Jerry Falwell's body wasn't even cold when the mud-slinging began. A little restraint -- and class -- would have been nice, especially in light of the fact that those getting down and dirty were only exposed to the media image of the man, not the person who was the driving force behind countless humanitarian and ministry outreach programs in the U.S. and abroad.
Falwell was definitely a fire-and-brimstone hell-raiser, but at least you knew where he stood. He believed the Bible and wasn't shy about telling you what it said. If you didn't believe it, that was fine -- not everyone did, does or will -- and for people who blame Falwell for being divisive, well, he was. The Bible is divisive; religion is divisive; Christianity is divisive. Even Jesus said, "Do not suppose that I have come to bring peace to the earth." (He also said, "Love your enemies.") However, as people who knew Falwell will tell you, he had the uncanny ability and personal character to rail against what he viewed as an un-Biblical lifestyle or choice by someone -- then share the stage, a meal or a friendship with that same person.
The biggest insight to the real Jerry Falwell is best epitomized by his relationship with Larry Flynt, who Falwell sued for a nasty satire Flynt ran in his porn rag, Hustler, in 1983. Notwithstanding, Falwell and Flynt, while abhorring what each stood for, commenced a close and lasting friendship. Would this have been possible if Falwell was the hater those who didn't know him claim he was?
I'm not a Falwell apologist, and I've disagreed with him in the past. He was well known for his off-the-cuff gaffes, such as the train wreck that was his comment about 9/11. While he later apologized, the statement likely emanated from his belief that America was favored by God, but that moral decay could remove that favor, which is analogous to the chronicles of the Israelites in the Old Testament who received punishing blows from their enemies whenever they turned their backs on God. As we witness almost daily, if you're in the public eye long enough, you're bound to misstep: Hello, Dan Rather, Rosie O'Donnell, Bill and Hilary Clinton and Alec Baldwin. At least Falwell, like some of these others, was big enough to admit it and move on.
Falwell was imperfect, yes, but not being a media darling, his untold good works and character usually went unreported. He was married to the same woman for nearly 50 years without moral incident; and raised and disbursed millions of dollars to fund higher education and outreach and relief work worldwide, without financial scandal. And, he was an outspoken, dedicated friend of the State of Israel. For sure, Falwell was no Jim Bakker or Jimmy Swaggert, whose "ministries" were mired in corruption.
How many of us have funded scholarship programs for kids not our own who couldn't afford a college education? Raised millions of dollars for national and international outreach and relief projects? Clothed, fed and housed unwed, expectant mothers? Organized assistance programs for alcoholics? or founded a university at age 37 -- that, 30 years later, boasts a total student body of 25,000 and produces a No. 1-in-the-nation debate team that routinely kicks the elitist butts of Harvard and Dartmouth? How many of us would befriend a person who jokes with the world you had sex in an outhouse with your mother? Love him or hate him, Falwell was the real deal.
While attending Liberty University, I conversed with Jerry Falwell on several occasions. You couldn't help but like him. Larry Flynt and I are in agreement on that one.
While I don't expect any postmortem commentary to change minds, it might at least offer a brief time out for acknowledgement of the good this man did.
Now that we've had that moment, let the mud-slinging resume.
Barbara Sharp is a resident of Burbank, Calif., and Sandusky. She is an alumna of Falwell's Liberty University.