Jerry Falwell died on Tuesday.
I was not a fan of the man, or of his religious or political rhetoric. On the other hand I was a bit dismayed at some of the expressions of glee I saw different places on the internet after his passing. I don’t particularly like the way that, when someone dies, they automatically become a saint in the eyes of many people no matter what they did in life. But I also was raised to believe that if you’re going to speak ill of the dead, you should probably wait until their body is cold and they are in the ground to do it. That’s just common courtesy.
Still, Rev. Falwell was a polarizing person. You pretty much either loved him or hated him, or at least you felt one way or the other about the positions he espoused. He really didn’t leave much room for a middle ground. So I suppose it was inevitable that some of the reactions to his death were going to be of a less than sympathetic nature. I think my favorite comment, because it got the point across that he was not necessarily a tolerant man without being really rude about it, came in the form of a cartoon in the op-ed section of the San Francisco Chronicle (I don‘t recall whether it was on Wednesday or Thursday). It had Rev. Falwell arriving at the pearly gates to find that it wasn’t St. Peter in charge, but TinkyWinky. Rev. Falwell’s thought bubble said simply, “Uh-oh.” Indeed.
The Chronicle, on Friday, also ran a column by Mark Morford which might be seen as a little more mean-spirited if you were a follower of the good Reverend, but which I thought made a pretty good point. After a short introduction Morford simply ran a series of quotes from Falwell’s career, without further comment. The point, I think, was that it wasn’t “the liberal press” or “secular humanists” or anyone but Rev. Falwell himself that created the impression that perhaps he wasn’t going to be that nice to you if you didn’t agree with him. Morford included some of the famous sayings of Rev. Falwell: his placing of blame for the 9/11 attacks; his insistence that the Bible is the inerrant word of God in all matters - not just of faith but of science and politics as well; his belief that AIDS was God’s way of punishing not only gays but any culture that allows them to exist in peace.
But we all knew he said those things and believed them, and we either agreed or disagreed. The quote that perhaps disturbed me the most, though, was this one: “If you’re not a born-again Christian, you’re a failure as a human being.” Which, I think, demonstrates that he was one of those folks who think that anyone who does not agree with them completely on all issues is trash and deserves whatever ill they get. That’s pretty extremist thinking, in my opinion. It opens the way for things like holy wars. My own feeling is that exactly that sort of tribal thinking, “us v. them” thinking, is exactly what is wrong with the world today.
So. Perhaps I’ve violated my own rule about not speaking ill of the dead before they’re buried (I don’t think the funeral is until sometime next week). I won’t write much more here about Rev. Falwell, in any case. But I would like to use the occasion of his passing to urge everyone who reads this blog to seek out and read a book that I discovered last year: Kingdom Coming: The Rise of Christian Nationalism, by Michelle Goldberg. The Reverend Falwell figures in the book, but so do a whole lot of other people who are, if anything, more radical in their thinking than he ever considered being. Which is sort of a frightening thought. These are the people who believe that secular law - the United States Constitution and the United States Code, and the various legal codes of the states - should be replaced by the Bible and the laws contained therein. Which would be great if they were talking about things like “Love your neighbor as yourself” and “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you”. But they aren’t. They’re talking Old Testament law - things like the death penalty for apostasy or for sassing your parents. I guess that, to be fair, I must report that one of the advocates of these laws claims that not all back-talking children would be stoned to death, but that the punishment would just remain as “an option”. Amazing.
They’re also talking dominionism, which is the principle that Christians have a God-given right to rule over everyone else. Dominionism emerged from Christian Reconstruction, a strictly fundamentalist view taught by Rousas John Rushdoony that says that Jesus won’t return until after the millennium and that Christians have to build the kingdom here on earth on their own until he gets here. By any means necessary, apparently. There might not be many who hold to the extreme positions of the Christian Reconstructionists but, as Goldberg’s book points out, some individuals in high positions in US government have consorted with them and those who carry their message. Very high positions. You’d know their names. And while not all fundamentalists carry their beliefs as far as the Reconstructionists would like, Reconstructionist thinking has influenced the Christian right through the writings of such prominent evangelists as Pat Robertson. This pushes the conversation even further to the right, and makes positions that weren’t previously acceptable to reasonable people look ever more reasonable in contrast. They do this in the political as well as the religious arena.
I don’t know about you, but I don’t have any interest in living in anything that looks like a theocracy, which is what some of the folks in Goldberg’s book have in mind. And while I don’t see such an extreme thing happening anytime soon, and neither does Goldberg (p. 181), I think we ignore these people at our own peril. And so, I use the occasion of Jerry Falwell’s death to invite you to read Kingdom Coming as a way of not ignoring the fact that there are people out there who would like to make you live according to their beliefs, which are not necessarily as benign as you might assume and which make the things Jerry Falwell said seem positively reasonable.