[I am working on a project that may become a book on the most influential evangelicals leaders of our generation, since 1976, and the impact they’ve had on the church and their times. I will introduce them briefly on this blog from time to time. Who should be on this list?]
# 10 Jerry Falwell. Fundamentalist 1933-2007
The most visible evangelical for most of last 35 years was the ample, amplified preacher from Lynchburg, Virginia, who the media turned to for the predictable fundamentalist voice on every possible issue. Jerry Falwell was a larger than life figure who couldn’t say ‘no’ to a television camera, and took liberals to task in every possible forum. A pastor at heart, he built Thomas Road Baptist church and its ministries into one of the largest churches in the country (now pastored by his son). Falwell was beloved by his friends, family, and even many of the foes who had the opportunity to meet him. He was difficult to hate up close; many ideological opponents found it easy to despise him from a distance.
Rev. Falwell lived life large and he was well-loved by many and much-maligned by most. For several years I served as one of his public relations counselors—though certainly not his primary one—during some of his best and worst moments. I remember him fondly and I honor his faithfulness, even as I recognize—more than most—the flaws that taint his memory and embolden his critics to dishonor him.
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 diverse people in need, such as unwed mothers and the down and out; these are people that those who saw the familiar visage of this stalwart fundamentalist 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 Christian 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 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.
While I disagreed with the reverend on many things, I appreciated his faithful engagement and the substance behind the bluster. He was an American original and an important voice in our times.