As the Rev. Jerry Falwell approached retirement eight years ago, he turned reflective and purposeful—even as he reveled in creating controversy. In the spring of 1999, Beliefnet managing editor Deborah Caldwell traveled to Lynchburg to spend some time with Falwell. The resulting profile appeared April 15, 1999 in the Dallas Morning News. Excerpted with permission from the Dallas Morning News.
LYNCHBURG, Va. -- Jerry Falwell keeps a Tinky Winky doll on top of his computer and a baby seat in the back of his Chevy Suburban. The man who ignited the religious right is in the twilight of his career.
He goes on about his five grandkids, who call him Poppy. He seems to have a sense of humor about the zingers that come his way -- even the Teletubbies brouhaha that erupted in February 1999, after he accused the creators of the toddler television show of promoting Tinky Winky as a gay-rights symbol. He cavorted onstage recently with the hip-hop Christian group dc Talk. He talks of being "stretchable" about his views of contemporary culture.
Of course, the founder of the Moral Majority still inveighs against homosexuals, still hobnobs with politicians and still delights in appearing on television to spout his views. But now, he says, he's focusing on two goals: building a $22 million, 12,000-seat sanctuary for Thomas Road Baptist Church, which he started in 1956 with 35 people, and increasing to $500 million the endowment of Liberty University, the fundamentalist Christian school he founded in 1971 and rescued from bankruptcy in the early 1990s after televangelism scandals dried up funding.
"I see myself as a statesman as much as any time in my life," Falwell said over a light lunch. "The Lord has got to give me 10 more healthy years." Falwell is grooming his eldest son, Jerry Jr., the 36-year-old general counsel of Liberty University, to help take over that institution. He has begun turning over his church to the youngest of his three children, Jonathan, 32, the executive pastor. His daughter, Jeannie Falwell Savas, 34, is a surgeon in Richmond.
But Falwell isn't going quietly. In February 1999, he endured weeks of nationwide teasing for "outing" Tinky Winky after his National Liberty Journal issued a "parents alert" that Tinky Winky "has become a favorite character among gay groups worldwide."
The evidence: the male character is purple, carries a purse and wears an antenna shaped like a triangle, the symbol of gay pride. Falwell isn't exactly bowed by the controversy. He gleefully pointed out the Tinky Winky doll in his office.
He has this to say to his critics: "Opposition to same-sex marriage and the belief that homosexuality is morally wrong -- which is what any Christian who takes the Bible seriously must believe -- means to some people that you're a homophobe and bigot," he said. "In order to discredit a rational, sound, articulate voice on the other side, they've got to put you in those boxes."
But Tinky Winky had followed an earlier, less humorous controversy. In January, at a pastor's conference in Tennessee, Falwell said the Antichrist probably is alive today and is a Jewish man. Although this is a common belief among evangelicals who read the Bible literally, the statement caused an uproar. Falwell was forced to apologize. It seems amazing that, even now, Falwell still drives people crazy.
"I love it," he said of the controversies. On the other hand, he said, "I never get mad in a fight. I don't care who they are, give me a few weeks or months with them, and they'll be my friend."
One longtime Falwell-watcher says the Moral Majority founder is as powerful as ever because he has altered Americans' perception of themselves. "There had been this assumption coming out of the 1970s that the United States was a modern secular society and that religion was fading away," said Dr. John Green, now Senior Fellow in Religion and American Politics at the Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life. "And then the Moral Majority came out of nowhere. People were just stunned. Now, our image of America has changed. We assume you're going to have a certain level of religion and politics here."
Falwell's social conservatism hit a rough patch lately. In the wake of President Clinton's impeachment acquittal in February, Paul Weyrich, the man who coined the term "Moral Majority," launched a fierce debate by writing an open letter arguing that conservative Christians had lost the culture war and should "separate" from the "hostile culture." Falwell disagrees. He says the religious right has made abortion a "front-burner" issue. His weekly e-mail "Falwell Confidential"
continues to rally the troops. A recent issue urged readers to protest a new Bud Light commercial featuring two gay men; another connected the Columbine High School shootings with a host of conservative causes -- returning state-sponsored prayer to public school, fighting abortion rights, banning condom distribution in schools.
But a bigger blow came in March 1999, when Falwell's former advisers Cal Thomas and Ed Dobson published the book Blinded by Might. In it, the authors write that Christians who engage in political action become entangled in "the most subtle of temptations" -- the love of power. They view what they consider the failure of Christian conservative politics as a "failure of love" for those who differ. Thomas, a conservative columnist and Falwell's spokesman from 1980 to 1985, said the authors showed their old boss the galleys before publishing and offered to hold a forum at Liberty to discuss it.
