High School in Lynchburg, Va., and from Baptist Bible College in Springfield, Missouri in 1956. This Bible college was unaccredited until 2001. Falwell was eventually awarded three honorary doctoral degrees, and he sometimes used the title "doctor". The honorary doctorates were Doctor of Divinity from Tennessee Temple Theological Seminary, Doctor of Letters from California Graduate School of Theology, and Doctor of Laws from Central University in Seoul, South Korea.
In 1956, at age 22, Falwell founded the Thomas Road Baptist Church in Lynchburg, where he served as pastor. The Church went on to become a megachurch, and is now run by Jerry Falwell's son Jonathan Falwell, who serves in the same capacity as his father. The Original Church was located at 701 Thomas Road.
In 1971, Jerry Falwell founded Liberty University, a Christian liberal arts university in Lynchburg, Virginia. Liberty University has approximately 62,000 students of whom about 12,000 are residential students and 50,000 are enrolled online.
In 1979, Falwell founded the Moral Majority, which became one of the largest political lobby groups for evangelical Christians in the United States during the 1980s. The Moral Majority was founded as being "pro-family", "pro-life", "pro-defense" and pro-Israel. The group is credited with delivering two thirds of the white, evangelical Christian vote to Ronald Reagan during the 1980 presidential election.
According to Jimmy Carter, "that autumn  a group headed by Jerry Falwell purchased $10 million in commercials on southern radio and TV to brand me as a traitor to the South and no longer a Christian." During his time as head of the Moral Majority, Falwell consistently pushed for Republican candidates and for conservative politics. This led Billy Graham to criticize him for "sermonizing" about political issues that lacked a moral element.
Falwell strongly advocated beliefs and practices he believed were taught by the Bible. The church, Falwell asserted, was the cornerstone of a successful family. Not only was it a place for spiritual learning and guidance, but also a gathering place for fellowship and socializing with like-minded individuals. Often he built conversations he had with parishioners after the worship service into focused speeches or organized goals he would then present to a larger audience via his various media outlets.
On his evangelist program The Old-Time Gospel Hour in the mid 1960s, Falwell regularly featured segregationist politicians like Lester Maddox and George Wallace. About Martin Luther King he said: "I do question the sincerity and nonviolent 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."
In speaking of the Brown vs. Board of Education ruling, he said, in 1958:
"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 had been made. The facilities should be separate. When God has drawn a line of distinction, we should not attempt to cross that line."
In 1977, Falwell supported Anita Bryant's campaign, which was called by its proponents "Save Our Children", to overturn an ordinance in Dade County, Florida prohibiting discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation, and he supported a similar movement in California.
But 28 years later, in an appearance on MSNBC television, Falwell said he was not troubled by reports that the nominee for Chief Justice of the United States Supreme Court, John G. Roberts (whose appointment was confirmed by the U.S. Senate) had done volunteer legal work for homosexual rights activists on the case of Romer v. Evans.
Falwell told MSNBC's Tucker Carlson that if he were a lawyer, he too would argue for civil rights for LGBT people. "I may not agree with the lifestyle, but that has nothing to do with the civil rights of that part of our constituency," Falwell said. When Carlson countered that conservatives "are always arguing against 'special rights' for gays,"
Falwell said that equal access to housing, civil marriage, and employment are basic rights, not special rights. "Civil rights for all Americans, black, white, red, yellow, the rich, poor, young, old, gay, straight, et cetera, is not a liberal or conservative value. It's an American value that I would think that we pretty much all agree on."
Israel and Jews
Falwell's staunch pro-Israel stand, sometimes referred to as "Christian Zionism", drew the strong support of the Anti-Defamation League and its leader Abraham Foxman. However, they condemned what they perceived as intolerance towards Muslims in Falwell's public statements. They also criticized him for remarking that "Jews can make more money accidentally than you can on purpose."
One unusual link between Falwell and Conservative rabbi Arnold Resnicoff, a Navy chaplain, was created when President Ronald Reagan surprised the participants at Falwell's "Baptist Fundamentalism '84" convention in Washington, D.C., by choosing to read Resnicoff's on-site report of the 1983 Beirut barracks bombing as his keynote address.
When Resnicoff later served as Special Assistant for Values and Vision for the Secretary and Chief of Staff of the U.S. Air Force, he would meet with Falwell to discuss issues linked to religious rights in the military, including the role and responsibilities of U.S. military chaplains.
Resnicoff reported that Falwell supported the idea of using the Biblical verse that teaches that "God hears the words of our mouths and the meditations of our heart" as a basis for allowing Christian chaplains to offer "inclusive" prayers, because they could offer denominational words, such as "In Jesus's name," silently, as a "meditation of the heart."
