The Ironies of Falwell

This is the 369th M.E.M. Sightings (archived since 1999). At forty lines each, that means there have been 14,720 lines, only seven of which — in a 2001 and a 2005 column — were devoted to Jerry Falwell. Our calculators tell us this means he thus received 0.000475543 percent of our space. If he has been the Religious Right’s number one televangelist, entrepreneur, university builder, and politico, accuse us not of overdoing comment on that Right. We resolved early on not to over-comment on over-done subjects that need no one to do any “sighting.” We also ducked most media requests for comment last week when Falwell died.

Still, Falwell’s passing demands some comment. He is best viewed from the perspective of what has been called “historical” or “(Reinhold) Niebuhrian” irony. In such irony a human agent — in this case, Falwell — acts, forgetting that while his humanness commits him to acting with an intention to use his knowledge, power, security, and virtue, his ignorance, weakness, insecurity, and vice compromise or even counter the intention. Niebuhr liked to quote Psalm 2:4: God “who sitteth in the heavens shall laugh.” We’ll leave to others the assessment of the degrees of knowledge, power, security, and virtue that are in the Falwellian legacy.

Let’s look instead at the ironies. No one did more than he to turn fundamentalism from being “private” religion to being “public.” He did not anticipate or care about the prices paid. No one did more to turn otherworldly fundamentalism to this-worldly and even worldly preoccupations. No one did more to rally the dispersed and derided fundamentalists and instill in them pride and swagger. No one in public life (except perhaps the Reverend Jesse Jackson) found the word “Reverend” prefixing his name more, yet he came to be known for his rough-and-tumble style — hardly reverend — and for mixing it up in political affairs.

No one appeared more frequently in the headlines as a religious leader, and yet the public is hard pressed to think of a single line of his (other than those he quoted from scripture) that would belong in any broad-based anthology of “spiritual” or “theological” writings. No one did more than he, when he came on the scene (ca. the sixties and seventies), to attack the political and cultural expressions of moderate and liberal Catholics and Protestants, calling the church-in-politics sinful. And then no one did more than he in his about-face to call churchly non-involvement in politics a sin, where involvement meant agreeing with his causes.

No one on the Right, perhaps excepting televangelist Pat Robertson, blurted out more egregious assessments of the faults of others in public life, and no one had to be more ready to eat his words and apologize — thus by the very frequency of his retractions weakening the confidence in his judgment of all but his most devoted followers, at expense to the confidence shown the Religious Right. No one did more than he to convince others on the Religious Right that, having so long chosen, or having been pushed to, the margins of public life, they could now use their moral majority to overcome minority status and, given the right partisan allies, politically win it all. No one “wins it all” in America. So while Falwell rests in peace, the American majority can experience some measure of peace denied them when he took the pulpit or took to the airwaves.

Republished from Sightings with permission of the University of Chicago Divinity School.