God’s Son, Falwell’s Mother And The Rest of Us Ho’s

Jerry Falwell, the evangelical preacher, who began the Moral Majority movement, and founded Liberty University died on May 15, 2007.

I will distress some people and say that there were several things I liked and respected in Dr. Falwell. He built schools and homes for single mothers; he helped alcoholics, the homeless and AIDS victims. He sent money to help the poor and sick in Africa. He built up a large university.

I hope that he will be remembered for these things at least as much as for the pain his harsh pronouncements over the years caused homosexuals, pagans, witches, abortionists (in his words), blacks and many other groups of varying ontological status.

Mind you, I say that as a childless divorcee, skeptical occultist, ethical pagan, and heterodox Christian whom Dr. Falwell would no doubt have consigned to the flames of hell.

Like most people today my primary difficulty is not with believing, but with not believing. Believing comes altogether too easy. The world – whether seen through the lens of science or through our own eyes – is so complex, variegated, fluctuating, and contradictory that we are ever more disposed to grope for certainty in areas where it may most be an illusion.

Some would say that Falwell’s fundamentalism was of that nature.

But there are other credulities besides religious ones.

How much easier and more comforting to our perpetually aggrieved sense of fairness, for instance, to believe that all beliefs – if held with sufficient good will – are the same, all convictions equally plausible, all systems of economics – if only tried with good faith – equally productive.

How easy and – often – how wrong.

Jerry Falwell, for all his flaws – and they were clear enough – was not flawed in that way.

His beliefs were narrow. But by his lights and the lights of many who are fundamentalists it was the narrowness of the way to eternal life preached in the gospels.

Progressives, who like to sample only what they find most palatable in Jesus’ teachings — like walnuts in an unfamiliar salad — have a tendency to ignore his words as they have actually come down to us. And no wonder. Taken literally (and that, I suppose, is why they are rarely taken literally), they would stick in our craws.

This is the Jesus who once said the gospel was for “the children” of the house (Israelites) and not for the “dogs.” (Samaritans). He may have stopped the adulteress being stoned, but he didn’t deny she was an adulteress. As for the Pharisees, the liberal, well-educated elite of his day, he routinely called them a nest of vipers for the hundred sophistries and metaphors with which they got around tedious religious rules. Jesus often seemed tiresomely literal to them, as well.

And he seems to have lived in expectation of an apocalypse too, even if he also died without seeing it.

But of course, you will say, that was Jesus. This is Falwell.

And you would have made your point. Jesus was often deliberately opaque, ironic; he iced the sting of reproof with parables, poured compassion over the wounds his words inflicted and made his point as often with artistic silence – at crucial moments.

Falwell was rarely silent, and even more rarely artistic.

But among the many offensive quotes I see attributed to him, I have so far seen nothing that was much more than a blunt, unlovely articulation of some text of Christian or Jewish scripture.

If that is hate speech and potentially discriminatory under the law, as his many detractors claim, then we must outlaw substantial portions of the major religions.

Certainly, those portions of the Old and New Testaments, which classify homosexuality among abominations, advocate killing diviners and witches, and celebrate crushing your enemies’ babies on rocks; which relegate women to subordination even in matters of conscience, and – like Falwell – attribute natural calamities and plagues to the wrath of a touchy deity. As a Christian, I speak of the Bible, but I’ll warrant that there are few scriptures that are entirely innocent in these matters.

Words, whether we think they come only from Jerry or directly from Jahweh, can offend.

They can cause immense pain. Ironically, Falwell himself suffered that pain once, very publicly. Pornographer Larry Flynt published a revoltingly nasty parody of a liquor ad, which had Falwell describing his “first time” with his mother in an outhouse. In 1988, in a seminal decision (Hustler Magazine Inc. Vs. Falwell), the Supreme Court overturned a lower court’s decision to award the preacher damages for emotional pain, strengthening even further the protection of free speech about public figures. It was satire, said the justices, and satire has a venerable history, especially in America politics. To limit it would cast a pall over public debate.