Falwell repeatedly denounced certain teachings in public schools and secular education in general, calling them breeding grounds for atheism, secularism, and humanism, which he claimed to be in contradiction with Christian morality.
He advocated that the United States change its public education system by implementing a school voucher system which would allow parents to send their children to either public or private schools. Jerry Falwell wrote in America Can Be Saved that "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."
Falwell supported President George W. Bush's Faith Based Initiative, but had strong reservations concerning where the funding would go and the restrictions placed on churches.
"My problem is where it might go under his successors.... I would not want to put any of the Jerry Falwell Ministries in a position where we might be subservient to a future Bill Clinton, God forbid.... It also concerns me that once the pork barrel is filled, suddenly the Church of Scientology, the Jehovah Witnesses [sic], the various and many denominations and religious groups — and I don't say those words in a pejorative way — begin applying for money — and I don't see how any can be turned down because of their radical and unpopular views. I don't know where that would take us."
In the 1980s Jerry Falwell was critical of sanctions against the apartheid regime of South Africa. He claimed that sanctions would result in what, he felt, would be a worse situation, such as a Soviet-backed revolution. He drew the ire of many when he called Nobel Peace Prize winner and Anglican Archbishop Desmond Tutu a phony "as far as representing the black people of South Africa." He later apologized for that remark and claimed that he had misspoken. He also urged his followers to buy up gold Krugerrands and push U.S. "reinvestment" in South Africa.
The Clinton Chronicles
In 1994, Falwell promoted and distributed the video documentary The Clinton Chronicles: An Investigation into the Alleged Criminal Activities of Bill Clinton. The video purported to connect Bill Clinton to a murder conspiracy involving Vincent Foster, James McDougall, Ron Brown, and a cocaine-smuggling operation. The theory was discredited, but nonetheless sold more than 150,000 copies.
Funding for the film was provided by "Citizens for Honest Government," to which Jerry Falwell paid $200,000 in 1994 and 1995. In 1995 Citizens for Honest Government interviewed two Arkansas state troopers, Roger Perry and Larry Patterson, regarding the murder conspiracy about Vincent Foster. Perry and Patterson also gave information regarding the allegations in the Paula Jones affair.
Falwell's infomercial for the 80-minute tape included footage of Falwell interviewing a silhouetted journalist who claimed to be afraid for his life. The journalist accused Clinton of orchestrating the deaths of several reporters and personal confidants who had gotten too close to his illegalities.
It was subsequently revealed, however, that the silhouetted journalist was, in fact, Patrick Matrisciana, the producer of the video and president of Citizens for Honest Government. "Obviously, I'm not an investigative reporter," Matrisciana admitted to investigative journalist Murray Waas. Later, Falwell seemed to back away from personally trusting the video. In an interview for the 2005 documentary The Hunting of the President, Falwell admitted, "to this day I do not know the accuracy of the claims made in The Clinton Chronicles."
Falwell condemned homosexuality as forbidden by the Bible. Pro-gay rights groups called Falwell an "agent of intolerance" and "the founder of the anti-gay industry" for statements he has made and for campaigning against LGBT social movements. Falwell supported Anita Bryant's 1977 "Save Our Children" campaign to overturn a Florida ordinance prohibiting discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation and a similar movement in California.
In urging the repeal of the ordinance, Falwell told one crowd, "Gay folks would just as soon kill you as look at you." When the LGBT-friendly Metropolitan Community Church was almost accepted into the World Council of Churches, Falwell called them "brute beasts" and stated, "this vile and satanic system will one day be utterly annihilated and there'll be a celebration in heaven." He later denied this.
Falwell also regularly linked the AIDS pandemic to LGBT issues and stated, "AIDS is not just God's punishment for homosexuals, it is God's punishment for the society that tolerates homosexuals." Amongst many remarks over the years he is probably most known for statements attributed to him about a Teletubby being a homosexual role model for homosexual recruitment and stating that LGBT organizations angered God, thereby in part causing God to let the September 11 attacks happen.
After comedienne and actress Ellen DeGeneres came out as a lesbian, Falwell referred to her in a sermon as "Ellen DeGenerate." DeGeneres responded by saying "Really, he called me that? Ellen DeGenerate? I've been getting that since the fourth grade. I guess I'm happy I could give him work."
