Wednesday, May 16, 2007

Jerry Falwell

Jerry Falwell, long-time pastor at the 24,000-member Thomas Road Baptist Church in Lynchburg, Virginia, passed away May 15, 2007. He was 73.

Like many prototypical American characters, the broad outlines of Reverend Falwell's public life could have been sketched by American novelist and social critic, Sinclair Lewis. In his 1922 novel, "Elmer Gantry," Lewis describes the rise of a midwest preacher who emerges triumphant from each crisis in his life to reach ever greater heights of social status.

In the Gantry tradition, Falwell's rise was punctuated by a series of seemingly career-ending public gaffes, most involving demonization of those he characterized as opponents, but which, in the end, served to rally his followers behind him and draw ever-increasing numbers of people to his ministry, confounding his many critics.

Unlike the fictional Gantry, Reverend Falwell's private life was exemplary. Together, he and his wife, the former Macel Pate, raised three children.

Falwell's early life and ministry were marked by his strong support of racial segregation and he often spoke out from the pulpit and elsewhere in support of what many criticized as racist views and racist figures. This was not unique for his place and time. In later life he reportedly changed his views; at least, he no longer publicly advocated legal segregation and seemed content in public in avoiding serious discussions about race.

Critics of Falwell point to his seemingly uncanny ability to pinpoint and inflame socially divisive issues, profiting from the resulting publicity. Defenders argue he was merely expressing the strong moral viewpoints shared by his followers. Personal motivation aside, it can be accurately stated that he was adept at dividing people in the wider community on a range of controversial issues, rather than in bringing them together.

Whether it was his increasing moral fervor or the lure of power as the ultimate aphrodisiac, Falwell was drawn to expression of his controversial views in the political sphere, throwing his organization and burgeoning financial assets behind political candidacies and causes that paid at least lip service to his espoused moral agenda, encompassing such far flung issues as human reproductive freedom, sexual identity, church-state separation, scientific theory, and national security. Most often, his support went to the Republican party which, for some reason, seemed more attuned to his style and outspoken opinions. In return, he often adopted conservative Republican economic and business issues, adding their advocacy in exhortations to his followers.

It should be noted that Reverend Falwell was certainly not unique among American religious leaders for his political activism, a venerable tradition throughout American history, nor in his selection of divisive issues, nor in his cultivation of prominent politicians.

Reverend Falwell was a gifted, often mercurial public speaker who left no one who heard him in doubt about his stance on any issue he addressed. In public, he was also an engaging if formidable conversationalist, often displaying humility and stubbornness, kindness and accusation in the same sentence, something of a standard tour de force for him. He was seldom without a smile.

Reverend Falwell will be missed by friend and foe alike, probably for different reasons. Digg Stumble Upon Toolbar propeller Furl

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