Jerry Falwell, fundamentalist, dead at 73

Jerry FalwellThe news of the Rev. Jerry Falwell's death will undoubtedly receive mounds of additional press coverage beyond what is currently out there. Two news organizations that have a tendency to influence the rest -- The New York Times and The Associated Press -- have already weighed in and their reports are worth a close look. The question that is nearly impossible to answer conclusively is what Falwell's death means to religion and its involvement in American politics (The Economist asks which presidential candidates and Bush administration officials will show up at the funeral). That theme will no doubt be onstage during tonight's GOP debate in South Carolina. Four candidates -- Romney, Giuliani, Huckabee and McCain -- have already released statements.

Consistent in both the AP and Times obituaries is the reference to his fundamentalism. Since Falwell was himself personally independent from any religious denomination, it's difficult to describe his brand of religious faith in a way that is not too broad or too specific as to risk inaccuracy.

However, since Falwell was a self-described fundamentalist, the descriptor works for us and for those who care about the Associated Press Stylebook.

Here's more from the Times obituary by Peter Applebome:

Mr. Falwell grew up in a household that he described as a battleground between the forces of God and the powers of Satan. In his public life he often had to walk a fine line between the certitudes of fundamentalist religion, in which the word of God was absolute and inviolate, and the ambiguities of mainstream politics, in which a message warmly received at his Thomas Road Baptist Church might not play as well on the NBC Nightly News.

As a result, he was a lightning rod for controversy and caricature. He apologized, for example, after televised remarks suggesting that the 9/11 terrorist attacks reflected God's judgment on a nation spiritually weakened by the American Civil Liberties Union, providers of abortion and supporters of gay rights, and after he called Muhammad a terrorist. He was ridiculed for an article in his National Liberty Journal that suggested that Tinky Winky, a character in the "Teletubbies" children's show, could be a hidden homosexual signal, because the character was purple, had a triangle on its head and carried a handbag.

But behind the controversies was a shrewd, savvy operator with an original vision for affecting political and moral change. He rallied religious conservatives to the political arena at a time when most fundamentalists and other conservative religious leaders were inclined to stay away, and helped pulled off what once seemed the impossible task of uniting religious conservatives from many faiths and doctrines over what they had in common, rather than focusing on the differences that kept them apart.

The whole Teletubbies incident deserves mention, of course, but a few more details would help in fleshing out exactly what happened and how Falwell ended up being "ridiculed." Was his church ridiculed for saying that Tinky Winky may be a homosexual character and some parents might want to know about that, or was it because everyone knew this anyway? Who was doing the ridiculing?

Falwell's passing comes at an interesting time, because while no one will doubt that he had a powerful role in creating the movement known as the religious right, the 2006 election and the current (atypical) state of disarray in the 2008 GOP presidential nominating process makes one wonder what became of the movement that Falwell helped ignite. We will also never be able to find out whether Falwell would have declined to endorse Mitt Romney, a Mormon, over someone like, say, Hillary Clinton.

While we can expect statements in tonight's newscasts and print stories from folks like Matt Foreman of National Gay and Lesbian Task Force, it will be interesting to see if statements like this one from the Rev. Bob Edgar, general secretary of the National Council of Churches, receive coverage:

"Some media pundits tended to think of Falwell as representative of American Christianity, but most church leaders, while claiming him as a 'brother in Christ,' strongly differed with many of his outspoken views, including his puzzling denunciation of the Teletubbies children's TV program," said the Rev. Bob Edgar, General Secretary of the NCC.

"He did perform the valuable contribution of taking stands that forced mainstream Christians to re-examine their positions and test their convictions," Edgar noted.

Wait, so you're telling me that Falwell did not represent American Christians? I would take that a step further and urge reporters to dig into the details that will show that Falwell not only failed to represent American Christians in general, but that he did not represent the entirety of American evangelical Christians. He was, in fact, a fundamentalist, and that is probably the best way to describe him.

On a final note, reporters should resist placing Falwell as someone who was close to the Bush administration unless they have good evidence for it.

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