Jerry Falwell has shuffled off this mortal coil. Many people are bleating and bloviating about what this means. Let them. To me, he is a symbol of almost everything that is wrong with the public face of Christianity in the last half of the 20th century.
Falwell loved to lard his sermons with the phrase "the Bible alone." That phrase was a lie. Every time I heard him speak (and I heard him on TV a lot and even saw him live one time. The memory still produces faint nausea) he left the Bible in the dust. I mean, show me where the Bible says we should have a strong national defense. In truth, God forbade the Israel of antiquity from keeping a standing army. The Mosaic law demanded that land owners leave part of their fields unharvested so that the poor could eat (sounds more like commanizm than capitalism to me). Like many who claim to believe "every word in the Bible", Falwell really used that phrase as a club, a simple way to intimidate those who might disagree with him. The technique was a forerunner of the Bush administration's attempts to define any disagreement as "hating America."
The Wittenburg Door is a very interesting magazine of religious satire that runs serious interviews (it was kinda The Onion before there was an Onion). Probably fifteen years ago Falwell's name came up. For the life of me I can't remember who the interviewee was and I can't take the time to find my bound copy of Door interviews, but I will never forget what was said.
"Jerry Falwell has only one fault. He doesn't take sin very seriously." The interviewer sort of choked on this and asked for exposition. The reply was illuminating and it was basically this.
Falwell didn't appreciate the depths of human depravity and deceitfulness. He only thought of sin as behavior to be altered. He did not understand that it went deeper than that, that it could warp even our best intentions. That's why he was blind to his own arrogance.
As much as Falwell railed against sin, he basically saw America as God's country (another interviewee said that Falwell was an idolator, that what he really worshipped was the vision of America in his mind). America is never wrong; it's just a place that needs a little fixin'. His view of sin was that it was the stuff that bothered and annoyed him. In effect, sin was other people ruining his party, not an intractable condition of the heart.
That stayed with me. I come from a Protestant tradition that believes in original sin. We humans are flawed. Our best efforts will be compromised and fall short. Does that mean we don't try? No. It means that we never trust in our own goodness. We question ourselves and our motives every day. We never assume that we are above fault. It's why we establish governments and authority structures. It's why we try to fight racism and sexism, because those things are expressions of the fallen nature of man.
Falwell preached original sin, but he didn't believe in it. He didn't believe in his own sinfulness. That's why his faith never produced questions, only self-certainty. That was the source of his smugness. For all his protestations of being a sinner saved by grace, Jerry Falwell really believed that he and God were a partnership, a pretty equal partnership.
And that's why his death means so little to me. Demagogues like him are a dime a dozen. When Tony Campolo dies, then I'll mourn.