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To Falwell’s rescue
Question of the Day
The press was unkind to the Rev. Jerry Falwell even as his life ended. After he died last May, the attendance roster for his funeral was scrutinized by the Associated Press, which cast the farewell service in a distinctly judgmental light.
"Some Republican luminaries will attend next week's funeral in Lynchburg [Va.] for the founder of the Moral Majority, but it's not a must-attend political event," noted an AP account, which provided a laundry list of politicians who couldn't attend - just three days before Mr. Falwell was laid to rest.
Shabby treatment in the news media was often a given with regard to Mr. Falwell.
"I'm not called to be popular. I'm called to be faithful," he said on numerous occasions when journalists and satirists took aim with garish portraits, painting him as a greedy televangelist or a narrow-minded reactionary.
A powerful defender remains behind, though - someone whose voice has emerged a year later like a soloist in a church choir.
"They just didn't understand Jerry Falwell. It hurt me personally every time I had to read one of those stories I knew wasn't true," said Macel Falwell, who was married to the minister for 49 years.
She is intent on setting the record right.
Mrs. Falwell has written "Jerry Falwell: His Life and Legacy," which follows her husband's birth in 1933 - he was the son of an agnostic bootlegger - to his death May 15, 2007, of a heart arrhythmia in his office at Liberty University, the college he had founded almost four decades earlier. CPR from two campus policemen could not bring him back, nor could the urgent voice of his son Jonathan.
"Dad, we still need you. Please. We're not ready to let you go," he called out, according to an account in the 254-page book.
"I believe Jerry died much the same as he lived. He walked to the edge of eternity, turned backwards on the balls of his feet, and with his arms splayed out and a smile on his face, he fell into the arms of his loving Father. It was that quick and simple," Mrs. Falwell writes.
One of her husband's last acts was to grant a full scholarship at the Liberty campus to a flabbergasted waitress in a local eatery - one of several young people over the years who benefited from Mr. Falwell's largesse.
Somehow those moments didn't make it into many news stories, which tended to dwell on hazy half-truths about the man who founded the Moral Majority and articulated the political aspirations of evangelical and fundamentalist Christians.
It was the old "Tinky Winky" controversy and Mr. Falwell's stark but ill-timed comments after the Sept. 11 attacks that tended to color much of the news coverage.
"The thing that amazed me after all these years was how many of the media portrayals had painted a bizarre public persona of Jerry that most of the world believed to be true. Some said he was a hatemonger, stern, humorless, rigid and uncompromising. But all you had to do was look at the laugh lines on his face," Mrs. Falwell said.
"He was not like what people thought he was, he was actually the opposite. He loved everybody - he would do anything he could do, for anyone. People don't know that," she said.
"His passion was to call America back to traditional values. He stood up and said what the Bible said - about life, and about living," Mrs. Falwell added.
There is still some melancholy in her voice - but clear resolve.
Her book is a narrative and, in many ways, a family album. Mrs. Falwell is candid; she does not skip the fact that Mr. Falwell's father shot and killed his own brother in self-defense during a family tussle. She shares the tales of her husband's pranks, their meals together and the wedding photos from 1958, which show the white lace and promises characteristic of that optimistic era.
God is never far away.
"Our story is about Jerry, Jesus and me, and what happened when our lives intersected," Mrs. Falwell writes.
There's old-fashioned, Bible-thumping faith on most every page of the book, along with evidence of another old-fashioned virtue - hard work.
As a 22-year-old graduate of a Bible college, Mr. Falwell founded Thomas Road Baptist Church in an old soft-drink factory in Lynchburg - personally knocking on the doors of 600 neighbors as the summer temperatures soared, asking them to attend services.
A man who was too ashamed to show up because he had no suitable shoes was in for a surprise: The sweating young pastor promptly removed his own shoes and handed them over - making his rounds that day in stocking feet. The initial congregation eventually grew from 35 to the eighth-largest in the U.S.
Though the media often vilified him, Mr. Falwell understood its workings very well. That year he began "The Old Time Gospel Hour," a radio and TV ministry, and was "preaching on the air and bragging on God," his wife recalled.
"Jerry had one of the greatest traits of a pastor. He loved people," she said.
His church, personal profile and business acumen grew rapidly. From the Rev. Billy Graham to Hustler publisher Larry Flynt, "the Rev. Jerry Falwell" was friends over the years to politicians and dignitaries - to the rich, the famous, the infamous, the godly and the ungodly.
"In Dr. Falwell, we found a unique and tremendous supernatural visionary - a great warrior in growing God's kingdom on earth," said Fox News talk-show host Sean Hannity, who wrote the forward for the book.
"He imploded and reshaped the American political landscape by rallying millions of Christians into the most powerful values-based voting bloc in the history of this country to date," Mr. Hannity said.
"His legacy is something faithful we can refer to in these throw-away, here today/gone tomorrow times of instant gratification and pervasive godlessness," he added.
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