Apologizing to Jerry Falwell

By Dave Crater (crater@wilberforcecenter.org) The passing of the late Rev. Jerry Falwell, someone at whom many of the glitterati and literati even among ostensible conservatives still love to scoff, has, as passings often do, led many others (myself included) to engage in some real soul-searching concerning what this man was about and what we all should learn from him and his legacy. Consider this more a confession than an argument.

I’m ashamed to say – and this is my confession – that I once unthinkingly accepted much of the common claptrap about Rev. Falwell. I heard it so often, and from members of the glitterati and literati who were so well educated and well placed and well dressed that they couldn’t possibly be misguided, that I assumed it was at least partially true:

    Not intellectually respectable; prone to saying stupid things in public; representative of everything wrong with Christian America; front man for how silly and hopeless fundamentalist America is, and how autocratically governed by slightly-overweight white males it is; impediment to real Christian influence and respectability in the American public square; etc, etc.

This same claptrap is repeated all the time even by people claiming to be followers of Christ – and insinuated by still more who offer the lame but perfunctory “I didn’t always agree with him” qualifiers as they eulogize Falwell in public statements – but who, if they are indeed Christians, I began some time ago to suspect are at least less familiar with Christ’s actual life and teaching, and certainly less willing to bear Christ’s cross, than Rev. Falwell was.

For some strange reason this uneducated fundamentalist hillbilly’s legacy includes a 22,000-member evangelical church that he started in a basement, a major evangelical university and law school, and a national Christian activist infrastructure that was a major force in American politics for the decade he was leading it, but which has dwindled to much less since he left. For anyone else, this kind of organizational and influential legacy would be the very definition of respectable worldly success.

Imagine, for example, the glowing reports from the glitterati and literati we would be seeing if Barack Obama had started and led for decades a 22,000-member center-left church, founded a center-left university and center-left law school the size of Liberty University, or developed a center-left national grassroots network the size of the Moral Majority/Christian Coalition. The choruses of anointed hallelujahs out of Washington, New York, and Hollywood, and the star-power in attendance at his funeral, would ring for years.

Imagine, in turn, the soothing flatteries you would whisper to yourself if your own life had resulted in even a small portion of these accomplishments – albeit center-right and respectable accomplishments, not too right and certainly not too evangelical. For Rev. Falwell, this enormous legacy seems to be most prominent when it provides the visible, obvious evidence why we don’t want to be like him or even give the appearance of being like him, or, if we can help it, be involved with anything he created. That lawyer is a Liberty University grad? Well (snicker), I guess we know how that case will turn out.

I have spent many hours pondering this paradoxical curiosity since Falwell died. In hindsight, I think this visceral, nameless dislike resulted from Falwell’s unflinching, fearless adherence to a robust, worldview-sized faith that transcended right and left, entering irrecoverably and inevitably-controversially the ancient realm of right and wrong. You know, good and evil, angels and demons, and all that.

I further think the fact that the visceral, nameless dislike was and is so widespread among so many says more about the many than it does about the man. Certainly I confess it said more about me when I believed it than it did about him. Now I think it well illuminates the Apostle’s lament that the spiritual man judges all things rightly while he himself is judged rightly by no one (I Cor. 2:15).

So I say publicly and sincerely to all of you my witnesses – lest I allow too much time to pass between Rev. Falwell’s death and my confession and repentance regarding what I once thoughtlessly and sinfully believed about him – that I have asked God’s forgiveness and prayed He would be so clement and gracious as to raise up a few more heroes with the understanding, courage, and faith of Rev. Falwell, to sustain them against all the vitriol and ignorant hatred we will hurl at them in our pursuit of intellectual, social, and political respectability and success, and, just as a crowning, excessive grace, to also raise up a few stalwarts with the deep and spiritual kind of wisdom to ignore the vain, foolish praise and criticism of men and to instead judge these heroes rightly while they are yet alive on the earth.

An ambitious prayer, I know. But I still believe in miracles. Thank you for taking the time to witness my confession.