Jerry Falwell almost presided over my wedding nearly a decade ago.
The reason why he didn’t speaks volumes about why American Christianity will take a long time to recover from his kind of faith.
It was 1999, during the dotcom craze. I was working in Charlottesville, VA for one of the high-fliers – an e-commerce company. Somehow or another Jerry Falwell was involved. His ministry was short on cash, his university was short on cash, and I suppose he saw this company as a chance to make money.
So it was that on a September day that my fiancée called in a tizzy. Our pastor was in the hospital undergoing heart surgery. That was doubly horrible – horrible because he was in the hospital and horrible because we had no pastor and our wedding was weeks away. “Find me,” she ordered, “a pastor. Now.”
At that moment, our dotcom CEO appeared in my door, looked at my stunned face, inquired what was wrong, and said, “Hey, no problem. The solution is in my office.”
I followed him to his office and there stood Rev. Jerry Falwell. We’d met before but these were somewhat different circumstances. The CEO explained my situation and offered the use of his jet, and Jerry agreed to marry us.
Problem solved? No–a new problem. My only thought was how I could torpedo the plan. It eventually got torpedoed. My fiancée and I found an old friend to do it.
But our reaction to the idea of Rev. Falwell as our presiding minister says everything about the man’s spiritual legacy. We were horrified at the thought. Horrified. It wasn’t because he was a mean man. He wasn’t. Quite the opposite, he was kind and generous. His offer to marry us was most magnanimous. It was Christ-like.
What horrified us, however, was the impression it would send to those watching our ceremony. Many of those in attendance weren’t Christians. Kim and I had, however, spent a lot of time talking to them all about Jesus – talking to them about the Jesus of the Gospels and how different he was from the Jesus of the GOP. To have Jerry Falwell preside at our wedding would have destroyed that spiritual work we had done. Jerry Falwell’s Christianity was a Christianity that melded political conservatism with the Gospel. In Falwell’s world, it was virtually impossible to be a Christian and not be tithing to the GOP.
That is the spiritual wake that he leaves behind, and it is a wake that will leave the waters muddy and swirling for years to come. What theologically conservative Christians must now fight against isn’t merely the problems people have with faith in Jesus, but the problems they have with the political agenda so synonymous with Jerry Falwell.
Fortunately, there are at least five ways to reclaim Jesus from conservative politics. “At least” because there are many more, but let’s start here:
1. Focus on how Jesus lived, not on what his politics might have been. For too long the discussion surrounding Jesus has been a debate surrounding what he would or would not have said about abortion or homosexuality or the death penalty. We need to refocus the discussion on the demanding things Jesus showed in his life – how best to serve others, how much money to give away, how many possessions to sell, how to live in the joy he promised.
2. Practice service, not politics. Instead of having political debates with those we hope will follow Jesus, practice radical service. Bring food, take out trash, warm their car in winter or wash their car in summer, bake brownies. Serve.
3. Avoid liberal politics. The best way to rescue Jesus from being so identified with the religious right is not to make him part of the religious left. Conservatives and liberals each have virtue in some of their policies. But if the goal is to reclaim Jesus from political conservatism, the answer isn’t political liberalism.
4. Lift up great spiritual leaders. If people say that all Christian political leaders are like Jerry Falwell, point them to the thousands that aren’t. Rick Warren is one example, Joel Hunter is another, Jeff Perry is another, Bill Shuler another, and your local pastor is probably one as well.
5. Be bold. Let’s not be afraid to say that we are Christians for fear that people will think that we are like Jerry Falwell’s public persona. The bolder we are about our faith – in saying that we are Christians and that we are trying to live our lives as Christians – the faster things will change. That isn’t because we are perfect – I’m not sure we could be further from perfect – but because in our imperfection Jesus is glorified.
The defining characteristic of the Christian faith is hope; hope in the unseen, hope in the goodness of God, hope in resurrection. So here, now, with the passing of Jerry Falwell, there is the chance to begin again the discussion of what it means to be a Christian, what it means to follow Jesus, what it means to sacrificially love others. If, out of that, more people come to know the Jesus of the Gospels rather than the Jesus of the GOP, then it may well be that Falwell’s ultimate legacy is that he helped lead people back to God. And that, I want to believe, is what he wanted in the first place.
- Southern Baptist leader Richard Land says Falwell was a “pioneer” for Christian causes
- Steve Waldman on Falwell’s ironic departure from American Christian history
- Deborah Caldwell on how Falwell divided her town…and won her over
- Falwell’s Legacy: Debates, Discussions, Blogs, and a Memorial