Former Falwell aide reflects on a controversial and productive life

Jerry Falwell and Nelson Keener about 1980

Last week I had a cup of coffee and a good visit with Nelson Keener,  my friend and former colleague on the Prison Fellowship senior mangement team in the 1980s.  We’re many years from our work together, but we share many friends and experiences and it is good to discover where our paths have taken us during the subsequent years.

Nelson, who served as a key aide/assistant/chief of staff to Jerry Falwell before joining PF (similar to the role I had with Chuck Colson for many years), wrote about Falwell when his former boss died in 2007.  His thoughts parallel many in my consideration of Falwell as part of my series on 50 evangelical leaders

Nelson wrote in his hometown paper, the Lancaster (Pa) Intelligencer Journal:

They say there are no heroes to a valet. But, Falwell was an amazing person. Observing his vision, energy, stamina and intelligence sometimes made me wonder if he was superhuman. No, not divine; he would be the first to disclaim that.

His legacy is that he founded and built, literally from scratch, the largest evangelical Christian university in the world. In the process he developed an enormous and strong support base. Conversely, he also attracted dissenters who vocally and sometimes physically opposed his viewpoints.

Since his death I’ve read a baker’s dozen of op-ed columns about Falwell. Most — not all — by journalists who take issue with his politics, theology and methods.

I attended Falwell’s funeral with thousands of people who knew and admired him, or at least respected him —neither of the two factions, each at opposite ends of the spectrum, seemed to understand why the other viewed Falwell the way they did.

Maybe Mel White and Larry Flynt did understand. White, a ghost writer for Falwell who later disclosed he was gay, and Flynt, the infamous publisher of Hustler magazine, provided rather tempered and reflective interviews in the days following Falwell’s death. Both men’s agendas were antithetical to Falwell’s. Yet it seems White and Flynt understood Falwell for who he was.

They seemed to genuinely like Falwell and cared about him in spite of their sparring and disagreements. I attribute this to their lives having intersected with Falwell’s over many years as both adversary and friend, not necessarily in that order.

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About Jim Jewell

I am a writer and consultant on faith and public life, active for many years in management and communications in the evangelical community. I now work as the director of the nonprofit practice at The Valcort Group (www.valcort.com). Everything on this blog, however, is my personal opinion and is not read or approved before it is posted. Opinions, conclusions and other information expressed here do not necessarily reflect the views of Valcort.
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