J Walking

Jerry Falwell has died, and so the discussion begins.

Usually words about those recently passed are whitewashed to extol every virtue and ignore every vice, but Jerry Falwell’s position and life demand as honest an examination as possible.

Three Sundays ago Jerry Falwell stood up in from of Thomas Road Baptist Church and gave a sermon entitled, “The Indestructibility of God’s Servant.” It was a beautiful sermon about the storms that life brings and the God who is there throughout:

We are to expect storms. Eventually every saint will know the choppy waters of disappointment, the swelling tide of discouragement, the howling wind of defeat and the darkened skies of death. They are to be expected…. But God is in control. He holds not only the saint in His hand, but also the storm.
To the saint, Jesus says, “Peace”.
To the storm, Jesus says, “Be still”.

It was Jerry Falwell at his best – a pastor well versed in the Bible’s words speaking God’s peace and assurance to the biggest problems.

Two Sundays ago, Jerry Falwell, from the same pulpit, began his sermon telling a joke about how Osama Bin Laden had been killed, sent to heaven, and gotten the tar beaten out of him by Madison and Washington and Monroe. It was, Falwell said, the fulfillment of his destiny – eternity with 72 Virginians – not virgins. Then he said this:

Which reminds me of another story from Washington last week reporting that Chelsea Clinton had interviewed some Marines just returning from Iraq. She asked one Marine, “What do you fear most?” He quickly answered, Osama, Obama and your Mama”.

This was the worst of Jerry Falwell, using Jesus’ pulpit for his own angry “Christian” conservatism.

It is ironic and a bit sad that the man who stood on the sidelines during the civil rights movement–saying pastors needed to preach Jesus, not politics–became the leading person marketing Jesus for political ends in the 70s, 80s, and 90s, and that he will be remembered not as a great spiritual leader but a powerful political one.

But that was the choice he made over and over again. Falwell’s Moral Majority became synonymous with Christianity in America, so that today, many people confuse the particular political stance of the Christian Right with the message of Jesus Christ.

The night of Ronald Reagan’s first election to the US presidency, Falwell went on television and made it clear that Reagan owed his victory to the Moral Majority and they were going to make sure he delivered. The next morning at a rally at his Liberty Baptist University, Falwell was introduced to the tunes of “Hail to the Chief,” the theme reserved for the President of the United States.

Politically, Jerry Falwell achieved and failed beyond his wildest dreams. On the one hand, he helped create the Christian conservative movement as we know it today – the single most powerful electoral coalition in American politics, and the movement that made the “Republican Revolution” of 1994 and President Bush’s 2000 and 2004 presidential wins possible. He helped bring Christians who felt they had been cast to the fringes of the American political process front and center. The more voices we have front and center the better.

But he also failed…greatly. Roe v. Wade is still on the books and abortion, despite battles at the fringes, is an entrenched part of American life. I don’t think Falwell could have imagined that thirty years ago. He also failed because the statistics say that he failed. In the last 30 years divorces are up, drug use is up, family formation is down, out-of-wedlock birth is through the roof, and on and on.

Changing politics, Jerry Falwell discovered, didn’t change the soul. Only God can change souls.

And therein lies his complicated spiritual legacy. Jerry Falwell helped heal more people and save more families than anyone in the media has ever reported. He was, after all, the pastor of a church and as such he pastored his flock faithfully.

But he also helped define Jesus for much of America today, and his definition does not do justice to the Jesus of the gospels. When people hear the word “Christian,” too often they think not of Jesus and his teachings but of Jerry Falwell and his politics. I know of a lot of Christians who don’t like to refer to themselves as “Christians” because they are afraid of the Falwellian association.

That’s Jerry Falwell’s mixed legacy. He lived as a Christian, but he also caused confusion about what it means to be Christian.

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