The Rev. Jerry Falwell, who died this week at age 73, was one of those figures who constantly attract the media’s scorn. It comes with the territory when you’re either a biblical literalist, a political conservative, or someone not shy about taking a sword to liberalism’s sacred cows. Falwell fit all those categories, making him a three-time loser to journalists whose taste in religious leaders runs more along the lines of a Desmond Tutu or a William Sloane Coffin.
While much of what had been said about Falwell was unfair or even untrue (the 1980 remark by Baptist bigwig Bailey Smith that “God almighty does not hear the prayer of a Jew” was for years afterward erroneously attributed to Falwell by Jules Witcover, Jack Germond and other liberal reporters), there’s no denying he had a habit of giving his opponents the rope with which they happily attempted to hang him.
A prime example of Falwell’s foot-in-mouth disease came in January 1999, when his remarks concerning the Antichrist spoken of in the New Testament touched off a mini-brouhaha, particularly in Jewish media circles.
While the Christian Bible makes no reference to the ethnic background or nationality of this anticipated false messiah, there are those – Falwell apparently was among them – who believe that by definition he will have to be a Jew, in order to be a perfect counterfeit of the Jewish Jesus.
While it can be argued that such a belief is not, in and of itself, anti-Semitic, the imagery conveyed is uncomfortably close to that of the centuries-old Christian (particularly Roman Catholic) portrayal of the Jew as the literal embodiment of Satan. However unwittingly, Falwell was guilty of dredging up some dangerous old symbolism.
It wasn’t the first time Falwell had exhibited a certain carelessness with his remarks about Jews; once – during a sermon on the sin of anti-Semitism! – he told his congregants, “I know a few of you here today don’t like Jews. And I know why. He can make more money accidentally than you can on purpose.”
An innocuous statement in a Jackie Mason monologue, perhaps, but something less than amusing when coming from a church pulpit.
Falwell burst onto the national stage in 1979 with his formation of the Moral Majority, an organization dedicated to scaling back the excesses of post-1960’s America and restoring a more traditional social order.
Scorned by urban sophisticates, the Moral Majority nevertheless became part of a national conservative wave that in 1980 swept the ineffectual Jimmy Carter out of Washington and brought Ronald Reagan into the White House.
The pastor of a large church in Lynchburg, Virginia, Falwell offered a sober contrast to many of the other media-savvy evangelists who came to fame in the 1980’s. Unlike Pat Robertson, Falwell never claimed the ability to change the course of hurricanes or make cancerous tumors disappear.
And unlike Jimmy Swaggart, Jim Bakker, James Robison (who once told an audience that “an anti-Semite is someone who hates Jews more than he’s supposed to”) and other television preachers who eventually had their moral and ethical shortcomings exposed, Falwell managed to keep his nose clean and reputation intact.
Falwell also distinguished himself with his all-out support for the state of Israel. While older well-known evangelists like Billy Graham, Oral Roberts and Rex Humbard were equally pro-Israel, they rarely raised the issue.
It was Falwell who made Israel a personal cause, injecting himself into the debate over U.S. foreign policy in an unprecedented manner. When Israel bombed Iraq’s nuclear reactor in June 1981, Prime Minister Menachem Begin spoke with President Reagan only after he’d first made a phone call to Falwell, asking him to “explain to the Christian public the reasons for the bombing.”
Falwell, whose feelings for Israel were reflected in oft-repeated statements such as “To stand against Israel is to stand against God” and “God has raised up America for the protection of the Jews,” honored Begin’s request with his customary gusto, outdoing even many Jewish leaders in his defense of Israel’s action. (That same year, Begin ignored protests by liberal Jewish groups and presented Falwell with the Jabotinsky Award.)
Though Falwell dissolved the Moral Majority in 1989 and went on to devote much of his time and energy to his Lynchburg-based Liberty University, he remained politically outspoken, drawing widespread criticism for suggesting just days after 9/11 that the attacks were at least in part provoked by feminists, abortionists, gays, and organizations like the ACLU – a statement for which he subsequently apologized.
And to the end of his life he was steadfast as ever in his support for Israel.