Jerry Falwell: A 'Pioneer' for Christianity
Richard Land says that Jerry Falwell was a friend and a gifted Christian leader--not the caricature the media made of him.
BY: Interview by Patton Dodd
An outspoken and influential Southern Baptist leader, Dr. Richard Land has been a colleague of the late Rev. Jerry Falwell for most of his career. Land runs The Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission of the Southern Baptist Convention, which advocates conservative public policy positions on abortion, homosexuality, and church-state issues. In 2005, Time Magazine named him one of the "Twenty-Five Most Influential Evangelicals in America." Falwell and Land have long been co-leaders of conservative politics, petitioning for similar causes and apppearing side-by-side on shows such as "Meet the Press."
Beliefnet's Patton Dodd spoke with Land following the passing of Jerry Falwell.
Did you know Jerry Falwell very well?
I did. He's been a friend, a colleague for more than 25 years.
What were your initial thoughts today on his passing?
Well, I was very saddened. It was obviously very sudden. I knew he had a history of heart issues, but it was a shock.
How do you assess his legacy?
His most enduring legacy will be that he came from the ranks of fundamentalist Christianity and he led significant portions of fundamentalist Christianity—as opposed to evangelical Christianity—to reengage the culture and to understand the responsibilities as citizens—their social and civic responsibilities. He registered 12 million voters through the Moral Majority that were not registered at all between 1976 and 1980. And he probably did as much as anybody to elect Ronald Reagan as president, with all of the tremendous consequences that brought about.
What were those consequences?
Well, the end of the Cold War. There was nothing written in the stars that the Soviet Union had to end. It was Reagan's policies that brought Soviet Communism to an end earlier than it would have otherwise. For someone like myself who [grew] up with the Cold War as a fact of life, that's an enormous thing [to see] the Soviet Union on the ash heap of history.
That's a fascinating way to regard Jerry Falwell—from him leading fundamentalists to reengage the culture politically, to electing Reagan, to the fall of the Soviet Union. How do you think Falwell is seen by the culture at large?
That depends on who's doing the viewing. If you're looking at people who are secularists, they see him as a menace. If you're looking at people of faith who believe that we have a public dimension to our faith and have a right and an obligation to that public dimension, they see him as someone who was an absolutely critical leader in causing more conservative evangelicals to be engaged in culture in a way they hadn't since the days before World War II.
Some would say that when Americans hear the word "Christian" they think of Jerry Falwell. Do you believe that his way of being Christian has become synonymous with Christianity?
No. He's one of the people you think of, but you also think of Dr. James Dobson and, certainly, perhaps more than anyone else, you think of Billy Graham. And then of course, there will be Dr. D. James Kennedy and people like Cardinal O'Connor and other Catholic cardinals and the U.S. Catholic Congress of Bishops. When you say the word "Christianity" in America, that's a many-splendored thing.
In your estimation, how did Jerry Falwell contribute to the causes that Christians care about today?
Jerry Falwell was a pioneer in a lot of ways. He was one of the first televangelists. He was one of the first people to build a superchurch, Thomas Road Baptist Church. He had a very unlikely locale of Lynchburg, VA and then, of course, he started Liberty University and gave himself unstintingly to that cause and helped to create one of the strongest and most influential Christian universities in America.
Will you miss Jerry Falwell's influence on American politics? In what way?
The thing I'll miss the most is him as a colleague. He was a really funny guy. He had a tremendous sense of humor. I found him to be a remarkably humble man who was very much aware of his own flaws.
I had been with him on campus at Liberty, [and] the students just loved him. Many of them he had personally recruited by going to their churches and encouraging them to come to Liberty. He knew an inordinate number of them by their first name and it was obvious that they were used to a lot of give-and-take and joking around together. They had tremendous affection for him, and he for them, and you could see him visibly drawing energy from the student body.
So there's a difference between Jerry Falwell the media personality and Jerry Falwell as you're describing him.
Oh, no question. No question. The media drew a caricature of Jerry.