MUSLIMS MAY KNOW Jerry Falwell primarily as the man who called the Prophet Muhammad a “terrorist” on the CBS program “60 Minutes” in 2002. When asked by the Religion News Service to comment on FalwelFs death in May, at age 73, CAIR spokesman Ibrahim Hooper, who had sparred publicly with the Christian leader, could only bring himself to say, “We are from God and to Him we return. Islamically, we can only say good things about those who have passed.”
But beneath Falwell ‘s rhetoric – and during his career he offended many – was a man committed to living his faith out loud and mobilizing others to shout along with him.
Jerry Falwell was, like many American Muslim leaders today, a convert. Raised by a quietly religious mother but a decidedly non-religious father, Falwell was “born again” while in college, an experience that prompted him to transfer to a bible college and launch a pastoral career that would make him one of the best-known, if not best-loved, religious figures in the country.
As a fresh college graduate, Falwell started the Thomas Road Baptist Church in his hometown of Lynchburg, Va., with 35 members in attendance. In a time before the word “megachurch” was coined, Falwell grew attendance numbers into the thousands; today the church boasts a membership of 22,000. Falwell did not limit himself to preaching inside four walls, instead using the radio and television to get his message out, with his nationally syndicated “Old-Time Gospel Hour” at one time reaching millions of viewers across the country.
Yet Falwell’s outspoken style was also the root of one of his biggest downfalls: a narrow-mindedness translated into offensive barbs. Few obituaries of Falwell failed to mention his notorious accusation that “abortionists,” gays and lesbians and others trying to “secularize America” helped the 9/1 1 attacks happen, or his made-for-ridicule assertion in 1999 that a BBC children’s show was part of a subversive homosexual agenda. These comments served to marginalize Falwell in his own evangelical community, in which many leaders today are quick to distance themselves from him.
Falwell spoke out against what he saw as a culture of moral decay and advised Christians not to send their children to public school. He also acted on his own advice, founding a Christian school at his church (now a sophisticated K-12 academy) and, in 1971 , starting a college in a former elementary school building. As other obituary writers have noted, Liberty University, with its now 20,000 on- and off-campus students, may be FalwelFs most lasting legacy, churning out a new generation of educated evangelicals ready to set a public agenda.
What’s hard to remember now when mobilized evangelicals are so much a part of the political landscape is that Falwell started a drive for Christian political participation organizing church voting drives and crossing boundaries to build coalitions – when such activism was shunned by fundamentalist Christians, who preferred, in the 1970s and earlier, to retreat and build their own private Kingdoms of God. In this respect, Falwell was like the clerical leaders of the Iranian revolution who transformed an inward-looking Shiite theology into a philosophy and praxis of governance, however autocratic.
Thankfully for the United States, of course, Falwell never became America’s Khomeini-style Supreme Leader. Indeed, as John Green, a senior fellow at the Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life said, “One of the things Falwell did not accomplish was changing the law to reflect the traditional values he espoused.”
Yet Falwell offers a proof point for the theories of Iranian reformist intellectual, AbdolKarim Soroush, who argues that in a predominantly religious society – like the U.S. or a Muslim country like Iran – religion need not be imposed from the top. Rather, with freedom to organize, speak and vote, religious citizens themselves bring moral concerns to the fore, even if they do so in a way that is not always popular.
Muslim Americans may have reviled Falwell ‘s Islamophobia, or agreed with his socially conservative agenda minus the Christology, but all are in some way indebted to a man who bulldozed a path for faith in the public conversation.