On the Passing of Jerry Falwell

In The Nick of Time
Reporters are not given to apologizing. They are the sort of people who can stick a microphone in the face of a mother as she is being notified of her child’s death. They like controversy, they delight in conflict, and they love any event that will make a story. For reporters to apologize is the rarest of events, usually reserved for occasions when they are caught plagiarizing or blatantly lying. This fact underlines the significance of the reporter I heard the other day.

The reporter was actually apologizing. He was sorry, he said, to have to spend so much time reporting this story. And he meant it. He was clearly chagrined. But he explained that, according to the polls, it was the biggest story of the day. That’s right. All day. He had to report it.

The story was that Jerry Falwell had died. The reporter was obviously uncomfortable having to talk so much about the controversial Falwell, even to report his death. I began to wonder—why the reluctance?

Was it because Falwell was a controversial figure? That makes no sense—the press loves controversial figures. Controversial figures sell papers and airtime. Even the death of Timothy McVeigh was reported at length and without evident embarrassment. So why the reluctance to report Falwell’s passing?

Was it because Falwell was a religious figure? But the press felt no discomfiture in reporting the death of John Paul II. Can anyone believe that the death of Jesse Jackson would be heralded with anything but a eulogistic ecstasy? So why the apologies for reporting the death of Falwell?

Was it because Falwell was an obscure figure? Hardly. Jerry Falwell founded and pastored one of the largest churches in the country. He established and presided over a successful university. He launched a political action group that engineered the election of two presidents and changed the direction of the United States.

Like all public figures, Falwell had enemies. A major political organization (People for the American Way) was founded specifically to oppose him. He was lampooned by Hustler, Penthouse, and Saturday Night Live. The press loved to dwell on his every foible or misspoken word. But obscure he was not.

Is it possible that the establishment media are embarrassed by the fact that Falwell was a fundamentalist? With their Ivy League Ph.D.’s and their massive networks, with their persistent distortion of the facts and their overt support of a Leftward political agenda, the combined mainstream media never gained the public sway that this (largely) unlettered preacher managed to exert.

Falwell was a preacher, first and foremost. Although the sun never set on the empire of his influence, his vocation was always to be a pastor, to stand in the pulpit, and to proclaim the Bible. All of his political and educational endeavors ran a distant second to Thomas Road Baptist Church.

The media loved to call Falwell a fundamentalist, but they were largely ignorant of the controversy that he provoked among fundamentalists. Indeed, he virtually invented a new kind of Fundamentalism, so different from the older varieties that there was debate about whether it should even be called by the same name. The differences were two in number.

First, Falwell eschewed much of the separatism that had characterized the fundamentalist movement. He reacted (or overreacted) against the increasingly fissiparous Fundamentalism of his day by denying the legitimacy of ecclesiastical separation among believers. He was not the first to articulate that position—John R. Rice had argued for it at some length. Nevertheless, he was the most successful opponent of what is sometimes called “secondary separation.” Aided by two younger protégés, Ed Dobson and Ed Hindson, he took his objections to the fundamentalist public, first in the book The Fundamentalist Phenomenon and then in a slick, four-color magazine called the Fundamentalist Journal. When he organized the last Fundamental Baptist Congress in 1984, he opened the doors for conservative Southern Baptists. Later on, he himself moved into the orbit of the Southern Baptist Convention. His was certainly a different kind of Fundamentalism.

Second, Falwell was a political activist who sought influence in the mainstream. The activism was not new: fundamentalists like Carl McIntire and Billy James Hargis had built whole ministries around political causes. But they were reactionaries who defined themselves as voices of protest. Falwell took the initiative in building a coalition of conservatives from all sorts of religious backgrounds. He seized the popular causes that characterized conservative politics in the 1980s, drawing people together around those causes. His success was phenomenal.

Not all fundamentalists approved of Falwell’s political involvement. Some thought that a preacher should not be a political activist. Others thought that the confusion of Christianity with politics would ultimately dilute the faith. Still others objected to a coalition that included evangelicals, Catholics, Mormons, and other conservatives, particularly when the coalition was founded in the name of morality and religion.

Those two issues—separatism and political activism—will doubtless continue to be debated by fundamentalists. What no one can question, however, is that Jerry Falwell was the most visible fundamentalist of his generation. When average people think of Fundamentalism, they likely think of Falwell.

Falwell could say stupid things, just as we all can. He could make mistakes, such as his temporary stewardship of the empire built by Jim and Tammy Faye Bakker. But he lived above scandal in a way that few public figures have managed. His financial dealings were always aboveboard. His conduct around the opposite sex (and, for that matter, around those of his own sex) was irreproachable. His doctrinal moorings were secure and unwavering. We may disagree with some of his ideas (I do), but we can be grateful for his integrity.

Jerry Falwell is gone, and not everyone is sorry. By any standard, however, he has to be reckoned a great man. More than that, he was a modest man. He was bold when presenting his ideas but meek in his person. Perhaps that is what the press simply cannot fathom. But I still struggle with the question: Why the reluctance to report Falwell’s death? Why the embarrassment?

Thou Who Createdst Everything

Anonymous (13th century)

Translated by Donald Davie

Thou who createdst everything,
Sweet Father, heavenly King,
Hear me—I, thy son, implore:
For Man this flesh and bone I bore.

Clear and bright my breast and side,
Blood over whiteness spilling wide,
Holes in my body crucified.

Stiff and stark my long arms rise,
Dimness and darkness cloud my eyes;
Like sculpted marble hang my thighs.

Red my feet with the flowing blood,
Holes in them washed through with that flood.
Mercy on Man’s sins, Father on high!
Through all my wounds to thee I cry!

Kevin BauderThis essay is by Dr. Kevin T. Bauder, president of Central Baptist Theological Seminary (Plymouth, MN). Not every professor, student, or alumnus of Central Seminary necessarily agrees with every opinion that it expresses.
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