In the main building of the Liberty University campus in Lynchburg, Va., there is a Jerry Falwell museum.
The first exhibit you see when you walk through the door is devoted to Falwell’s father. Carey Falwell was a nonbeliever, a successful entrepreneur, a hoodlum, bootlegger and gunman who shot his own brother dead two years before the end of Prohibition — not the kind of family skeleton usually put on public display by a university founder.
But the Rev. Jerry Falwell, who started Liberty University in 1971 and grew it into the largest evangelical institution of higher learning in the land, was not an ordinary college president. He was, first and foremost, a Baptist minister, and his Corey Falwell exhibit was meant to convey that even the son of a sinner can become a man of God.
It was also a not very subtle reminder that Falwell came from tough stock. He was a Christian who couldn’t be counted on to turn the other cheek.
When I mentioned this to Falwell, whom I met a number of times while writing my last book, he readily agreed. Falwell gloried in his common-man persona, and he viewed himself as a roughneck compared with his lifelong rival, the Rev. Pat Robertson. Known to his friends as “Doc,” Falwell was a man who didn’t mind laughing at himself — or at his fellow evangelicals. (One of the country’s leading Pentecostal figures broke off relations after Falwell publicly sneered at her effort to heal a chicken through faith. “We Baptists don’t save chickens, we eat them,” he told her.)
No chicken was safe within Falwell’s grasp, and he liked them deep-fried. I’ve dined with him several times, and he ate with the aplomb of a fellow whose cardiologist was Jesus. A pre-millennial Baptist, he believed that God sorted things out in God’s own time. He also expected to go to heaven.
Falwell was a theological fatalist but a political activist. If this seems like a common combination today, that is largely due to Falwell himself. Before he came along, evangelical Christianity was inward looking. The Baptists, especially, had been badly burned by the failure of Prohibition and the mockery of the Scopes trial, and turned away from politics during the first half of the 20th century. As a young preacher, Falwell asserted that the church had no business getting involved in such issues.
“I meant well, but I was wrong,” he wrote in his autobiography. This change of heart was one of the many unintended consequences of the Supreme Court’s 1973 Roe v. Wade decision. It galvanized Falwell. He got into politics not out of love but out of hatred for “abortion, the drug traffic, pornography, child abuse and immorality in all its ugly, life-destroying forms.”
Falwell founded the Moral Majority in 1979 with a four-point program: “pro-life, pro-traditional family, pro-moral and pro-American.” The movement’s domestic conservatism transformed the Republican Party for a generation (today, Rudy Giuliani seems to be the un-Falwell), but Falwell had no illusions about the nature of his victories. “Look at the culture overall, and secular progressives are winning,” he told me. “They have been for 50 years, and they probably will until Jesus gets here and sorts things out.”
Falwell had a similar view of international relations. He believed that God had a plan for the United States of America and that its enemies were evil. He referred to Muslim radicals as “barbarians” and advocated taking out Iran’s nuclear capacity by force. “Bush is probably too weak politically to do it,” he told me over barbecue one afternoon. “It will be up to Israel. And we’ll be at the White House, cheering.”
Falwell’s Zionism was by no means inevitable. Before him, evangelicals reluctantly acknowledged that the Jews were God’s chosen people, but many didn’t quite agree with the choice. Falwell embraced the Jews of Israel (who appreciated his friendship) just as he embraced American Jews (who, by and large, spurned it). He could be acerbic about the Jewish leadership — he called Abraham Foxman of the Anti-Defamation League a “damn fool” and pointedly told me that the comment was on the record — but he never let Jewish hostility shake his philo-Semitism. American Jews who now take evangelical friendship for granted need to know that it is, to a large extent, a grant from Jerry Falwell.
Falwell was always aware that he was under scrutiny. He hated crooked TV preachers like Jim Bakker, and he didn’t have much use for hypocrites like Ted Haggard, either. He was married to the same woman for nearly 50 years. He took in millions of dollars during his lifetime without a scandal — not bad for a televangelist.
Not everything Falwell said and did was commendable. He sometimes said stupid things, like his famous crack that 9/11 was the product of American immorality. He knew he was wrong, and he said so (just as he apologized for the segregationist views of his youth). Not every man of God has “I’m sorry” in his vocabulary. He never apologized for his beliefs, though, or his tough partisanship. He was a born-again Christian, an American and a Republican, in that order, and if you didn’t like it, well, there were plenty of other places you could spend Sunday morning.
I once asked Falwell about his legacy. We were, naturally, having lunch, in a Liberty University dining room. “This university has 10,000 graduates in pulpits and church boards all over the country,” he said. “There will be more every year. They’ll carry on.”
Zev Chafets is the author of many books, including the recent “A Match Made in Heaven” (HarperCollins), about the relationship between the Christian evangelical movement and American Jews.
This article also appeared in the Los Angeles Times.