At the same time, Falwell's legacy regarding homosexuality is complicated by his support for LGBT civil rights (see "civil rights" section above), as well as his efforts at reconciliation with the LGBT community in later years. In October 1999 Falwell hosted a meeting of 200 evangelicals with 200 homosexuals at Thomas Road Baptist Church for an "Anti-Violence Forum", during which he acknowledged that some American evangelicals' comments about homosexuality entered the realm of hate speech that could incite violence.
At the forum, Falwell told homosexuals in attendance "I don't agree with your lifestyle, I will never agree with your lifestyle, but I love you" and added "anything that leaves the impression that we hate the sinner, we want to change that" He later commented to New York Times columnist Frank Rich that “admittedly, evangelicals have not exhibited an ability to build a bond of friendship to the gay and lesbian community. We've said ‘go somewhere else, we don't need you here [at] our churches.’ ”
In February 1999, an unsigned article that media outlets attributed to Falwell was published in the National Liberty Journal – a promotional publication of the university he founded – claimed that the Teletubby named Tinky Winky was intended as a gay role model. An article published in 1998 by Salon.com had noted Tinky Winky's status as a gay icon.
In response, Steve Rice, spokesperson for Itsy Bitsy Entertainment, which licenses the Teletubbies in the US, said, "I really find it absurd and kind of offensive." The immensely popular UK show was aimed at pre-school children, but the article stated "he is purple – the gay pride color; and his antenna is shaped like a triangle – the gay-pride symbol."
Apart from those characteristics Tinky Winky also carries a magic bag which the NLJ and Salon articles said was a purse. Falwell added "role modelling the gay lifestyle is damaging to the moral lives of children."
September 11th attacks
After the September 11 attacks in 2001, Falwell said on Pat Robertson's The 700 Club, "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.'"
Falwell further stated that the attacks were "probably deserved," a statement which Christopher Hitchens called treasonous. After heavy criticism, Falwell said that no one but the terrorists were to blame, and apologized saying "if I left that impression with gays or lesbians or anyone else, I apologize."
Jerry Falwell held views in opposition to Islam. According to Asharq Al-Awsat, a pan-Arab newspaper, Falwell called Islam "satanic". In a televised interview with 60 Minutes, Falwell called Muhammad a "terrorist", to which he added: "I concluded from reading Muslim and non-Muslim writers that Muhammad was a violent man, a man of war."
Falwell later apologized to Muslims for what he said about Muhammad and affirmed that he did not necessarily intend to offend "honest and peace-loving" Muslims. However, as he refused to remove his comments about Islam in his website, the sincerity of his apology was doubted. Egyptian Christian intellectuals, in response, signed a statement in which they condemned and rejected what Falwell had said about Muhammad being a terrorist.
Failing health and death
In early 2005, Falwell was hospitalized for two weeks with a viral infection, discharged, and then rehospitalized on May 30, 2005, in respiratory arrest. President George W. Bush contacted Falwell to "wish him well." He was subsequently released from the hospital and returned to his duties. Later in 2005 a stent was implanted to treat a 70% blockage in his coronary arteries.
On May 15, 2007, Falwell was found without pulse and unconscious in his office about 10:45 am after missing a morning appointment and was taken to Lynchburg General Hospital.
"I had breakfast with him, and he was fine at breakfast.... He went to his office, I went to mine and they found him unresponsive" said Ron Godwin, the executive vice president of Falwell's Liberty University.
His condition was initially reported as "gravely serious"; CPR was administered unsuccessfully. As of 2:10 pm, during a live press conference, a doctor for the hospital confirmed that Falwell had died of "cardiac arrhythmia, or sudden cardiac death." A statement issued by the hospital reported he was pronounced dead at Lynchburg General Hospital at 12:40 pm, EST. Falwell's family, including his wife Macel and sons Jerry Falwell, Jr. and Jonathan Falwell, were at the hospital at the time of the pronouncement.
Falwell's funeral took place at 1:00 pm EDT on May 22, 2007 at Thomas Road Baptist Church after lying in repose at both the church and Liberty University. Falwell's burial service was private. It took place at a spot on the Liberty University campus near the Carter Glass Mansion, near his office. Buried nearby is B. R. Lakin.
After his death, his two sons succeeded him at his two posts; Jerry Falwell, Jr. took over as Chancellor of Liberty University while Jonathan Falwell became the Senior Pastor of Thomas Road Baptist Church.
The last televised interview with Jerry Falwell was conducted by Christiane Amanpour for the CNN original series CNN Presents: God's Warriors. He had been interviewed on May 8, one week before his death. Falwell's last televised sermon was his May 13, 2007 message on Mother's Day.
- "Jerry Falwell." Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia (with minor edits), under GFDL.