On CNN's "Crossfire" and other shows, I debated Jerry Falwell many times. I'm still trying to recover from that fact that he once called me "his favorite liberal." But I will say: He was a true gentleman, always tough, and always fair.
Jerry Falwell was a true believer. It's too bad his brand of Christianity was so narrow and so negative. As a Christian myself, listening to Falwell, I often wondered if he and I had read the same Scripture. Certainly the Gospel of Jerry Falwell was not the Gospel of Jesus Christ. The man from Galilee loved everybody. The man from Lynchburg loved everybody - except gays, lesbians, liberals, women and blacks.
In 1979, after eschewing politics for years, Falwell changed his mind and formed a conservative Christian political force he called the Moral Majority. One reason he did so was his opposition to integration of public schools. "If Chief Justice Warren and his associates had known God's word and had desired to do the Lord's will," he said about the Supreme Court's Brown vs. Board of Education decision, "I am quite confident that the 1954 decision would never have been made.... The facilities should be separate. When God has drawn a line of distinction, we should not attempt to cross that line."
Even though Jesus says nothing about homosexuality in the four Gospels, Falwell was obsessed with the issue. He endorsed discrimination against gays. He saw the hand of God in the HIV/AIDS epidemic: "AIDS is not just God's punishment for homosexuals; it is God's punishment for the society that tolerates homosexuals."
And, of course, he blamed gays, lesbians and pro-choice Americans for the attacks of Sept. 11: "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 have tried to secularize America - I point the finger in their face and say, 'You helped this happen."'
In many ways, Jerry Falwell turned the Gospels upside down. In his excellent book, "God's Politics," Rev. Jim Wallis points out that the Old and New Testaments contain a total of 31,156 verses - of which over 5,000 deal with alleviating poverty, while not one verse deals directly with abortion or gay marriage. Yet those were the two issues Falwell branded the most important. He paid little attention to other moral issues like the death penalty, war, torture, health care or helping the poor. For Falwell, morality began and ended in his crotch.
Together with Rev. Pat Robertson, Falwell also launched a campaign to tear down the wall of separation between church and state. But, of course, that was only in order to make Christianity the official religion of the land. Falwell taught that we were, in fact, a Christian nation, founded by and for Christians, and based on the precepts of the Christian Bible - which would have come as a surprise to our Founding Fathers, few of whom were Christians.
Falwell's Christianization of America led to his wish to abolish public schools: "I hope I 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!"
In 2000, Falwell even said that Christians had a moral duty to vote for George W. Bush over fellow Christian Al Gore. I have searched without success to find out where in the Bible he discovered that divine command.
In the end, that was Jerry Falwell's undoing. He tied his faith so closely to politics that he cheapened religion and made all evangelicals look like puppets of the Republican party. Falwell, in fact, redefined Christianity so narrowly and so politically, that if Jesus Christ himself came back today, he wouldn't qualify for membership.
Jerry Falwell is dead. May his narrow, intolerant brand of religion die with him.
Bill Press can be reached by e-mail at email@example.com