Jerry Falwell lived life large and he dies well-loved by many and much-maligned by most. Unlike the many who feel free to mock him even as his friends and family are in the hours of their immediate grief, I knew Rev. Falwell. I served as one of his public relations counselors during some of his best and worst moments. I choose to remember him fondly and to honor his faithfulness, even as I recognize—more than most—the flaws that taint his memory and embolden his critics to dishonor the dead.
Falwell’s greatest accomplishment was his leadership of a large and expansive church, Thomas Road Baptist Church, where many are saved and served. The church’s outreach extends to many, such as unwed mothers and the down and out; many that those who saw the familiar visage of fundamentalists only on talk shows would never believe he had any care for at all.
His message of unwavering fundamentalism became unpopular and easily criticized in modern America, but Falwell never changed. That served him well as a bellwether of the right. His downfall was his more than occasional public carelessness, and his inability to stay away from a microphone or a camera when he could do no good for himself, his cause, or the God he served.
Unfortunately, by the late 1990s it was nearly impossible for any moderation or substance to penetrate his caricature as a southern, overstuffed, intolerant buffoon.
I’ll remember Rev. Falwell as a kind and generous man with an easy laugh and a better vision for America than the nation seemed to have for itself. I was never his primary counselor or a close friend, but I was nearby and involved when media relished reports in one of his publications on Tinky Winky, the gay Teletubbie (blown out of context, but he deserved the firestorm because he refused our counsel to ignore media requests for comment).
And I helped him write his late apology for his callous comments following the attacks of 9/11, when he failed to see that it was time for a pastor’s voice, not a prophet’s rage.
I remember his willingness to reach out to Mel White, his former ghostwriter who began an organization to extend the voice of gay Christians. It was hard for him to stretch toward this natural adversary, but he did so when many others would not.
I disagreed with the reverend on many things, but I appreciated his faithful engagement and the substance behind the bluster. He was an American original and an important voice in our times. I extend my sympathies to his family, and the many families of Thomas Road, Liberty University and beyond that lived happily in his shadow and flourished because of his inspiration.