In the mid-1970s, as Jerry Falwell built his empire in Virginia, I was a child in rural Pennsylvania, a place often described as the northern Bible Belt. Many a night, my family drove along the back roads listening to AM radio as it picked up signals from all over. Sometimes we heard a New York talk show or a Boston baseball game—but usually we’d listen to the “Old Time Gospel Hour” and its preacher, Jerry Falwell.
The sermons became a family fascination. We were amazed at the invective he’d throw at anyone he deemed liberal. Astonished that he brazenly asked listeners for donations to build a fundamentalist juggernaut. We couldn’t believe he’d ever succeed.
But then a new church came to town. Soon we learned the new congregation, Liberty Baptist Church, was an offshoot of Falwell’s. The pastor, a Liberty University graduate, began making waves with pronouncements against other Christian groups. He wrote critical letters to the weekly newspaper and confronted pastors at town meetings. People were stunned. Hurt. And ultimately, because of Falwell, they divided.
Rural Pennsylvania is, and was, among the most conservative and Republican of places: the GOP holds a 3-1 edge, and there are more churches per capita there than anywhere in the nation.
So 30 years ago, Falwell saw in places like Pennsylvania fertile territory to expand his empire. There he found like-minded cultural conservatives—but he didn't find many fundamentalists. The kinds of Christians who lived in rural Pennsylvania didn’t care if every single word of the Bible was true. They didn't care if politicians were Biblical literalists. And they certainly didn’t question who was “saved.”
And that’s why Christians in my town turned against each other. Those who were swayed by Falwell's preaching aggressively went after those who weren't. They tried proselytizing first; if that didn't work, they criticized, often publicly. Many people personally stung by criticism of their faith. They attended church on Wednesday night and Sunday mornings, volunteered, stayed close to their families, and lived godly lives. Even as a teenager, I was repelled by Falwell and his ilk.
In those days, I rode the bus to school and would often see a girl who belonged to Liberty Baptist Church. Every morning, she made it her business to grill fellow students about the state of their souls. One day I sat next to her and she asked: “Are you saved?”
“Yes,” I replied, and then launched into a theological debate with her. Twenty minutes later, as we pulled into the school parking lot, I turned to her and said, “Good luck.” She replied, “I don’t believe in luck. I believe in Jesus.”
A couple years later, Falwell formed the Moral Majority and helped get Ronald Reagan elected president. By the 1980s, he was a political kingmaker and national icon.
His influence continued in my hometown. Liberty Baptist Church boomed. Other new politically active churches sprang up and organized members to run for local office. The Pennsylvania GOP came to be dominated by conservative Christians. Churches conducted massive voter registration drives and round-the-clock election prayer vigils.
But by 1999, Falwell had become a bit of a buffoon. Early that year, he suggested the Antichrist was alive and was a Jewish man. Then he announced that the Teletubby Tinky Winky was a subversive gay rights symbol. Around then, my editors at the Dallas Morning News decided it was time for me to talk with Falwell. I flew to Lynchburg to spend the day with him, not knowing what to expect. I was obviously not a fan. Would he be scary? Would he be a big jerk?
Instead, he charmed me. I rode around Liberty University with him at the wheel of his Chevy Suburban, cackling as he pretended to plow over undergraduates in his path. Students approached to introduce boyfriends and girlfriends, to have their pictures taken with him.
Over lunch he talked about his grandchildren, who called him "Poppy." He said it was OK with him that students watch R-rated movies and wear jeans outside class. He even thought a little hip-hop wasn’t all that bad.
Falwell still didn’t back down from arguments over abortion, gay rights, secularism, evolution, and anything else he deemed remotely liberal. In fact, he said, he loved the controversies.
"But 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," he said.
The part about making friends stuck with me. I was still angry at how his followers had caused so much hurt--unnecessary hurt--among Christians in my hometown. I knew first hand of people battered by his hateful statements--Jews, Muslims, other Christians, gays. Yet I found I couldn't resist him. He was polite. Sincere. He even seemed--and I know this sounds crazy--kind.
He told me he was working on a formal transition plan so his successors would know how to run the ministry when he died. He hoped the Lord would give him 10 more healthy years to finish his life’s work.
He didn’t get all 10 years, but until the end, he still believed in the Old Time Gospel. He still loved a good argument. And he still knew how to make a friend.