Falwell, along with his twin brother Gene, was born August 11, 1933. Ironically, this was the year Hitler came to power, and exactly one month later National Alliance founder William Pierce was born (and that birthday alone should be enough to make conspiracy theorists sweat). Originally from Lynchburg Virginia, he graduated from Brookville High School in 1950, "found God" in 1952 and four years later he broke away from his church to establish Thomas Road Baptist Church, with 35 members. Growing up in the South, Falwell said there were certain negative traits that he carried with him. "Well, as a Southerner, I grew up as a segregationalist," he told the neo-Confederate racist rag the Southern Partisan in 1982. "I think all Southerners did, except those who lie about it. I was into college before I began examining that position, though I became a Christian as a second after student."
Falwell apparently had still been examining that position through the sixties, as his autobiography states that in 1964 he was still a staunch segregationalist, and some sources even say he spoke at segregationalist rallies. In the fifties, Falwell used the Bible to claim the 1954 Supreme Court integration decision in Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka was a satanic plot and this went on until 1967 when he started a racially segregated "Christian" school to avoid public school desegregation. This however, was a move that got him a little bit of heat from local religious leaders. It was a warning: his way of thinking wasn't going to fly in those changing times.
"I heard lots of good men out there who believed the Bible and who were giving Biblical support for segregation," Falwell said in the Southern Partisan interview. "I had to examine that side of it too. I started Thomas Road Baptist Church in 1956, and I hope I'm still growing, but in those early years that was one of the areas in which the Spirit of God dealt with me as a pastor." By 1968, his church had baptized its first black member. Unfortunately, Falwell seemed to have simply gone with the political winds, because his future actions suggest he had done everything but renounce a segregationalist way of thinking. We will get to that in a moment.
1967 was also the year Falwell began his "Old-Time Gospel Hour" weekly television and radio broadcasts. This program still airs today all over the United States and Canada. It will not be Falwell's only venture. In 1971, Falwell established the Lynchburg Baptist College, later to be renamed the Liberty Baptist College. The college is also still around, but that could have been a different story if the Securities and Exchange Commission had its way in 1973. The SEC charged Falwell's church that year with "fraud and deceit" in the issuance of $6.5 million in unsecured church bonds. Falwell admitted that the SEC was "technically" correct, and the church's finances are put in the hands of five local businessmen. A biography of Falwell written by his staff chose to flat out lie, claiming that his church won the suit and was cleared of the charges.
In 1979 the fun begins. Jimmy Carter is president, and the Religious Reich, thinking that when they elected a religious man to office that would mean them being able to impose their religious will on the country, were pissed that things did not turn out that way. Falwell, along with Howard Phillips, Ed McAteer and Paul Weyrich, formed a new organization to take on Carter and put more right-wing fundamentalists into power via the Republican Party. Weyrich gave the group its name: They will be called the Moral Majority, and Falwell will head it up.
Falwell explained the Moral Majority in that Southern Partisan interview as well:
"Moral Majority wants to bring the nation back to the moral principles and traditional values on which this nation was founded," he said. "It is my conviction that this is a nation under God. Our President (Reagan) said that in his inaugural address...The Supreme Court has so ruled that way. The Congress added two words, "under God" to the Pledge of Allegiance in the 1950's this is a nation under God - our founding fathers believed that - and it is predicated on the Judeo-Christian ethic, that is the principles of the Old Testament and the New Testament."
It might have helped their credibility in that regard if they did not take money from the Coors Company. Like Weyrich's other creation the Heritage Foundation, the Moral Majority had no problem with the contradiction of reclaiming America from God with the help of the Devil, but this also is the reason why so many people view the Religious Reich as not promoting God, but rather themselves in a effort to gain power.
Falwell insisted at the time that they were not looking for a theocracy and denied they were a fundamentalist organization. By May 1985 however, he was apologizing to a Jewish group for seeking a "Christian" America, saying that from then on, he says, he will use the term "Judeo-Christian." Unfortunately this apology means nothing now. In 1993 Falwell gave a sermon saying , "We must never allow our children to forget that this is a Christian nation. We must take back what is rightfully ours." In 1998, he went to Dallas to hold a meeting aimed at getting churches and pastors in America involved in spiritual awakening. During this meeting he handed out a recent book on American history by David Barton that attacked separation of church and state, something Falwell considers "bogus".
Once again, this speaks to the main problem with Falwell and that is his promotion of an authoritarian agenda. By the time the Moral Majority was founded, it was not black people that were the main focus of his scorn. That would be political suicide. It was now the more safer targets of homosexuals and women, especially those who believe in exercising their reproductive rights. In his 1980 book Listen, America! he wrote, "We cannot allow homosexuality to be presented to our nation as an alternative lifestyle. It will not only have a corrupting influence upon our next generation, but it will also bring down the wrath of God upon America." The Moral Majority advocated for constitutional amendments banning abortion and restoring school-sponsored prayer. The group also demands government aid to private religious education.
