In the main building of the Liberty University campus in Lynchburg, Va., there is a Jerry Falwell museum.
The first exhibit you see when you walk through the door is devoted to Falwell's father. Carey Falwell was a nonbeliever, a successful entrepreneur, a hoodlum, bootlegger and gunman who shot his own brother dead two years before the end of Prohibition — not the kind of family skeleton usually put on public display by a university founder.
But the Rev. Jerry Falwell, who started Liberty University in 1971 and grew it into the largest evangelical institution of higher learning in the land, was not an ordinary college president. He was, first and foremost, a Baptist minister, and his Corey Falwell exhibit was meant to convey that even the son of a sinner can become a man of G-d.
It was also a not very subtle reminder that Falwell came from tough stock. He was a Christian who couldn't be counted on to turn the other cheek.
When I mentioned this to Falwell, whom I met a number of times while writing my last book, he readily agreed. Falwell gloried in his common-man persona, and he viewed himself as a roughneck compared with his lifelong rival, the Rev. Pat Robertson. Known to his friends as "Doc," he was a man who didn't mind laughing at himself — or at his fellow evangelicals. (One of the country's leading Pentecostal figures broke off relations after Falwell publicly sneered at her effort to heal a chicken through faith. "We Baptists don't save chickens, we eat them," he told her.)
No chicken was safe within Falwell's grasp, and he liked them deep-fried. I dined with him several times, and he ate with the aplomb of a fellow whose cardiologist was Jesus. A pre-millennial Baptist, he believed that G-d sorted things out in G-d's own time. He also expected to go to heaven.
Falwell was a theological fatalist but a political activist. If this seems like a common combination today, that is largely due to Falwell himself. Before he came along, evangelical Christianity was inward looking. The Baptists, especially, had been badly burned by the failure of Prohibition and the mockery of the Scopes trial and turned away from politics during the first half of the 20th century. As a young preacher, Falwell asserted that the church had no business getting involved in such issues.
"I meant well, but I was wrong," he wrote in his autobiography. This change of heart was one of the many unintended consequences of the Supreme Court's 1973 Roe vs. Wade decision, which galvanized Falwell. He got into politics not out of love but out of hatred for "abortion, the drug traffic, pornography, child abuse and immorality in all its ugly, life-destroying forms."
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