Kathleen Parker

Jerry Falwell's prosaic death in his Liberty University office -- just another body, unresponsive and pulseless, on a random floor -- has elevated speaking ill of the dead to the level of sacrament.

The founder of the Moral Majority may have been a man of God to his 6.5 million followers, but to others, he was a charlatan, a huckster and a dangerous fool.

Atheist provocateur Christopher Hitchens, Falwell's most eloquent critic, described the reverend as an evil old man who fed lies to children and who interfered with the Middle East peace process by encouraging fanatics in Gaza.

Hitchens, whose intellectual virtuosity is an argument for martini lunches, eulogized Falwell without Christian charity. He called him a Chaucerian fraud who probably didn't read the Bible -- or ``any long book'' -- and who pinched ``his chubby little flanks'' each morning in disbelief that he'd gotten away with bilking the credulous yet one more time.

Hitchens is nothing if not perfectly clear. But was Falwell all that? Dangerous and deceitful? Or was he merely passionate in his belief that America was in decline because of its gradual slide away from Judeo-Christian principles?

Like all men, Falwell was neither all good nor all bad -- and not entirely wrong, even if he was often foolish. Among his more infamous declarations, Falwell blamed the 9/11 attacks on our tolerance of feminists, gays and liberals.

True believers -- and even some secular liberals -- might agree that America could use some self-restraint, but Falwell's statement made him easy to dismiss as a ranting fool. Other colorful assertions: that Tinky Winky, the purple, purse-carrying Teletubby cartoon character, was gay, and that the anti-Christ is a Jew and probably alive.

Falwell was, alas, a ``pedi-phile,'' which is not the same as a pedophile. He seemed to love the taste of his own boot.

Whatever one's view of Falwell's literal, hellfire brand of religion, he was not an accidental preacher. That is, he didn't come from nothing, but emerged to fill an apparent need at a time when many Americans perceived that their faith-based world of decency was being eroded by a leftist vision of godless relativity.

As post-modernists gradually redefined decency -- or rather undefined it -- there were no longer any absolutes. Whatever felt good was the new moral code. Falwell articulated the aversion many felt as the broader culture became increasingly alien.

Kathleen Parker

Kathleen Parker is a syndicated columnist with the Washington Post Writers Group.
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