Fri, 18 May 2007
I am usually a person who likes to think through an issue before commenting on it, particularly when the issue is as emotional as the passing of Jerry Falwell. So, I chose not to jump immediately into the discussion until I had adequate time to process through the news and sort out my true feelings.
I was in high school during the so-called "rise of the Religious Right," for which Jerry Falwell is being given a lot of credit. It was during this time that there was a seeming explosion of religiously-based programming on national television, giving the likes of Jim and Tammy Faye Bakker, Jerry Falwell, Pat Robertson, James Dobson, and Jimmy Swaggart a place in the national spotlight. Evangelism on television was nothing new, as Norman Vincent Peale, Billy Graham, and Robert Schuller had been in front of television cameras for many years prior.
What was different about this era was that not only was each person preaching his own narrow interpretation of the Bible as the one and only truth, but he was also mixing politics and religious teaching in a way that had not been as prominent as before. The movement had been there for many years, but the scope of the national audience was considerable, and the attention given it by the national media was just as considerable. Financial and sexual scandals erupted within several of the ministries, and indeed some of the televangelists ended up having to exit their national spotlight, only to have others like Falwell step into that empty space.
In many ways, Jerry Falwell was as much an opportunist as he was any kind of leader. He quickly got involved in the aforementioned PTL Club scandal after it was revealed that Jim Bakker had an extramarital affair and that PTL Club funds were mismanaged. Money which was supposed to go to starving children in other countries went instead to fund air conditioned dog houses, expensive cars, and the financial propping-up of the Heritage USA theme park operated by PTL. Jerry took full advantage of the opportunity to look like the PTL's savior by announcing his intentions to raise enough money to get PTL out of its impending bankruptcy. His efforts included a live broadcast of his riding down one of the water slides in a full three-piece suit--his way of thanking donors for sending a reported $20 million in to help PTL settle its debts. As theatrical as this effort was, the ultimate fate of Heritage USA was to be shut down and the property has subsequently changed hands multiple times.
The water slide event would be just the beginning of Jerry Falwell's love for theatrics and seemingly desperate attempts at keeping his place in the national spotlight. His foundation of the Moral Majority forged an alliance with the Republican Party and solidified a connection between religious fundamentalists and political conservatives that survives to this day, although there have been recent rumblings that the Republican Party considers its fundamentalist Christian base more of an albatross than an asset.
Falwell's attempts at self-promotion continued with his vocal support of the first war against Iraq. People of Falwell's ilk talked of this being the biblical battle of Armageddon, and they awaited what they considered the inevitable return of Christ to the earth to fight the battle on the behalf of the United States and the other allied nations. Falwell rode this renewed wave of publicity, freely giving out his opinions whenever a camera lens and microphone were within his reach.
His righteous indignations continued as Bill Clinton defeated George H. W. Bush in the 1992 presidential election, and his sermons of fear and hatred toward progressive thoughts were a likely contributor to the subsequent Republican takeover of Congress in 1994. His self-righteousness never wavered throughout the manufactured scandals concerning Clinton's sex life which eventually led to Clinton's unsuccessful impeachment. It is hard to blame Falwell for being so vocal, as he did not always find the cameras as friendly as they had been during the Reagan presidency.
Falwell's hatred and fearmongering are still recognized as one of the major contributing factors to the rapid spread of the AIDS pandemic. In the early days of the crisis, Falwell declared AIDS to be "God's revenge" against homosexuals, and his influence may very well have led to foot-dragging on the part of the Reagan administration when the opportunities for research on the causes and cures of the disease were presented. The revelation that AIDS was not exclusive to the LGBT community was brushed aside, and efforts to teach preventative measures were scoffed at if they did not speak exclusively of abstinence. Falwell's influence arguably had the far-reaching consequence of too many people dying from a disease that could have been slowed down while a cure was being found. Falwell enabled a genocide to happen against a significant portion of the population, a legacy for which he never showed an ounce of shame.
In his later years, Falwell continued his desperate attempts to maintain his place in the public consciousness, often to his detriment. In the days following the events of September 11, 2001, he went on fellow evangelist Pat Robertson's 700 Club television show and made the following remarks:
"I really believe that the pagans and the abortionists and the feminists and the gays and the lesbians who are actively trying to make that an alternative lifestyle, and the ACLU and People for the American Way—all of them who have tried to secularize America—I point the finger in their face and say 'You helped this happen.'"
It should be noted here that Falwell's jab at the ACLU would turn out to be hypocritical, since he was enlisting the aid of the organization in a legal challenge to a Virginia law making the incorporation of a church illegal, but that was the least of his worries. Falwell received a much-deserved and much-delayed rebuke from the George W. Bush administration, prompting a half-hearted apology from Falwell.
Falwell's remarks in the aftermath of September 11, 2001, were hardly unique, as he frequently directed his hatred toward the same groups he enumerated. He responded to Ellen DeGeneres' coming out by referring to her as "Ellen Degenerate." He referred to the Muslim prophet Mohammed (peace be upon him) as a "terrorist." Falwell remarked that the Antichrist character would come back as a male Jew. It would seem that Falwell hardly missed an opportunity to offend if it meant he could keep resetting his Warholian "15 minutes of fame" timer.
As I read some of the initial reports of Jerry Falwell's death, I found that he had been raised in a home environment that included an abusive, alcoholic father, as well as a religiously devout mother. His embrace of religion and his quest to be a minister could be seen as his way of escaping that past, but his choice of using religion to abuse others could be seen as bringing his past with him. Perhaps the combination of the two contributed to a warped view of the role of religion in people's lives, and possibly informed his behavior. I am not giving him an excuse, because he was an adult, and perfectly capable of dealing with his demons. His public behavior would lead one to believe that the demons were still there, and he was quite comfortable with them, as long as it kept him from fading into obscurity.
Falwell has already been memorialized as a figure singularly responsible for changing the face of politics, whether or not he is truly worthy of that accolade. In my mind his legacy will one day be seen for what it really was: a desperate, lifelong attempt to compensate for an abusive upbringing, the classic pathology of passing the abuse on to the next generation, and encouragement of others to do the same. This is a legacy that deserves to die along with him.
Category:Extras -- posted at: 11:17am EDT
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