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.
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.
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