Jerry Falwell: 11 August 1933 - 15 May 2007
Jerry Falwell, founder of Moral Majority (1979), and mobiliser of possibly more than a million votes that helped to bring President Reagan to power in 1981, was identified by many as the voice of the American religious right. In his anti-abortion, anti-gay, pro-family views, he was an instigator of single issue politics for many religious voters, for whom politics became polarised between Republicans (representing Christian values) and Democrats (representing leftist atheism).
Yet as a pastor, he was not the strident personality he has come to be seen as by many. He built up Thomas Road Baptist church in Lynchburg Virginia from small beginnings (35 members) by visiting every house in the town twice, and intense personal investment in people, having a remarkable memory for members of the congregation even after it had become a mega-church of over 24,000. Falwell went on to found Liberty University (1971), and took over the PTL Club and Heritage USA from Jim Bakker, shortly before scandal threatened to engulf both along with their founder.
Mel White, friend and ghost-writer for Falwell, who 'came out' as gay, remembers a Falwell who was quite different in private from the public person who took up the banner of American personal and national morality. He also recalls a Falwell who was able to change his mind on issues on which he had taken a public position: such as opposing racial integration in the 1960's, calling Archbishop Desmond Tutu a phony 'as far as representing the interests of black people', and describing Mohammed as a terrorist after 9/11. White regrets that Falwell did not live to retract his public opinions on gay people, and say sorry for some of his public pronouncements.
White also lays to rest the calumny that Falwell opposed the BBC's teletubbies as undermining American family values, and his reputed belief that Tinky Winky was a gay role model because he carried a handbag. Apparently, when challenged about this, Falwell did not know who the teletubbies were.
To many, Falwell will be remembered as someone whose gifts as a pastor and preacher did not transfer well to the national arena, and as reflecting the dangers of identifying Christian faith too closely with partisan politics. He may be seen as embodying the dangers of adopting too narrow a view of morality - in which personal moral issues were stressed at the expense of social issues of poverty and injustice.
Perhaps as much as anyone, Falwell may have unwittingly prepared the way for a course-correction in popular American Christianity, in which a quite different set of views about public life as well as personal and communal faith has been developing - represented by gurus of the new religious 'left' such as Brian MacLaren and Rob Bell. His passing may come to be regarded as a milestone in the change of an era of popular faith - from fundamentalist narrowness to a more eclectic inclusiveness; from the certainties of modernism as transferred to the evangelical faith, to the more nuanced positions of a postmodern, post-evangelical era.