In Falwell's case, I'm unwilling to do that. So much of what's being said about him is incomplete. It's generally considered bad form to speak ill of the dead -- at least, the recently dead -- but in the case of some few truly lousy people, there's is no more fitting closing chapter. The pretty words said about him are lies, while the truth damns him. And if there's ever a moment for truth, it's in those closing sentences. They are the summation, the denouement. No one can escape the truth forever -- we all, eventually, must stop running. Jerry's footrace with history is lost now and it's time to see what's caught up with him.
Of course, there are plenty who want to keep running for him. John McCain joined the race almost as soon as he heard the Great Man had died. "I join the students, faculty, and staff of Liberty University and Americans of all faiths in mourning the loss of Reverend Jerry Falwell," his press release reads. "Dr. Falwell was a man of distinguished accomplishment who devoted his life to serving his faith and country."
The Nation's John Nichols wonders how John McCain defines the word 'accomplishment':
Distinguished accomplishment? Would that be when Falwell regularly featured segregationists Lester Maddox and George Wallace on his Old Time Gospel Hour television program in the 1960s? When he condemned the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. and referred to the civil rights movement as "the civil wrongs movement"? When he opposed sanctions against South Africa's apartheid regime in the 1980s? When he produced an infomercial in the 1990s accusing President Clinton of orchestrating murders of journalists and political critics, even though he would eventually admit that "I do not know the accuracy of the claims"? When he attacked Teletubbies character Tinky Winky as a gay recruitment tool? When he asserted that the Antichrist "must be, of necessity, a Jewish male"?
In short, Falwell's great accomplishment has been his ability to consistently choose the wrong side of history. McCain called Falwell an 'agent of intolerance' when he was still concerned with telling the truth -- i.e., not running to be Caesar Bush III. He's since distanced himself from that statement, as his 'straght talk express' heads away from all the inconvenient straight talk.
Ceasar Bush II isn't any more honest in his assessment of Falwell. "Laura and I are deeply saddened by the death of Jerry Falwell, a man who cherished faith, family, and freedom," a White House press release reads. Falwell for freedom? There's a laugh. He made a career trying to limit freedom. Falwell's entire political philosophy was a laundry list of things you should not be allowed to do. Falwell, like Bush, liked to talk about freedom a lot, but he didn't really have much use for it.
He began his career as he ended it -- as a professional bigot. In 1958 he said in a sermon, "The true Negro does not want integration... He realizes his potential is far better among his own race... It will destroy our race eventually... In one northern city, a pastor friend of mine tells me that a couple of opposite race live next door to his church as man and wife... It boils down to whether we are going to take God's Word as final."
Having lost the fight against integration and interracial marriage, he moved on. But not before embracing apartheid in South Africa. While others were pushing for divestiture to defund the system, Falwell was urging his faithful to buy krugerrands -- gold coins issued by the South African government -- to support the government's policies and make up the losses caused by the divestiture movement. Segregation was still alive in one corner of the world and, as long as it survived, there was a chance it'd come back to the US.
Even his faith was phony. Falwell founded Liberty University and soon found that financing it was a little more than he could handle. In 1994, Falwell accepted $3.5 million from cult leader Sun Myung Moon to bail out his college. Moon claims to be the messiah and routinely describes Jesus Christ as a 'failure.' That unfortunate fact didn't stop Jerry from accepting the money from his new friend. Hypocrisy in the name of Christ was a virtue, not a sin.
There really isn't enough room here to get you to truly appreciate what Jerry Falwell really was. It'd take a book -- there's just so much. The homophobia, racism, misogyny, antisemitism, and just plain hate that he stood for will not die with him. He founded the religious right and the ideas he advocated will continue to be fought for long after his death.
Yet, like his embrace of segregation, his issues, beliefs, and philosophies will lose. Hatred always fails, eventually. The world moves on and the bigots are left behind in the dust.
The world hasn't lost anything with death of Jerry Falwell. The movement he started doesn't need him anymore. It'll keep going. So the world hasn't gained anything either. That'll happen when these fights he started, but couldn't finish, are lost.
If you find any of what I've written offensive or in bad taste, let me ask you one question -- what part of it isn't true? Falwell's life speaks for him and it's hard to look at history and find anything redeeming about the man. His life has been one of hatred and lies.
It's a pity that won't be marked on his tombstone.
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