It was almost exactly 28 years ago that, freshly out of college, I toyed with the idea of my first professional writing adventure. My college roommate Joe Duggan had approached me with the proposition that we freelance a profile piece on the man who was grabbing national headlines with his political activism. We drove down to Lynchburg Va., attended a service at the Thomas Road Baptist Church and then settled in for an hour-long interview with its founder, the Rev. Jerry Falwell.
Yesterday, along with my son, I returned to that church for another service, this time joined by the 6,000 packed inside the building, and thousands more seated at Liberty University's Vines Center and Williams Stadium, to pay my final respects.
His story is one of extraordinary professional accomplishments: The Thomas Road Baptist Church, with 24,000 members; Liberty University, with 27,000 students and 125,000 graduates; "The Old Time Gospel Hour" radio and television programs -- on and on it goes, a ministerial enterprise that operated on a $200 million annual budget. And along the way, he also founded the Moral Majority, the political juggernaut critically instrumental in the election of Ronald Reagan.
That was the professional Falwell. Over years, I came to know Jerry Falwell on a personal basis, not nearly as well as others, but well enough to know -- and say unequivocally -- that he was one of the most gracious, kindly, modest men in the public arena, deeply in love with Jesus Christ, his country and his fellow man.
Which brings sadness. What, then, evokes the sheer venom aimed at him by so many who couldn't wait, and wouldn't allow his family and followers a moment of privacy before unloading broadsides of hate-filled vitriol?
It wasn't hard to disagree with Jerry Falwell. As a Catholic, I could easily differ with many of his theological positions. I didn't always side with him on politics, either. But these disagreements never reached the point of enmity because I could applaud him for so much more. Yet Falwell had many real enemies, men and women who refused to applaud him for anything during his lifetime, instead reserving their ovations for the news of his death.
Falwell, like any great leader, was controversial. True leadership by its very definition always generates controversy. Falwell was controversial because he dared reintroduce morality into the public square, with rhetorical passion -- and sometimes with excessive rhetorical passion.
Every obituary in the mainstream press has regurgitated Falwell's ill-timed statement after 9-11, for which he was condemned by liberals and conservatives alike, and for which he would later apologize. That is part of the historical record and deserved inclusion. But for his enemies, it should be the centerpiece of his obituary -- that which by its essence would define Falwell as an extremist, at the virtual exclusion of his manifold achievements.
National Review Online's Kathryn Lopez provides insight. A reporter was in one of the congressional galleries when word of Falwell's death arrived. He emailed her this: "The reaction from the reporters? Grins and chuckles mostly. One grizzled journalist said, 'I hope they (CNN) remember all the horrible things he said.' Another reporter simply said, 'It is a good day.'"
Those sentiments were then made public by others. With the headline "Sigh of Relief Over Falwell's Death," Chicago Sun-Times columnist Cathleen Falsani wrote, "In fact, my very first thought upon hearing of the Rev. Falwell's passing was: Good ... 'good' as in 'Ding-dong, the witch is dead.'"
Vanity Fair's professional atheist Christopher Hitchens to CNN's Anderson Cooper the night Falwell died: "I think it's a pity there isn't a hell for him to go to. ... The empty life of this ugly little charlatan. ... Such a little toad. ... This horrible person. ... I'm glad to see he skipped the rapture, just found on the floor of his office. ... He was a bully and a fraud."
Amanda Marcotte, the former official blogger for the Edwards for President campaign: "The gates of Hell swing open, and Satan welcomes his beloved son."
Bill Maher on HBO: "And now, New Rule: Death Isn't Always Sad. ... Millions asked why, why, God, why didn't you take Pat Robertson with him? ... I know you're not supposed to speak ill of the dead, but I think we can make an exception."
On and on it goes, sadly. In the end, God will sort things out, and at the moment of His choosing will pass judgment on us all. As one eulogist reminded his audience yesterday, "God doesn't promise us tomorrow, but He does promise eternity." It is a paradise that must be earned, however. At the end of the day, Jerry Falwell was controversial to so many simply because he loved God unconditionally. That alone will earn him that eternity, in Paradise.