Remembering Rev. Jerry Falwell

What Was It About Falwell That’s Supposed to be “Little”?

Michael Medved, 5/17/07

Secular militants have provided no shortage of intemperate, vicious, mean-spirited reactions to the death of Jerry Falwell but perhaps the most revealing came from Christopher Hitchens (author of a new book attacking religious delusions, “God is Not Great.”)

Interviewed by Anderson Cooper on CNN, Hitchens seemed oddly obsessed with repeatedly applying a single—and singularly inappropriate — adjective to the late Dr, Falwell.

In the course of the interview, Hitchens decried “the empty life of this ugly little charlatan…” and then asked “who would, even at your network, have invited such a little toad….” Shortly thereafter, he declared, “The whole consideration of this horrible little person is offensive to very, very many of us…” He also concluded that Dr. Falwell even counted as insincere in his religious faith, suggesting, “He woke up every morning, as I say, pinching his chubby little flanks and thinking, I have got away with it again.”

In what possible sense did Jerry Falwell count as a little man?

In the most obvious, physical sense Hitchens’ attempt to belittle Falwell might reflect the common envy of a small guy for a larger, stronger specimen. Aside from the late pastor’s obvious girth, he stood well over six feet tall. I’ve shared refreshments with both Falwell and Hitchens, and the Brit’s not bigger in any sense of the word.

Of course, Hitchens and his apologists might respond that describing Falwell as “little” denotes his ultimate insignificance, his limited intellectual, spiritual dimensions, not his physical size, but even here the dismissive term hardly applies.

As the driving force behind the emergence of the modern Christian conservative movement in U.S. politics, Falwell changed history – as even his most vitriolic critics concede. “The Moral Majority” which he founded played a crucial role in the Reagan landslide of 1980, and even more conspicuously led the way to the stunning, unpredicted Senate sweep that gave the GOP control of the upper house of Congress for the first time in 26 years. Twelve Republican challengers – most of them outspoken Christian conservatives – seized the seats of twelve highly entrenched Democratic incumbents (including such luminaries and former Presidential candidates as George McGovern, Birch Bayh and Frank Church). Liberals may lament the outcome of that watershed election but it’s impossible to dismiss its importance.

In other words, this purportedly “little charlatan” Jerry Falwell, managed to bring about a big shift in American politics – thereby qualifying as a major figure in all the battles of the Reagan Presiency and beyond. Everything about the man actually counted as big – big ambitions, big plans, big ideas, big impact. In addition to his well-known role in politics and media, Falwell qualified as a spectacularly successful institution builder. His Thomas Road Baptist Church, which he founded from scratch in 1951, now draws 22,000 members, and booming Liberty University (founded in 1971) educates nearly 8,000 students (more than Dartmouth or Princeton). Emerson once said that “any durable institution is nothing more than the lengthened shadow of one man.” In that context, Falwell counts as a big guy, with a big shadow.

There is one possible sense in which a major figure might be described as “small” – if even this powerful, influential individual comes across as petty, obsessed with trivialities, nursing grudges and slights.

Falwell possessed none of these characteristics of smallness, and managed to strike up unlikely friendships even with his political and religious adversaries. Opponents as diverse as Jesse Jackson and Larry Flynt remembered him on his passing as a “friend,” praising his graciousness and geniality while emphatically rejecting his ideology. Falwell engaged in frequent, sometimes furious battles in politics and pop culture but he did so, for the most part, as a proverbial happy warrior. The New York Times wrote in their obituary: “For all the controversy, Mr. Falwell was often an unconvincing villain. His manner was patient and affable. His sermons had little of the white-hot menace of those of his contemporaries like Jimmy Swaggart. He shared podiums with Senator Kennedy, appeared at hostile college campuses and in 1984 spent an event before a crowd full of hecklers in Town Hall in New York, probably not changing many minds but nevertheless expressing good will.”

The fact that some of Falwell’s critics displayed
so little good will on the occasion of his passing (“Ding Dong, Falwell’s Dead!” exulted a typical headline at CommonDreams.org) reflects their insecurity and bitterness, not their certainty. Religious believers feel no need to sneer and celebrate when a noted atheist leaves this life. If, as the skeptics believe, there’s no fate awaiting any of us beyond a future as worm food, then deeply religious people have no more reason to worry than their irreligious counterparts.

