It will most likely turn out that Jerry Falwell didn’t die for our sins, but for his own. Specifically, not watching his health and paying attention to his diet. There’s also the possibility that if you serve up regular portions of such things as homophobia from deep inside your own being, the acid content of the material in that well eventually eats away at your system and causes irreparable harm.
I’m not certain that his passing will significantly slow the forward motion of the forces he united with his anointment of a so-called “Moral Majority,” but it seems reasonable to hope that it will bring a lengthy review of the period when the religious right began calling the tune for the political right and the ensuing phase in which the political right exploited that bond for power. Unfortunately, we’re still wrestling with phase two.
The last time I caught Falwell at work, I watching cable very late at night. I landed on one of his relig-o-mercials featuring him in the position where he was always the most effective… looking right into the camera and suggesting that redemption was as close as a phone donation away. There was also a bonus involved, although I can’t remember now if it was a vial of miracle water or a rock or a keychain or some other trinket that reduced faith to home shopping.
It’s no coincidence that Falwell’s empire included a campus called Liberty University. His success was a direct result of American freedoms and liberty, even as he spoke in ugly, pointed ways meant to rob those same freedoms from others. When Falwell made cloddish and bigoted comments immediately after 9/11, he took freedom of speech and his position in the media dome to a breathtaking new place. His hubris in believing he had any relevance whatsoever after the attacks hit like a fourth plane. In so many ways, he was a trailblazer who made a point of setting fire to the trail.
I was watching CNN at the very moment they first announced that Falwell had died, and their struggle to find something good to say about the man was nothing less than epic. These pleasures will be fleeting. A legacy that might redeem Falwell somewhat in the eyes of those that suffered most directly from his abuse of religion would be an interlude in which we at last seriously contemplate whether we’re ready to peel the clammy hand of evangelism off the back of our government and administrate America with 21st century alacrity instead of asking political candidates where they stand with God.
But reframing our political culture with the religious right out of it will take more than Falwell’s passing. It will take selflessness and caring that was never evident in the dialogue Falwell initiated with America. It will require choosing humanity over any and all was simplistic dimensions of TV-ministry “morality.” It will mean letting smart people who have interest in public office talk smart and stop apologizing for it. It will ask that the media not take the bait when politicians distract with attempts to define love and marriage while thousands die overseas. It will require us to say, “We’re not playing that game anymore, the one that turned us against our own sons and daughters.”
Several years ago, I was at a public golf course and was joined at the first tee by a father and his 20-something son. Somewhere around the third tee, the son revealed that he was a student at Falwell’s Liberty University and that his father was a teacher there. They were calm, peaceful people, but they wouldn’t stop asking me if I attended church and what my relationship was to Jesus. I wasn’t going to be rude and walk away, so I did my best to dialogue with them although their questions were overly personal for a round of golf. I remember that the father was a good golfer and beat me at nearly every hole. However, at no point did either of them attempt to take over the golf course.