So what has he seen as ways to achieve his goals? A clue may be found with his support of the Florida abortion clinic bombings in the '80s. As leader of the Moral Majority, he offered to provide for and defend the four bombers in Pensacola, Fl, comparing the bombings to the civil rights movement and noting that there had been "lootings, burnings all over America" after his old nemesis Martin Luther King was killed. "The line I like best," he wrote in 1984 after similar bombings in DC, "came from Jayne Bray of the Pro-Life Action Committee: I am personally opposed to the destruction of property, but I respect the rights of those who do it where babies are slaughtered." In other words, aside from the fact they do not have that right, he endorses the depriving of rights to law-abiding citizens he does not agree with and will support violence to do it. Those who live by the sword...
Since violence does not exactly win you too many friends in the political scene, Falwell has chosen the high road, flat out slander and attacks on his political enemies. This meant that some folks were able to fight back. In 1984 Falwell took a shot at the gay-oriented Metropolitan Community Churches, calling them "brute beasts" and "a vile and Satanic system" that will "one day be utterly annihilated and there will be a celebration in heaven." When gay activist Jerry Sloan confronted him on this Falwell denied the allegations. When Sloan insisted he had a tape, Falwell promised $5,000 if he could produce it. When Sloan did, Falwell refused to pay, and Sloan successfully sued. Falwell appealed, with his attorney charging that the Jewish judge in the case was prejudiced. He lost again and was forced to pay an additional $2,875 in sanctions and court fees.
Falwell, reminiscent of his segregationalist past, was also one of the supporters of the apartheid government of South Africa. When the late, unlamented Prime Minister P.W. Botha was inaugurated in 1984, he said that the white-minority rule of that country was" part of God's great design." That got Falwell's attention. In the Summer of 1985, Falwell visited the country, and in an effort to get Americans to support that regime urged Christians to purchase Krugerrands, South African gold coins. The visit backfired on him. He even went so far as to attack Nobel Peace Prize winner Bishop Desmond Tutu. The Los Angeles Times reported that Falwell capped off his visit to South Africa by saying, "if Bishop Tutu maintains that he speaks for the black people of South Africa, he is a phony." Falwell later apologized for his intemperate remarks, but his ass was still handed to him for this. According to a fundraising letter after his trip contributions to his ministry had dropped off $500,000 in two weeks. In the end even his beloved President Reagan abandoned him, banning the further importation of the Krugerrand.
Falwell, on the right (of course) shakes hands with Larry Flynt during a conference on Falwell v. Flynt and Hustler Magazine
Nowhere near as strong as he was in the 1980s, The 1990s basically made Falwell a laughing stock, He still was colorful enough to make the media take notice, however. President Clinton's presidency created a virtual cottage industry of people who did nothing but attack and be critical of him, and Falwell wanted a piece of the action. Falwell was criticized for using his "Old Time Gospel Hour" to hawk a scurrilous video called "The Clinton Chronicles" that makes a number of unsubstantiated charges against Clinton, among them that he is a drug addict and that he arranged the murders of political enemies in Arkansas. Despite claims he had no ties to the project, evidence was later found that Falwell helped bankroll the venture with $200,000 paid to a group called Citizens for Honest Government. Worse, in an infomercial to promote the now largely discredited video, Falwell interviewed a silhouetted individual whom he identified only as an "investigative reporter" and who claimed that his life was in danger from Clinton forces. After Salon Magazine investigated the story, it was revealed that the "investigative reporter's" the president of Citizens for Honest Government, Patrick Matrisciana. "Obviously, I'm not an investigative reporter," said Matrisciana, "and I doubt our lives were actually ever in danger. That was Jerry's idea to do that...He thought that would be dramatic."
Falwell past also came back to haunt him as well. In 1998, he was confronted on national television with a controversial quote from a 1979 collection of his sermons titled "America Can Be Saved!" In the book, Falwell wrote, "I hope to live to see the day when, as in the early days of our country, we won't have any public schools. The churches will have taken them over again and Christians will be running them. What a happy day that will be!" Falwell denies having written the book, but the book's publisher confirms otherwise.