Falwell seems irritated by the book, which describes him as an overgrown child who liked to roll firecrackers down the aisle of his private jet and order pilots to take a steep dive to terrify the passengers. Indeed, while driving a visitor around campus, he cackled as he pretended he was about to plow over anybody in his path. "All it means is I have to step up the drumbeat a little bit so nobody believes them, nobody swallows their retreat-and-quit ideas," he said of the book's authors. "We don't need Christians to step out of the arena. We need more in."
Falwell won't debate either author because, he says, he won't do combat with a fellow Christian. "I would have no problem having Cal and Eddie in to preach, but just not on this subject," he said. He doesn't deny, though, that these are confusing times for evangelicals. "There's no question the country is in a moral tailspin and a spiritual awakening at the same time," he said.
That confusion extends to Liberty University, whose leaders, he said, negotiate constantly with the outside culture. For example, years ago, students wore dresses or coats and ties at all times. They were not permitted to attend movies.
Now students are allowed to see movies -- even some tasteful R-rated ones -- and the dress code is relaxed after 4 p.m. The university recently hosted dc Talk, the Christian hip-hop group whose members are Liberty graduates. Falwell has a photograph of the event in his office -- though he said of the music, "It jars my brain." Fifteen years ago, he said, holding the concert "would have caused us an internal discussion not worth the effort." But, he said, "I've always been stretchable.'... If you're out slightly in front of the audience, you're a leader."
The next generation of fundamentalists faces the question: How far out front do you venture? "There are a lot of conservatives that consider us to be liberals," said Jonathan Falwell, a redhead who has his dad's beefy frame and outgoing demeanor. "Dad has brought us to the point where we realize many things are just preferences. He has evolved through the years." As a result, he said, "I don't feel I'm out of step with a lot of the culture."
Of course, that may cause problems down the line. "It is probably true that Christians follow society," he said. "The world's definitely going to get worse. The Bible is clear on that."
Jonathan Falwell believes the Moral Majority changed America by helping conservative Christians stand up for what they believe in. In turn, his father had an impact on those Christians. "Dad has changed the face of fundamentalism," the younger Falwell said. "But there's a line where you don't go any further." And where is that line? "I'm not sure there is a next step," he said.
Some things have not changed, however. His father continues to direct invective at politicians he doesn't like. This decade, it's been President Clinton, whom Falwell calls a "philanderer, pathological liar and a joke." He said he's glad he sold, for $43 a pop, the much-criticized Clinton Chronicles video, which suggested the president was responsible for murders while governor of Arkansas. "I would take the credit -- and I hope it's true -- for starting all the investigations that ultimately impeached him," he said. "That may be an exaggeration, but I want him to read it and know that I think that."
Those are the kinds of statements that sound like the Falwell of old, said Dr. Green. "The degree of cynicism in that tape is extraordinary," he said. "It's problematic." He believes part of what drives Falwell's anger at Clinton is his own desire to be a political player. "I think Falwell has tried to get back into the game," Dr. Green said. "So he encourages some of the attention he's getting.'... Sometimes I think he wishes he could be more political or better at it."
And then there is the other part of Jerry Falwell that hasn't changed: the preacher. At Liberty University's last mandatory church service of the year in April, Falwell preached about his early career. He talked about his father, an agnostic who hated preachers and ran an illegal bootleg whiskey operation during Prohibition. He talked about his reckless teen years of fast cars and pretty girls. He told them of the night in 1952 when he walked down the aisle of a Baptist church in Lynchburg and was born again. He talked about teaching Sunday School at age 19 and of starting his church. He talked of wooing his wife, Macel, the church organist.
"Pray about everything," he counseled. "Certainly, that's the way this ministry was built." Afterward, a swarm of students approached to say goodbye for the semester, to introduce boyfriends and girlfriends, to have their pictures taken with him. He played the role of doting uncle.
Michelle Howland, a 20-year-old exercise science major from San Diego, said she came to Liberty because she heard "a lot of cool kids" attended. And Jerry Falwell? "At first I had no idea who he was," she said. She was born the same year as the Moral Majority.
For years, Mr. Falwell kept a tape recording in a safe deposit box describing his wishes for his successor. He updated the tape every year. When he left town, he said, he was on the phone eight times a day solving problems. Now, he said, his assistants don't need to call him. And this year, he is working on a formal transition program for the college, the church and the ministry.
"My burden is less than it used to be," he said, as he lowered his voice and, turning serious, fiddled with his wedding ring. "The day comes when you can't pick up the [burden] anymore. And you've gotta have someone who can. "I have no regrets."