Wednesday, May 16, 2007

My Eulogy for Jerry Falwell

There is an informal rule in our culture that one should not speak ill of the dead, especially not right after their demise. I'm not sure how this taboo arose, and certainly I would not advocate waltzing into the funeral and trash-talking the dear departed to the grieving family. But it seems to me that public figures at least deserve no more immunity from criticism in death than they did in life, and the near post-mortem period is the proper time to begin assessing the legacy of the deceased. Memorial services traditionally include a speech called the "eulogy", a term meaning literally "good word" -- but also "true word". So here in the second sense, is my "eulogy" for Jerry Falwell.

I first heard of the man around 1977, from my then girl-friend (see her post), during the height of my fundamentalist period. In the following years, Falwell became my own poster-boy for everything that most dismayed me about the way so many of my American brethren practiced our then-mutual faith -- the jingoism that identifies the USA with the Kingdom of Heaven; the uncritical endorsement of free-market capitalism as the One True Biblical economic system; the support for militarism and the nuclear arms race; the identification of True Christianity with voting for a particular candidate (with the implicit and explicit demonisation of dissenting views). To me, this verged on idolatry -- a confusion between the Christian's duties to Caesar and to Christ; a blasphemous conflation of one's own temporal interests with God's eternal ones. These are the people who went on to elect Ronald Reagan and George W. Bush.

Sometime around 1990 (a period in which I was increasingly influenced by the pacifist and social-justice message of people like Sojourners) I realized that Falwell and I were no longer practicing the same religion. Oh, we read the same Book, and used the same language about God and Jesus -- but somehow, what we each meant by them, and our priorities, seemed diametrically opposed. My favorite artist of the period, Bruce Cockburn wrote his haunting song "Gospel of Bondage", in part about Jerry Falwell and his brand of Christianity.

By coincidence or not, on the same day Falwell died the BBC website ran an article about different attitudes to global warming among American Evangelicals. The article contrasts attitudes at two Christian colleges, both in Virginia. At Eastern Mennonite University, global warming is seen primarily as a scientific issue, about which action needs to be taken (perhaps not surprising in a denomination with a long tradition of social action). But at Falwell's Liberty University, it's "not proven". Says Liberty's senior theologian, Thomas Ice:
I think global warming is being used like many political issues to try to move the world from nationalism to internationalism or global governance.
How pathetic can you be? To make a determination of empirical fact, not based on the evidence of the phenomenom, but on which alternative fits your favorite conspiracy theory?

So what is Falwell's legacy? Well, when I encounter American political discourse on the 'net, I am constantly struck by the level of rancour displayed. Everyone, it seems, has declared themselves a "liberal" or "conservative", and pronounced anathema on the other side. Well, not quite -- perhaps I'm biassed, but it looks to me like most of the vitriol, the blanket spitefulness, started with and comes from the "conservative" side. Is it too much to trace this partition, this decline in the public dialog necessary to a functioning democracy, to Falwell and his Moral Majority (which, as was pointed out at the time, was in fact neither)? Even as an outsider, I don't think so. He was among the most prominent leaders of the rise of the Christian Right, and reliably sounded the familiar (and vote-getting) themes: anti-abortion, anti-gay, anti-feminist, the uncritically pro-Israel stance of Christian Zionism (based not on any love for the Jews, but on the bizarre and obscene hallucination that is pre-millenial eschatology; in which Jews and Palestinians -- indeed all the peoples of the earth -- are just contestants in the ultimate reality TV show). He set the stage for the unapologetic (but oh-so-Christian) hate-mongers like Ann Coulter.

Just to be fair: I've read that he started some sort of Good Works like substance-abuse recovery houses etc, though I don't know anything about that. But I thought I'd mention it.

One last legacy of the man, that he left me personally: I credit Jerry Falwell with being one of the factors which lead to my alienation from fundamentalism. I suppose I should be grateful to him for that much.

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