In the last few years of his life, Falwell laughing stock status was getting cemented more and more with a series of quotes and stupid conclusions that made excellent fodder for comedians everywhere. The first one came in January 1999 when he tells a pastors' conference in Kingsport, Tenn., that the Antichrist prophesied in the Bible is alive today and "of course he'll be Jewish." As bad as this was, it was nothing compared to the following month when his National Liberty Journal newspaper issues a "parents alert" warning that Tinky Winky, a character on the popular PBS children's show "Teletubbies," might be gay. Apparently no publicity is bad publicity to Falwell, because it was only four months later when the same paper published another parents alert, this time for the Lilith Fair female concert tour. This was a threat to Falwell because "Lilith" has alarming associations with a pagan figure from ancient Hebrew folklore that consorted with demons and had evil offspring. A musical event under such a name is no place for children, the alert implied. By this time Falwell was so ridiculed that him calling Ellen DeGeneres "Ellen Degenerate" was even ignored by DeGeneres herself who simply said she hadn't been called that since grade school.
And then came September 11, and the Right's attempts to muscle in everything they ever wanted to under the guise of fighting terrorism. They were taking advantage of the suppression of dissent against government policy after the tragedy. During this time, politicians like George W. Bush and NYC Mayor Rudolph Giuliani, who only the day before were the most hated people on the planet, became folk heroes overnight, and unconstitutional and racist policies like racial profiling were actually being supported. For two weeks the radical right had somewhat of a free pass, and even with this, Falwell managed to be the exception. During an appearance on Pat Robertson's show the 700 Club just two days after the 9-11 tragedy, Falwell was in a discussion about what the causes were. We actually were watching this program at the time and had no idea that given Falwell's history, and the climate at the time, anyone would even be outraged enough to voice opinion. In fact, we are still surprised that in the light of this, Pat Robertson also did not catch hell because just before Falwell's remarks he seemed to defend those that they believed were responsible for the attack, using the Iran hostage situation in 1979 as an example by saying the Iranians were rebelling against Hollywood. Falwell agreed with Robertson's sentiment, and the following is a portion of the transcript:
FALWELL: What we saw on Tuesday, as terrible as it is, could be miniscule if, in fact, God continues to lift the curtain and allow the enemies of America to give us probably what we deserve.
ROBERTSON: Well, Jerry, that's my feeling. I think we've just seen the antechamber to terror, we haven't begun to see what they can do to the major population.
FALWELL: The ACLU has got to take a lot of blame for this. And I know I'll hear from them for this, but throwing God...successfully with the help of the federal court system...throwing God out of the public square, out of the schools, the abortionists have got to bear some burden for this because God will not be mocked and when we destroy 40 million little innocent babies, we make God mad...I really believe that the pagans and the abortionists and the feminists and the gays and the lesbians who are actively trying to make that an alternative lifestyle, the ACLU, People for the American Way, all of them who try to secularize America...I point the thing in their face and say you helped this happen.
ROBERTSON: I totally concur, and the problem is we've adopted that agenda at the highest levels of our government, and so we're responsible as a free society for what the top people do, and the top people, of course, is the court system.
FALWELL: Pat, did you notice yesterday that the ACLU and all the Christ-haters, the People for the American Way, NOW, etc., were totally disregarded by the Democrats and the Republicans in both houses of Congress, as they went out on the steps and and called out to God in prayer and sang 'God bless America' and said, let the ACLU be hanged. In other words, when the nation is on its knees, the only normal and natural and spiritual thing to do is what we ought to be doing all the time, calling on God.
Those remarks as many of us know, set off a firestorm of outrage and controversy. Before the week was done, Robertson had distanced himself from agreeing with Falwell's remarks and Falwell apologized for laying blame not on those that actually committed the act, but instead his longtime political adversaries.
As of this writing Falwell was defending the remarks of Dr. Jerry Vines of the First Baptist Church in Jacksonville, FL, who declared at the annual Southern Baptist convention that Muhammad was a "demon-possessed pedophile" and that Islam teaches the destruction of all non-Muslims." Falwell defended his friend on a Crossfire episode after the remarks came out, charging Mohammad as being guilty of "massacring many, many thousands of Jews" as well as marrying the nine-year-old daughter of a friend. "Now in a civilized society, when a 54-year-old man consummates a marriage with a 9-year-old girl, I think it is reasonable to say that pedophilia is not taking it beyond the limits of reality." If in fact is was reality Jerry. People who actually practice Islam found nothing in its teachings about Mohammad marrying a 9-year-old girl. They in fact say that the girl Aisha was actually 19. The basis of this attack came from a book written by two former Muslims who became Christians. Still, it gives Falwell something to keep his soiled name in the press.
Falwell still commanded a huge following, although, as noted he is not as strong as he used to be. He has had to get loans to save his empire a number of times and the ridicule factor associated with his name keeps many people away. And when he died in his office in 2007, he was quickly forgotten. Many of his old crew are preparing to join him (and we suspect those who like Falwell left us were quite unpleasantly surprised when they found out where they ended up), leaving future generations to clean up the mess they made. What's more, some of their younger ilk think they are going to bring it back. They will not, and hopefully they will learn before it is too late for them that we are a better people than people like Falwell gave us credit for.