Even people who might not routinely attend church, and for whom God is a private affair, heard something from the Falwellian pulpit that rang close to truth. What Falwell said may have sounded like bigotry and hatred to some, but to evangelical Christians, his incautious words sounded like traditional values.
In another time, Falwell and other televangelists would have remained on society's fringes, preaching from street corners and, as Hitchens suggested, hawking pencils from cups. Not so long ago, polite people in America didn't wear their religion as raiment.
Educated Christians may have dressed up on Sundays and kept a Bible in the house, but otherwise they whispered prayers at bedside and wouldn't consider holding hands to bless food in a restaurant. It wasn't done.
But come the sexual revolution, abortion, same-sex marriage and the mainstreaming of porn -- along with a media that facilitates ``characters'' in the service of ratings -- and the street preacher got mainstreamed, too. The same forces that created pole-dancing moms and partial-birth abortion also created Jerry Falwell and the religious right.
The problem with Falwell and others of his ilk is the problem all preachers have: They preach. And in Falwell's case, he named himself ``moral,'' as though others who don't tithe to the evangelical weal are hell-bound. Nothing quite makes one want to sign up with the immoral minority than a band of white males declaring themselves the ``moral majority.''
It is axiomatic that if one declares oneself more moral than thou, the impulse is irresistible to prove otherwise. Implicit in the brand, meanwhile, is the pride that always precedes the fall. Irony has never been the fundamentalists' strong suit.
Falwell left his earthly and opulent corpus -- including Liberty University, various charities and a private jet -- at peace with himself, according to friends and family. For Americans ready to see religion return to the private parlor, his departure is the peace that passeth all understanding.