Yesterday a friend from Los Angeles called. The person is successful, known, part of the entertainment industry. "Jerry Falwell is," my friend said "the reason I can't call myself a Christian in Hollywood. He is what everyone thinks about when they hear the word, 'Christian.'"
That may well be Jerry Falwell's most enduring and most troubling legacy - Jerry Falwell almost single handedly blurred the line between Jesus and conservative politics to the detriment of both.
Though he was a largely marginalized political figure in the later years of his life, Falwell took great pride in the political behemoth he helped create. He knew that without Jerry Falwell, the religious right wouldn't be what it is today and he liked that. It is the single most powerful political force in American politics – a force unrivaled in raw political power since the unions at their height in post-World War II America. And in tone, style, passion, and orientation, it is Jerry Falwell's child.
But the man who once said that pastors should just preach Jesus from the pulpit and not bring the pulpit into politics also had to see that he had failed. The America Jerry Falwell said goodbye to yesterday is an America more politically divided and culturally coarse, more violent, and less loving than the one he tried to start "saving " through political action in the 1970s. In the 30 years since he brought politics to his pulpit and his pulpit to politics, conservative Bill Bennett documents that divorces are up, out-of-wedlock births are up, family formation is down, crime is up, drug use is up, teen sexual activity is up. And church attendance is down.
Falwell's great bet – that political power could create a more Christian America than the humble preaching of Jesus could – failed.
Then there is the matter of faith itself. Whether deserved or undeserved, whether it is stereotype or reality, Jerry Falwell became the face of American Christianity. His strident stands on abortion made people think that to be a Christian meant having to adopt exactly his stand on abortion – no ifs, ands or buts. There was no nuance, there was little public grace on such matters. His truly horrifying statements about AIDS being God's condemnation on homosexuals may have turned more people away from Jesus than could fill all of today's mega churches. And then there were his statements about 9/11. His bizarre words blaming people who had abortions, people who were gay, people who didn't adopt his politics – and wrapping them in the blanket of his faith were spiritually destructive beyond words.
The nature of the Christian faith, however, is hope; hope in the unseen, hope in the goodness of God, hope in resurrection. So here, now, with his passing there is the chance to begin again the discussion of what it means to be a Christian, what it means to follow Jesus, what it means to sacrificially love others. If, out of that, more people come to know the Jesus of the Gospels rather than the Jesus of the GOP then it may well be that Jerry Falwell's ultimate legacy may be that he helped lead people back to God. And that, I want to believe, is what he wanted in the first place.
David Kuo is an evangelical Christian and the author of "Tempting Faith." He's a former deputy director of the office of faith-based community initiatives in the Bush administration. He also writes the Jwalking blog at Beliefnet.com.