Many applaud that decision unhesitatingly. It goes without saying, in our secular world, that pornographic imagery of that sort (I refuse to give it the great, good name of sex) – however maliciously intended – is never harmful in any ‘real’ way, and we are nothing if not realists…..or so we think.

Oddly, the also realistic CIA – whom no one could accuse of swooning sensitivity in these matters – thinks differently. By the 1960s, it had come to regard “no touch” torture – among which sexual humiliation occupies a prominent place – as more damaging than conventional physical torture in the long run. It “leaves deep, searing psychological scars on both victims and — something seldom noted — their interrogators,” writes Alfred McCoy, (The Hidden History of CIA Torture: America’s Road to Abu Ghraib, 2004).

Falwell was not directly injured in the same way, it goes without saying. But it seems at least odd, if not downright confused, to argue that the very malicious public humiliation of a religious figure respected by a large segment of the population is not

a real injury to him and his followers, while the strong but not vicious articulation of hoary religious doctrines about pagans and witches, for instance, is a real injury to those groups – one that borders on discrimination so powerful that it needs to be outlawed as hate speech, as some have suggested.

That’s to say, a woman like me – qua witch – is supposed to be devastatingly injured if a Jerry Falwell tells her she can’t get to heaven while reading astrology charts. (His heaven, by the way, is presumably something she either doesn’t believe in, to begin with, or if she does believe in, thinks has different entrance requirements).

Yet, the same woman – qua woman – is supposed to be serenely untouched, if not actually enthused, when a Larry Flynt concocts imagery depicting her violently humiliated in pornographic terms. And this schizophrenia is usually to be found in the same progressives for whom sexuality and gender is supposedly a much more serious business than theological doctrine.

There’s no denying that religion has often had a history of subordinating some people to others nor that we are right to regard religious dogma with suspicion when it imposes itself on non-believers through the mechanism of the state. But there are other dogmas besides religious ones. And, allied to the power of the state, they can become quite as oppressive. It was not overtly in the name of Christianity, after all, but in the name of secular, universal values that the American government bombed Orthodox Christians and Muslims in their own countries in recent years.

It may be time to recognize that some dogmas, whether religious or secular, might be mutually exclusive and it is our refusal to recognize and respect that exclusivity that has led to the current sorry state of political debate. Yet, respect we must. For, while it is impossible to meld irreconcilable beliefs without changing their natures, what is not impossible is to co-exist peacefully as people, while admitting that our beliefs are irreconcilable.

For that to happen, precisely defining religious belief or artistic expression or political speech is less important than cultivating a will to extend generosity to even our most fervent opponents. Style is more essential here than substance.

Jerry Falwell, after all, did disavow hatred for any group, even while he characterized them in accordance with his religious beliefs. And, to all appearances, those beliefs were sincerely held.

It is double-think of the worst kind, then, to label this express disavowal of hate as “hate,” unless you have proof of some kind of disingenuousness. And if you misused language in that way, what right would you have to feel injured if you heard the same Orwellism issue from the mouth of some right-wing talk show host who characterized your own viewpoint about gender or economic policy as “man-hating” or “class warfare”?

None at all.

Here is a modus vivendi easily available for anyone willing to try some agon-istic respect. Left-wing critics of Falwell could simply look at what the preacher said as a form of art. Perhaps a subsidy from the government would even be forthcoming. And fundamentalists could simply think of sexual liberalism as a distinct dogma and let it enjoy the protected status of a minor church. They might then be able to argue against a religious establishment in the public sphere with better success than they have until now.

Some of Falwell’s critics would do well to take a leaf out of his book and profess to love fundamentalists no matter how much they hate fundamentalism.

Lila Rajiva is a freelance journalist and the author of The Language of Empire: Abu Ghraib and the US Media (Monthly Review Press, 2005) and Mobs, Messiahs and Markets (with Bill Bonner-Wiley, September 2007). She has also contributed chapters to One of the Guys (Ed., Tara McKelvey and Barbara Ehrenreich, Seal Press, 2007), an anthology of writing on women as torturers, and to The Third World: Opposing Viewpoints (Ed., David Haugen, Greenhaven, 2006). Read other articles by Lila, or visit Lila's website.

