Resquiat in pacem, Jerry

Yesterday I turned on the radio to find the host and an interviewee talking about someone who was obviously a leader of the old guard of the religious right. The verbs were all in the past tense. So I quickly surmised that either Jerry Falwell or Pat Robertson had died. But I had to wait a few minutes, until the segue to the next segment, to learn which it was.

Since then, there has been a lively and congenial discussion going on through my church's unofficial e-mail forum about Falwell's legacy. Some hold him in high esteem and regret the bum wrap he's gotten in much of the popular media; others, while respecting the man, his family, and his faith, have serious concerns about some of the choices he has made in presenting the Christian faith and the evangelical movement to a watching world. I am more in the second camp than the first, but I must admit to a soft spot for Jerry in certain respects. This article that Christianity Today has pulled out of the archives as part of its obituary package gives a glimpse of Falwell as a human being, rather than as a two-dimensional political talking head. (As it originally appeared in the magazine, this article featured a great picture of Falwell crowd-surfing at a Liberty University pep rally.)

With many of my evangelical brothers and sisters, I have cringed when Falwell opened his mouth in front of the cameras, and muttered about the journalists who lacked either the subtlety or the initiative to deepen their Rolodexes in "conservative Christian" category and find some new voices to represent our diverse movement. But you can't really blame them for being lazy. Jerry loved to take their calls, and could be counted on for good sound bites. He considered it part of his calling to answer when the journalists called, and was on friendly terms with many individual representatives of the so-called atheistic left-wing media.

My impression of Jerry changed, however, when I watched him appear on an episode of the now-defunct show Politically Incorrect. (My grandmother was still alive at the time, because I remember talking with her about it, so it has to have been more than nine years ago.) Jerry was something of a regular on the show, and I was fascinated that the "atheistic left-wing media" was inviting so outspoken a right-wing believer into their midst, while at the same time being somewhat wary about what Jerry might say to embarrass us.

On this particular episode, the host, Bill Maher, made no pretense of objectively moderating a discussion between the four as-diverse-as-possible panelists. The other three guests were quickly shut out of the conversation altogether, as Maher put Falwell on the spot, laying into him for his exclusivist, hateful stances and tactics. Falwell didn't take the bait. He responded by reiterating that the gospel he preached was one of grace, that all have sinned, that Jesus Christ came into the world to save sinners, of whom I am the greatest ... in short, he gave one of the most direct statements of the heart of the gospel that I have ever heard on mainstream television. Jerry's ultimate motivation for answering those journalists' calls and accepting the invitations to be on talk shows where he knows he'll be lampooned was quite clear: he was keeping his eyes open for any chance to proclaim the gospel.

I prayed that there would be among the nationwide audience of that TV show some who might have ears to hear. But I feared that Falwell's other statements and political actions had already so undermined his credibility that words of truth would not find their way home when they came from his mouth.

This is why I have quietly hoped for some time that Falwell and Robertson would voluntarily withdraw from the spotlight, to let a younger generation of Christian leaders without so much baggage take a turn at the microphone.

I do think the media image of Jerry Falwell is not quite fair, although I don't place the blame for that on biased journalists. Falwell knew how the media worked. There were plenty of times he could have stood to be more savvy in negotiating the spotlight he so relished. "BAPTIST PREACHER DECLARES THAT JESUS LOVES YOU AND DIED TO SAVE YOU" doesn't make the headlines. "BAPTIST PREACHER IDENTIFIES TELETUBBIES WITH HOMOSEXUAL CONSPIRACY" does. Jerry's life was much more about the former than the latter, but I expect that the Teletubbies flub will get more play in the obituary coverage than the message of the cross. The good news just isn't news anymore.

But Jerry never tired of telling the old, old story. And for all his political posturing and public gaffs, I know he loves my Savior. And I love him for that.


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