Falwell without pity

FalwellCrossPulpitBoth Time and Newsweek have chosen to bid farewell to Jerry Falwell with one-page essays on whether Falwell's death also means trouble for the political involvement of conservative evangelicals in politics. Newsweek's Howard Fineman leads with how much Falwell loved his Lear jet -- an oddly materialist choice for an obituary, but you have to start with something. Still, Fineman clearly is among the journalists who came to know enough of Falwell the man to see more than the bombastic public figure.

In Time, Michael Duffy and Nancy Gibbs write this pithy lede:

The son of an agnostic bootlegger, Jerry Falwell found Jesus at age 18 but didn't find politics until much later -- and when he did, he was no fundamentalist. His great American invention was not the marriage of religion and politics, since they hadn't lived apart in the first place. It was that he married political friends with religious enemies in pursuit of a common goal.

For the most substantial funeral-day reading about Falwell, one cannot top The New Yorker's online reprint of "A Disciplined, Charging Army," Frances FitzGerald's lengthy report (nearly 37,000 words) from May 1981. FitzGerald's essay is a profile not only of Falwell but also of his church, of Lynchburg and the politely Southern tensions between the church and its host city.

There are two strong examples of those tensions. Note the naked classism in the second example:

"Look how they park!" one householder on Thomas Road exclaimed, pointing to two cars carelessly pulled up on the lawn of a neighbor's house one Sunday morning. "They think they're justified in doing anything they want to do."

. . . "It's a laboring church," said one of the five businessmen who had been on the committee to straighten out the church's finances -- the president of the First Colony Life Insurance Company. "There's no participation in it by community leaders, and that is probably why it is so successful. The nonachievers have to have something to be proud of, and they are proud of their church and contribute handsomely."

At points FitzGerald's tone is as precious as every odieresis in The New Yorker's pages. She's terribly fond of the scare quote, especially to distance herself from Falwell and his followers. Here's a partial list of the phrases that qualify for scare quotes:

"Bible-believing" "born-again Christians" "Christian" school(s) (5) "family" issues "immorality" "inspirational" singing "moral issues" (4) "morally conservative" Catholics "saved" (5) "scientific creationism" "secular humanism" (4) "the family" "the world" (2)

Such an exotic and indecipherable language they use down at Thomas Road Baptist Church!

That said, FitzGerald's essay is the most thorough treatment I've ever seen of Falwell, apart from books.

The New Yorker updates FitzGerald's work by publishing a brief Q&A with her. My favorite moment in the Q&A is FitzGerald's response when Blake Eskin asks what has happened to Falwell since 1981:

Falwell quit being a fundamentalist in the strict sense of that word and joined the Southern Baptist Convention.

Politically, he was eclipsed, as Pat Robertson has been. Part of the problem is that both of them have what many people would consider rather exotic theological views; for example, after 9/11, Falwell said that the attacks were a judgment on the American people -- or on gays or feminists. It sounds shocking to most people, but he deeply believed that American morality is in decline and God punishes sin. Also, conservative evangelicals tend to interpret all crises or catastrophes as a sign of the beginning of the end times. So he was speaking to his audience when he said this. But then other people overheard him, and he and Robertson often had to retract and say, "We didn't mean that." James Dobson, the head of Focus on the Family, who's now the most powerful figure in the religious right, is not himself a pastor, so he tends to use secular language and avoids these problems.

The generalizations are still too sweeping, but FitzGerald's work certainly is worth reading, especially tomorrow, when this deeply complicated man is laid to rest.

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