Falwell, Jerry

A Divisive Legacy

I am disappointed in Jim Wallis' commentary about Jerry Falwell ("Falwell's Legacy," July 2007). Wallis says Falwell "did help to teach Christians that their faith should express itself in the public square …." Wallis seems to negate the generations—even centuries—of Christians who advocated for an active, public faith. Even in his own time, Falwell was surrounded by the likes of Martin Luther King Jr., William Sloane Coffin, Billy Graham, and countless other local examples of publicly active Christian men and women. Maybe Falwell brought new life to the evangelical movement, but I would suggest that what he brought was a desire for power, often couched in divisive religious language.

He did indeed help redefine the term "Christian" in our day—in ways that have increased the divisions within the church and society. He was passionate, but one has to wonder where the passion was directed. No doubt many were inspired by him. But let's remember that for most of the last two decades, Falwell was out of the mainstream of any Christian tradition—quoted because he was reactionary and sure to provide a bizarre headline. Please, let's not forget that many have urged us to be active in the public square as Christians—evangelical, orthodox, mainline, progressive, emerging, etc.

Winton Boyd
Madison, Wisconsin

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Sojourners Magazine September/October 2007
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Falwell's Legacy

I watched much of the cable television coverage of Jerry Falwell's death and legacy. And I did a lot of grimacing, in response to the uncritical adulation of his allies (who passed over the divisive character of much of Falwell's rhetoric) and also to the ugly vitriol from some of Falwell's enemies (who attacked both his character and his faith). There were even some who attacked all people of faith. I ended up being glad that I had passed up all the invitations to be on those shows. On the day of Rev. Falwell's death, I was content to offer a brief statement, which read:

"I was saddened to learn that Rev. Jerry Falwell passed away this morning at age 73. Rev. Falwell and I met many times over the years, as the media often paired us as debate partners on issues of faith and politics. I respected his passionate commitment to his beliefs, and our shared commitment to bringing moral debate to the public square, although we didn't agree on many things. At this time, however, what matters most is our prayers for comfort and peace for his family and friends."

Jerry Falwell, in his own way, did help to teach Christians that their faith should express itself in the public square and I am grateful for that, even if the positions he took were often at great variance with my own. I spent much of my early Christian life fighting the privatizing of faith, characterized by the withdrawal of any concern for the world (so as to not be "worldly") and an exclusive focus on private matters. If God so loved the world, God must care a great deal about what happens to it and in it. Falwell agreed with that, and he blew the trumpet that awakened fundamentalist Christians to engage the world with their faith and moral values. That commitment is a good thing. Falwell and I debated often about how faith should impact public life and about what all the great moral issues of our time really are.

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Sojourners Magazine July 2007
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Osama and Me

Rev. Jerry Falwell's highly publicized declaration on 60 Minutes in October that "Muhammad was a terrorist" was hateful, ignorant, arrogant, irresponsible, and destructive. Once again, the self-appointed spokesman for Christianity was so far out of bounds that he was compelled to issue an apology (of sorts) when his words were directly tied to violent outbursts in India that resulted in numerous deaths.

Falwell's statement came in the context of an interview in which he clearly implied that he and his constituency control President Bush's policies toward Israel and Palestine. The remarks were repudiated by a variety of Christian leaders, but great damage had already been done.

These inflammatory remarks continue a clear pattern of pronouncements that Falwell, Pat Robertson, Franklin Graham, and others have made since Sept. 11, 2001. Time and again, these and others have declared Islam to be an "evil religion" and asserted that Christians and Muslims are not talking about the same God. Rev. Jerry Vines, former president of the Southern Baptist Convention and senior pastor of a 25,000-member church in Jacksonville, Florida, attracted national attention last June when he proclaimed Muhammad to be "a demon-possessed pedophile."

These kinds of verbal assaults on Islam and the prophet of Islam do far more damage than most Americans realize. They feed extremism among Muslims who want to frame conflict as being between Christians and Muslims. Such hateful statements literally put Christian missionaries and humanitarian aid workers at risk all over the world. Pompous proclamations undermine or destroy efforts many Christians and other people of good will make to build bridges of understanding and cooperation, often in the midst of very difficult circumstances.

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Sojourners Magazine January-February 2003
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Seduced by Power

Everybody loves to quote the famous dictum by Lord Acton, "Power corrupts, and absolute power corrupts absolutely." Heads nod all around, and then everyone ignores what the wise old Englishman said. Power does indeed corrupt human beings: It compromises principles, it quiets conscience, and it mellows morality. Power tells us to just get along, instead of getting upset; it encourages us toward smooth sailing, and discourages us from rocking the boat.

But it’s bad theology to say that power, per se, is always bad. The Bible speaks of the power of God, the power of the gospel, and the power of truth. The New Testament word dunamis means "spiritual power." Even political power (which is what Acton was really talking about) isn’t always evil. Look at the moral power and authority that Nelson Mandela exercised to free South Africa or the power of the civil rights movement which changed the landscape of American life. Yet power, and especially political power, is very dangerous. It’s often riddled with the hubris and illusion to which we all are so susceptible.

Human beings seem not to handle power very well. Of all people, religious leaders ought to know that best. Instead, religious leaders are often among the most easily corrupted by power, especially when they get close to political power. Doug Coe, the father of the prayer breakfast movement, once told me that the best way to get religious leaders together was to invite them to a meeting with a powerful political leader. He said most church leaders generally ignored Jesus’ suggestion to take the humbler places at a banquet and wait until they are invited to "come up higher." Instead they jostle for the best positions and places at the events where the powerful gather.

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Sojourners Magazine November-December 1999
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