Jerry Falwell was a man. He was no less a carbon-based life form than you or I. We are all mortal, and death is only pretty in the movies. I hope that his was easy.
He made the world a worse, meaner and more divided place. He supported racial segregation during the civil rights years, when his constituency was the white South, but naked racism was not likely to get him where he wanted to go in national politics, so he had a conversion experience. Twenty years later, in the Reagan years, when our smiling former movie-actor president told lies about welfare queens and played dirty politics around the world, Falwell slandered Nelson Mandela, and urged his congregation to buy gold Krugerrands to support the Apartheid regime of South Africa. While Rev. Martin Luther King and Nelson Mandela went to prison for their beliefs, Rev. Fallwell dined with politicians and accumulated money and influence. Bigotry was a natural position for him, because his religion was based on salvation — that is, admission to the club of good people. If Falwell had to abandon color prejudice he just applied the techniques of dehumanization to other groups, such as homosexuals and feminists.
Jerry Falwell did not speak out on behalf of the poor. He tithed the poor. A small donation solicited from millions of radio or television listeners worked just fine, especially when added to big donations from right-wing groups he endorsed. I used to listen to his show, ‘The Old Time Gospel Hour’ on the radio when I did jewelry work in a factory. I remember his unctuous tone — he always dragged the word ‘businessman’ out to five syllables. He actually said that workers should not take breaks, because the employer was buying eight hours of time. I wondered if he had ever worked an honest day in his life.
He was more of a hustler than his rival, Larry Flynt. Jerry Falwell could take his obscenity nationwide and dine with presidents. Larry Flynt has to holler from the sidelines and make empty threats to out the same politicians who kissed Falwell’s ring. Falwell’s words earned him criticism, sometimes ridicule, but Flynt’s speech earned him a bullet in the spine and life in a wheelchair. Larry Flynt may be a vile waste of our health care resources, but I can’t say he has done more harm than Jerry Falwell. They are two sides of the same counterfeit coin.
Why did anyone ever listen to Jerry Falwell? He was worse than the guy who sells swampland in Florida. Jerry Falwell sold real-estate in Heaven. I work for the elderly and disabled, the poor and disenfranchised. They dig into their social security checks and send money to televangelists who use it to lobby politicians who cut their benefits. The world is full of lonely people who find their best friend on the TV. Outside their doors are neighbors and potential friends, but it’s a risk to deal with people. Down the street is their local church, but again, it’s a risk. The people in the church are sure to be difficult sometimes. How much better to bond with the fatherly preacher who tells you how much he loves you, and how dangerous it is in the world outside.
Jerry Falwell leaves this world surrounded by flowers from the politicians who counted on him for votes. Perhaps he sits today at the right hand of God. Or perhaps not. Perhaps he hears these words from the Almighty — ‘…when I was hungry you gave me nothing to eat, when thirsty nothing to drink; when I was a stranger you gave me no home, when naked you did not clothe me; when I was ill and in prison you did not come to my help…anything you did not do for one of these, however humble, you did not do for me.’ Matthew 25:31