Jerry Falwell, the evangelical preacher, who founded the Moral Majority, as well as Liberty University, died on May 15, 2007.
There were many things I liked and respected about Dr. Falwell. He built elementary schools and homes for single mothers; he helped alcoholics, the homeless and AIDS victims. He sent money to help the poor and sick in Africa. He built up a large university. When he debated Larry Flynt on TV, I remember he conducted himself with great dignity, generosity and humor.
I hope that he will be remembered for these things at least as much as for the pain his pronouncements over the years caused homosexuals, pagans, witches, abortionists (in his words), blacks and many other groups of varying ontological status.
Mind you, I say that as a childless divorcee, skeptical occultist, ethical pagan, and heterodox Christian whom Dr. Falwell would no doubt have consigned to the flames of hell.
Like most people today my primary difficulty is not with believing, but with not believing. Believing comes altogether too easily. The world – whether seen through the lens of science or through our own eyes – is so complex, variegated, fluctuating, and contradictory that we are ever more disposed to grope for certainty in areas where it may most be an illusion.
Some would say that Falwell’s fundamentalism was of that nature.
But there are other credulities besides religious ones.
How much easier and more comforting to our perpetually aggrieved sense of fairness, for instance, to think that all beliefs – if held with sufficient good will – are the same, all convictions equally plausible, all systems of economics – if only tried with good faith – equally productive.
How easy and – often – how wrong.
Jerry Falwell, for all his flaws – and they were clear enough – was not flawed in that way.
His beliefs were narrow. But by his lights and the lights of many who are fundamentalists, it was the narrowness of the way to eternal life preached in the gospels.
Progressives, who like to sample only what they find most palatable in Jesus’ teachings — like walnuts in an unfamiliar salad — have a tendency to ignore his words as they have actually come down to us. And no wonder. Taken literally (and that, I suppose, is why they are rarely taken literally), they would stick in our craws.
This is the Jesus who once said the gospel was for “the children” of the house (Israelites) and not for the “dogs.” (Samaritans). He may have stopped the adulteress being stoned, but he didn’t deny she was an adulteress. As for the Pharisees, the liberal, well-educated elite of his day, he routinely called them a nest of vipers for the hundred sophistries and metaphors with which they got around tedious religious rules. Jesus often seemed tiresomely literal to them, as well.
And he seems to have lived in expectation of an apocalypse too, even if he also died without seeing it.
But, of course, you will say — that was Jesus. This is Falwell.
And you would have made your point. Jesus was often deliberately opaque, ironic; he iced the sting of reproof with parables, poured compassion over the wounds his words inflicted and made his point as often with artistic silence – at crucial moments.
Falwell was rarely silent, and even more rarely artistic.
But among the many offensive quotes I see attributed to him, I have so far seen nothing that was much more than a blunt, unlovely articulation of some text of Christian or Jewish scripture.
If that is hate speech and potentially discriminatory under the law, as his many detractors claim, then we must outlaw substantial portions of the major religions.
Certainly those portions of the Old and New Testaments, which classify homosexuality among abominations, advocate killing diviners and witches, and celebrate crushing your enemies’ babies on rocks; which relegate women to subordination even in matters of conscience, and – like Falwell – attribute natural calamities and plagues to the wrath of a touchy deity. As a Christian, I speak of the Bible, but I’ll warrant that there are few scriptures that are entirely innocent in these matters.
Words, whether we think they come only from Jerry or directly from Jahweh, can offend.
They can cause immense pain. Ironically, Falwell himself suffered that pain once, very publicly. Pornographer Larry Flynt published a revoltingly nasty parody of a liquor ad, which had Falwell describing his “first time” with his mother in an outhouse. In 1988, in a seminal decision (Hustler Magazine Inc. Vs. Falwell), the Supreme Court overturned a lower court’s decision to award the preacher damages for emotional pain, strengthening even further the protection of free speech about public figures. It was satire, said the justices, and satire has a venerable history, especially in America politics. To limit it would cast a pall over public debate.
Many applaud that decision unhesitatingly. It goes without saying, in our secular world, that pornographic imagery of that sort (I refuse to give it the great, good name of sex) – however maliciously intended – is never harmful in any ‘real’ way, and we are nothing if not realists…..or so we think.
Oddly, the also realistic CIA – whom no one could accuse of swooning sensitivity in these matters – thinks differently. By the 1960s, it had come to regard “no touch” torture – among which sexual humiliation occupies a prominent place – as more damaging than conventional physical torture in the long run. It “leaves deep, searing psychological scars on both victims and — something seldom noted — their interrogators,” writes Alfred McCoy, (The Hidden History of CIA Torture: America’s Road to Abu Ghraib, 2004).
Falwell was not directly injured in the same way, of course. But it seems at least odd, if not downright confused, to argue that the very malicious public humiliation of a religious figure respected by a large segment of the population is not
a real injury to him and his followers, while the strong but not vicious articulation of hoary religious doctrines about pagans and witches, for instance, is a real injury to those groups – one that borders on discrimination so powerful that it needs to be outlawed as hate speech, as some have suggested.
That’s to say, a woman like me – qua believer – is supposed to be devastatingly injured if a Jerry Falwell tells her she can’t get to heaven while reading astrology charts. (His heaven, by the way, is presumably something she either doesn’t believe in, to begin with, or if she does believe in, thinks has different entrance requirements).
Yet, the same woman – qua woman – is supposed to be serenely untouched, if not actually enthused, when a Larry Flynt concocts imagery depicting her violently humiliated in pornographic terms. And this schizophrenia is usually to be found in the same progressives for whom sexuality and gender is supposedly a much more serious business than theological doctrine.
There’s no denying that religion has often had a history of subordinating some people to others nor that we are right to regard religious dogma with suspicion when it imposes itself on non-believers through the mechanism of the state. But there are other dogmas besides religious ones. And, allied to the power of the state, they can become quite as oppressive.
It was not overtly in the name of Christianity, after all, but in the name of secular, universal values that the American government bombed Orthodox Christians and Muslims in their own countries in recent years.
It may be time to recognize that some dogmas, whether religious or secular, might be mutually exclusive and it is our refusal to recognize and respect that exclusivity that has led to the current sorry state of political debate. Yet, respect we must. For, while it is impossible to meld irreconcilable beliefs without changing their natures, what is not impossible is to co-exist peacefully as people, while admitting that our beliefs are irreconcilable.
For that to happen, precisely defining religious belief or artistic expression or political speech is less important than cultivating a will to extend generosity to even our most fervent opponents. Style is more essential here than substance.
Jerry Falwell, after all, did disavow hatred for any group, even while he characterized them in accordance with his religious beliefs. And, to all appearances, those beliefs were sincerely held.
It is double-think of the worst kind, then, to label this express disavowal of hate as “hate,” unless you have proof of some kind of disingenuousness. And if you misused language in that way, what right would you have to feel injured if you heard the same Orwellism issue from the mouth of some right-wing talk show host who characterized your own viewpoint about gender or economic policy as “man-hating” or “class warfare”?
None at all.
Here is a modus vivendi easily available to anyone willing to try some agon-istic respect. Left-wing critics of Falwell could simply look at what the preacher said as a form of art. Perhaps a subsidy from the government would even be forthcoming. And fundamentalists could simply think of sexual liberalism as a distinct dogma and let it enjoy the protected status of a minor church. They might then be able to argue against a religious establishment in the public sphere with better success than they have until now.
Some of Falwell’s critics would do well to take a leaf out of his book and at least profess to love fundamentalists no matter how much they hate fundamentalism.