If, on the other hand, there’s a watchful God who’ll ultimately judge us all by Biblical standards, then the non-believers may face significant reasons for concern. No wonder an angry atheist like Christopher Hitchens reacts with such defensive fury to the very idea that Falwell (and, ultimately, the rest of us) will go on to some form of eternal reward.

Despite the effort to disregard him as “little,” Falwell qualified in every sense as a large figure– big hearted and cheerful, secure and sincere in his own faith, with enormous dreams and major impact. He never would have stooped to a cruel, small-minded, petty and pathetic publicity stunt like smearing one of his ideological adversaries on the very day that opponent died.

So who, then, is the real “little toad,” Mr. Hitchens?




Other remembrances:
Ann Coulter, Zev Chafes, Armstrong Williams
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8 thoughts on “Remembering Rev. Jerry Falwell

  1. Hmmm…Tends to gloss over his faults just a bit doesn’t it? I am not a big fan of the grave dancing that has gone on, but to paint this rosy picture of Falwell is just a bit of selective memory isn’t it? Personally I do think he was a divisive bigot, but is it ok to overlook that because he was a conservative?

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  2. Nobody’s saying we should overlook the bad. His 9/11 comment has been beaten to death, but it takes far more than an ill-considered (and apologized-for) comment to deem someone a bigot.What we are saying is that this was a sincere, good-natured man who left the world around him, on balance, far better than he found it.

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  3. I wasn’t even referring to his comments about 9-11. His comments alone about the gay community and glorifing AIDS as a punishment from God define him as a bigot. There is nothing good natured about that. Would Al Sharpton be described by conservatives who left the world a better place? Or Jesse Jackson? Falwell was every bit as divisive as those two.

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  4. Falwell preached that homosexual activity is sinful. If that’s the problem, then your quarrel is with Christianity, not Falwell. But as a Christian, Falwell also believed “love the sinner, hate the sin.” I’m sure the real Reverend (not the pshycho charicatures put forth by creeps like Hitchens) believed with every fiber of his being that gay PEOPLE deserve dignity & compassion.As for AIDS, is it really that much of a stretch to think that a disease which is virtually impossible to contract from anything other than certain willful conduct is connected to Biblical prohibition on such conduct?Right or wrong, it seems to me the worst that can be said of this talking point is that Falwell wanted to warn people of (what he sincerely perceived to be) a dangerous consequence of certain activity.Al Sharpton & Jesse Jackson won’t be described as leaving the world in better shape because their entire careers are devoted to preaching victimhood and racial resentment. Their records are simply incomparable to Falwell’s. Even so, I highly doubt there’ll be conservatives in positions of respect who celebrate their deaths – and if there are, you can be sure the rest of us will call them on it.

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  5. I’m sorry but to pass off his hatful and bigoted statements as simply being a “Good Christian” is a little disgraceful…with all due respect, to those who truly are “Good Christians”. I know you pride yourswelf on your strong beliefs and Ideals, but I would hope you could see hatred for what it is…even when it disguises itself as a self-proclaimed Man of God. I won’t deny that I have no use for Religion as a whole. I have never made up my own mind about a higher power, part of me thinks it is possible. I saw a bumper sticker once that read “I Have nothing against God, its his fanclub I can’t stand”. That 10% part of me that lends to the possibility of a higher power can’t help but think if there is one, he would have to think Organized religion has really messed up their message. You say my beef is with Christianity, that is only the case if Christianity openly preaches hatred, and bigotry as part of its Dogma.

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  6. That’s just it, I don’t think you can Divorce the two. You don’t say hate Murder and not the Murderer, hate pedophilia but not the pedophile, in those examples the action and the one committing the act are never disassociated. Yet when it comes to homosexuality I am supposed to assume that some christains are going to seperate the act from person? Human Nature says otherwise, and when one preaches that, they are in fact preaching hate…hate this person, for the hateful act they have committed.

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  7. Not even close! Every thinking (yes, even us Christians) person understands that murder & pedophilia are in a vastly-different category than homosexuality!Actually, human nature is rather straightforward in that it’s very natural to view offenses HARMING OTHERS differently than offenses that either harm ONE’S SELF or one’s personal standing in God’s eyes.The reason we combine the act with the person regarding murder/pedophilia/etc. is precisely because we understand that committing evil against OTHERS shows a window into a uniquely-depraved soul.

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