On the surface the man seemed about as threatening as your corner grocer. He was affable, friendly, had a nice smile too. He did not come across like Jimmy Swaggart or Jim Baker as either too menacing or too slick and smaltzy for words. But there is no question that he accomplished far more than both of those men put together, and more than Pat Robertson as well. Throughout his adult life he remained a committed Reformed Dispensationalist Baptist, but what he will be best known for of course was his wedding of conservative Protestant faith with the galvanizing of the church, and even those not in the church, over political issues. We talk a lot about the politicizing of the Evangelical movement in recent decades, but no one was more responsible for that than Jerry Falwell, beginning in 1979 with the founding of the Moral Majority movement, which was disbanded a decade later, proclaiming that its mission had largely been accomplished. Falwell is credited with registering millions of voters, who then turned around and helped Ronald Reagan (and later George W. Bush) get elected. One of the things that distinguished Jerry Falwell from other tel-evangelists is that he was grounded and indeed continued to be ministering in a local church-- Thomas Road Baptist in Lynchburg Va. Indeed, Jerry Falwell was a man who never strayed from Lynchburg Va. much. He was born there, raised there, started his church there, ministered there his whole life, and yesterday died there in his office at Liberty University. He was a home boy made good.
The NY Times article this morning is a helpful summary of his life and career in ministry. Here is the link---
Jerry Falwell has often been called a fundamentalist, and if by fundamentalist you mean a very conservative person who believes the Bible is totally true, then I suppose the term applies. Fundamentalism however is more of a mindset than a theological position to be honest. I ran into fundamentalist liberals while at Harvard. They were so utterly convinced of their liberal opinions about the Bible that no amount of evidence or logic could convince them otherwise. One thing about Jerry Falwell, he did actually change his mind about things, he did also apologize for things he said when he was convinced he had spoken in an untrue or unChristian manner. Indeed, some people even say he had moderated on various things in the last decade. By moderate I mean he had gone from being a fundamentalist of sorts to being more of an Evangelical, at least on some issues.
If we assess the growth and transformation of Jerry Falwell, you could say that the changes in his college that he founded mirrored the changes in the man. The school has gone from being Liberty Baptist College (a school I once visited, checking on one of my church members in the early 80s, and found the place rather like Bob Jones University-- no public displays of affection allowed, and there was all this security, a kind of bunker mentality) to being Liberty University, more like a mainstream Evangelical school where some of my friends teach.
Yet Dr. Falwell did not change his mind on one thing-- the welding together of certain Biblical views and certain loyalties to American values was seen as the Christian thing to do. Jerry always wore his patriotism on one sleeve and his Christian commitments on the other, and sometimes you couldn't tell the difference between the two. There was a reason for this-- Jerry genuinely believed the notion that America was founded on a Christian platform of ideas and ideals. Well, Judeo-Christian, is what he called it. This indeed was the basis of his being able to bring together strange bedfellows in the Moral Majority, those who were pro-life, pro-family, pro-America. As a Dispensationalist, he was almost equally passionate about Israel, never mind that the government of Israel was a secular democracy rather like America's democracy.
You always new where Jerry stood on issues. He was honest, a person of integrity, passionate, forthright, and whether you agreed with him or not, you knew where he stood, and you had to admire him because he had such courage in his convictions. I for one disagreed with him on a whole host of issues, and found especially unhealthy the marriage of a commitment to a certain kind of patrotism and a particular political party with real Christianity, but Jerry Falwell was my brother in Christ, and I knew him to be a man who strove to serve the Lord in all he did and said, and was a big enough man to admit when he was wrong. He was like the passionate and convicted preacher who said of himself "I am never in doubt, but often wrong".
We have not discussed the role that Jerry Falwell may or may not have played in the fundamentalist take over of the Southern Baptist convention and then various Southern Baptist seminaries. This is too big a topic to address in this particular posting. But if you judge the measure of a man by the influence he has in various ways and places, Jerry Falwell was a giant of a man, standing only behind towering figures like Billy Graham in the degree he influenced the Conservative Protestant Church in America, and certainly he had more influence in politics than Billy ever sought or wielded.
But I choose today to remember the Jerry Falwell who was not anti-intellectual and did not see education as a threat to one's faith. I choose to remember the Jerry Falwell who out of his love for Christ founded a school which has become a vibrant large Evangelical institution. This is not the work of someone who really deserves the pejorative label fundamentalist. Jerry was always committed to the fundamentals of the faith, but a commitment to the anti-intellectualism of fundamentalism was not who Dr. Falwell was at heart. Jerry was always fighting the battle against the forces of evil and secularism as he saw them. He understood we are in a battle for the soul of the culture. Whatever differences I may have had with him, and there are many, the ground is level at the foot of the cross, and on that issue we both stood together as devout conservative Christians. Jerry lifted up Christ constantly and with courage , and so should we. God bless you and keep you Jerry. We hardly knew ye.