Cover Story

Falwell's mountains

"Falwell's mountains" Continued...

Issue: "Jerry Falwell," May 26, 2007

Some gay activists disgraced themselves. In San Francisco on the day Falwell died, demonstrators carried a 3-foot-high Tinky Winky to Castro and 18th streets, sometimes called "the crossroads of Gay America," and "reminded people about this Bible-beating bigot's horrible legacy." One activist put down a square of AstroTurf to represent Falwell's grave and invited people to dance on it; some did. Gay blogger Michael Petrelis predicted more fun to come: "When uber-bigot and primo gay-hater Senator Jesse Helms finally meets his maker, our subsequent celebration will make the Falwell event look like a Sunday tea party at the vicarage."

Some gay blog commenters disagreed with such tactics. One wrote, "This is just trashy. i'm bi and i try to lead by example: what kind of example does childish behavior like this set?" Others called it "a TOTALLY classless display" and warned that "protests against him now (and celebrations of his death) can easily backfire in the media."

But many blogs included comments ranging from "When I heard that Falwell had died I opened a bottle of champagne" to "Hopefully someone runs a train on your corpse." Some atheists expressed sudden belief in the existence of hell, as long as that would be Falwell's destination. Other reactions, unprintable here, received admonitions in response: "Hey man, regardless of your thoughts, the man is dead and a whole community is grieving. Give it some time before you bash."

In Lynchburg, a whole community was grieving. Realtor Brenda Phelps described how five days before Falwell died he handed out diplomas to pre-kindergarten kids at his church's early learning center. He tapped her grandson on the head with his diploma, hugged others, and posed for photos. "It was such a proud thing for us," Phelps recalled. "How loved he was."

In the 1960s Phelps lived near Falwell's early church building, and she recalls, "My daddy absolutely could not stand him." One Sunday churchgoers parked in front of their house. After that, "My daddy would take kitchen chairs and sit out in the street just so they couldn't park there. He said to Jerry, 'You may get all of Lynchburg but you'll never get me.' A couple of years later Jerry reminded my daddy of that when he baptized him."

Phelps said her father "had been an alcoholic, had never been inside of a church. Then he was caught drinking and driving. . . . He went to Jerry the next day and Jerry helped lead him to the Lord." Her father stopped drinking, stopped cursing, and became a church usher.

Lynchburg has many stories like that, and Falwell knew about how God changes people-starting with himself. As a high-school student with an atheistic dad and a devout mom, he was a star athlete but also a joker who lost his opportunity to give his high-school valedictorian's speech when he was caught using counterfeit lunch tickets. He messed around with what were then called juvenile delinquents until he became a born-again Christian at age 19.

Falwell later changed in other ways as well. He admitted in his autobiography that he was once a racist. He at times apologized for over-the-top statements. In recent years he said that he was not a fundamentalist. He also oversaw change at Liberty: The coats and ties that male students wore at Liberty seven years ago have largely disappeared, and diverse strains of Bible-upholding Christian theology are present now among the faculty.

But he did not change his folksy, country-preacher style, and that grated among some members of the press. Nor did he change the position on gay rights that he summarized in his autobiography 10 years ago: "Although I see homosexual practice as a moral wrong and do not favor their being singled out as a specially protected minority, I do not want to deny homosexual men or lesbian women their civil rights or take away their right to accommodations of employment or even their right to teach in public schools as long as they don't use the classroom to promote homosexuality as an alternative life-style."

That was a long way from sufficient for gay lobbyists. Matt Foreman, executive director of the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force, called Falwell "someone who demonized and vilified us for political gain and someone who used religion to divide rather than unite our nation." But Alan Chambers, president of the outreach ministry Exodus International, recalled the pastor's support for those who struggled with their same-sex attraction: "Rev. Falwell will be remembered for his consistent emphasis on the truth that Jesus Christ loves and offers salvation to every individual regardless of their past."

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