Reflections from the Rev. Falwell
RENEE MONTAGNE, host:
This is MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Renee Montagne.
STEVE INSKEEP, host:
And I'm Steve Inskeep.
A little less than a year before his death, the Reverend Jerry Falwell paid a visit to his new church building. It was still under construction - a massive Virginia structure that brought to mind a basketball arena. Falwell stood near the pulpit. He looked out at the seats that would be filled for the first time on that Sunday. And he considered a reporter's question.
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INSKEEP: Why do you suppose, of all the churches that have started in an old building someplace with a few dozen members, that it's been yours that has grown to this proportion with 6,000 seats in front of us here?
Reverend JERRY FALWELL (Thomas Road Baptist Church, Virginia): Well, humanly speaking, I have always...
INSKEEP: Humanly speaking, he said, because Falwell's position was that whatever happened, God did it.
MONTAGNE: But to the extent that his tactics made a difference, Falwell said he always used the media - first radio, then TV.
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Unidentified Man: It's time now for "The Old Time Gospel Hour" with Jerry Falwell, pastor of the Thomas Road Baptist Church in Lynchburg, Virginia.
MONTAGNE: For more than half a century, that Virginia town was Falwell's headquarters. Lynchburg became the home of his church, his TV studios, his university, and it was the seat of his power. In later years, presidential candidates made pilgrimages to Lynchburg.
Unidentified Man: Welcome, commencement speaker for the class of 2006, Senator John McCain.
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Rev. FALWELL: I was taught in Bible College, religion and politics don't mix.
MONTAGNE: That's what he was taught, but he found his own path in the 1970s. He became leader of the Moral Majority, a conservative group that backed Ronald Reagan for president.
INSKEEP: In a reflective moment last summer, Jerry Falwell welcomed some visitors to his office. He spoke of his support for President Bush, even though the president did not always deliver on issues like gay marriage.
Rev. FALWELL: I'm well aware of the pragmatism of politics. There are times when he has to step back purely for survival reasons.
INSKEEP: Do you ever wonder if they're taking advantage of you or using you?
Rev. FALWELL: I'm really too old to be used.
INSKEEP: Although they tell you that they support your position in an election year, you support them, and then it gets to be the off year and it's not at the top of their agenda anymore.
Rev. FALWELL: Whenever it's a major problem and I think that we are being misled, I pick up the phone and call whoever I need to call and take care of it.
INSKEEP: Jerry Falwell made many of those calls from a leather chair in that office at Liberty University. As he spoke last summer, a thunderstorm shook the hills around the building.
When there are disasters, September 11th, Hurricane Katrina, do you believe the United States is being punished?
Rev. FALWELL: No. We - God doesn't promise to give us special treatment. Unfortunately, we're doing some things - I think killing unborn children brings a retribution, I think it grieves the Lord, but I don't think God hurts innocent people because we hurt innocent people.
INSKEEP: Correct me if I'm wrong. Didn't you make a statement at one time about September 11th, stating that it was?
Rev. FALWELL: No, what I said was - our secularization of America, our attempt to separate from God, could certainly cause the Lord to lift the veil, and I usually added the local church, our sleeping church, and then gays and lesbians and so forth and so on, may have exposed us to international hurt.
INSKEEP: Which brings us back to that question Jerry Falwell considered when he visited his new church. The question was why Falwell's church grew from a dozen members, a few dozen members, to a kind of empire. Part of the answer was the media and part of the answer was what he said. Reverend Jerry Falwell used outrageous statements about liberals or gays.
Rev. FALWELL: You're talking about some of the brash statements. None of them are by chance.
INSKEEP: What do you mean none of them by chance?
Rev. FALWELL: I mean a pastor needs to be media savvy if he's going to reach everybody. I don't mean to be ugly and harsh, but to be forthright and candid, and the result is that people that don't like you start listening.
INSKEEP: Falwell went on to tell a story about how he denounced South Africa's bishop Desmond Tutu and promptly got an appearance on ABC's "Nightline."
MONTAGNE: The day before he died at the age of 73, the Reverend Jerry Falwell and his son drove up to a mountaintop. They took photos near a massive new logo to Falwell's University. In his final sermon this past Sunday, he told churchgoers that he was at peace with death.
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