6 comments on this article so far ...

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  1. liberal white boy said on May 18th, 2007 at 2:43pm #

    If you call this a radical newsletter, people will think you are radical. I didn’t read anything that seemed radical here.

  2. Ariadna said on May 19th, 2007 at 8:13pm #

    Poppycovk. Nauseating poppycock at that.
    This eulogy does not belong on this site.
    Falwell’s expressed hate of Palestinians/Arabs/Muslims as well as blacks or gays is “unlovely articulation of some text of Christian or Jewish scripture”?!

  3. Johan said on May 21st, 2007 at 8:33pm #

    “there were several things I liked and respected in Dr. Falwell. He built schools and homes for single mothers”

    So why didn’t he build schools and homes for ANYONE who needs them instead of discriminating against men? Because discriminating against men gets better PR than actually treating people like equals. The magnitude of the importance of that statement may escape everyone who reads it.

  4. Lila Rajiva said on May 21st, 2007 at 8:52pm #

    I sympathize with the view that men as well as women should be treated as individuals. But individuals are not free of characteristics of their group. It’s not either/ or, is it? I mean I don’t have to believe in group rights to believe that rights belonging to people as individuals belong to them as individuals, who share certain characteristics.
    One of those is that a single mother in our society tends to be financially less able to care for herself. He helped alcholics. I don’t know the statistics, but I wonder if there might not be more men in that group…

  5. Ariadna said on May 22nd, 2007 at 5:12pm #

    I read that in one year he made $100 million and got very worried because the previous year he had raked in $187 million. So he stepped on the TV accelerator. ONE YEAR.
    It would take a HUGE number of hospitals built by him (and I never heard of them so where are they, Lila, and how many, give us FACTS), and a helluva lot of schools to impress anyone but the brainwashed.
    “He helped alcoholics” is pathetically lame.
    It is interesting how you pretend to be “objective” yet you defend him. Not well, but to the extent of your intellectual abilities. What has he done to earn your loyalty? You must have liked his support of the bloody zionist project.
    You are not a “pagan,” come on…. You are a hasbara girl.

  6. Lila Rajiva said on May 23rd, 2007 at 11:25am #

    Ah, you’re back……

    You might be right. I don’t know.

    I only lived in India for 25 years and saw mission money pour in from America to help people at hospitals who wouldn’t have been treated otherwise. But perhaps you know better than me – that all evangelicals are bad. I personally avoid demonizing anyone or any group – it is simple- minded, besides being ugly. I thought that was what ethics and spirituality was about.

    I don’t know if Falwell had a hand in a lot of charity or little or to what proportion. I said something good about him as it is customary to say something decent on someone’s death or keep quiet. I by no means supported any of his positions on anything, but I hope I need not prove my opposition to someone by treating him as less than a human being.

    I wouldn’t have written about him at all except I was rather revolted that people couldn’t wait a day or two – even people who were very quiet and respectul over Saddam’s hanging …

    I don’t think he is of that much consequence. If not him, someone else. Christian Zionism has many proponents.

    And yes, some televangelists make a lot of money and some are hucksters and no more. So are some socialists/communists. This is news? I know Robertson was involved in crooked dealings and have written about it, but I don’t know that Falwell was – I haven’t extensively researched him. In any case, that wasn’t the point of the article.

    As for Christian Zionism – a brief google will refute you in 10 seconds flat as to where I stand on the issue. I have written articles in DV, Monthly Review and have a whole chapter on it in my book – and Falwell is in there too. My support for Norman Finkelstein under my own name is out there on the web as well as on radio interviews.
    I worked for 3 years full time on my net activism – living off my savings and was involved with petitioning on both the Kosovo war and Iraq war and the sanctions.

    What have you done lately, I wonder.

    But perhaps you actively want to sabotage your own cause. In that case, you succeeded as well as I succeeded in mine.

    The personal comment I will not answer as it speaks volumes….

    About you.

    Enough please. You already wrote 3-4 times to my account – you are blocked there, so you write here.

    If you are concerned about the war, work against it constructively instead of harassing those who are.