When I first glanced at Michael Sean Winter's new biography of the late Jerry Falwell, God's Right Hand: How Jerry Falwell Made God a Republican and Baptized the American Right, my temptation was to give it a fast scan and then just mention it here on the blog.
Falwell (pictured below), after all, was far from my favorite preacher, and I thought the book's title was a bit too cutesy, buying into the same divisive rhetoric that Falwell used so annoyingly over and over.
But the more I read the more I became convinced that this is an important book that anyone who wants to understand today's political and religious divides in the United States would do well to read.
If nothing else, Winter's description of fundamentalism (Falwell happily identified himself as a fundamentalist Christian) is worth the price of the book:
"Fundamentalism is a self-contained intellectual whole. From the inside, it is supremely coherent and everything fits neartly into place. There is a certainty and a clarity to fundamentalism: all the answers to all life's questions are found in the Bible if you know where to look. This certainty and clarity are opaque to those on the outside, and fundamentalism is ill suited to dialogue with nonfundamentalist believers. Fundamentalists do not recognize the kind of mediating intellectual traditions by which people of different points of view find common ground or, at least, clarify their differences. Conversely, most modern thinkers, even most modern religious thinkers, who do not share the fundamentalists' views about biblical inerrancy, find fundamentalist discourse and methods of analysis confounding. Fundamentalism is forceful but blunt. It is morally rigorous but not intellectually curious. Fundamentalism is accessible but not dexterous. Fundamentalism conforms easily to parts of American culture but is profoundly countercultural in other parts. In all these regards, fundamentalism conformed well to Falwell's personality. . ."
In a world full of perplexing uncertainty, Jerry Falwell was the prophet of certitude. He was often wrong but never in doubt, at least not in doubt in public. It was his baptizing of certitude that constituted his most destructive disservice to American Christianity and to reasonable and civil public discourse. (In some ways I thought Winters was too soft on Falwell for these things.)
It's partly because of Falwell (though far from him alone) that so many Americans can neither talk to nor understand one another today in civil ways. He helped to create the nasty divisions among us by being so certain that God had deputized him to deliver stark black and white truths (some of which even he had to take back). In the end, Falwell gave zealotry a bad name as many Americans outside of or only nominally attached to Christianity began to assume that he (and Pat Robertson and such folks) spoke for all Christians.
Falwell's certitude exposed the inability of followers of more thoughtful forms of Christianity to state their case and join in the discussion in a way in which they could be heard. He drowned out voices of reason, who proved inept at explaining themselves or gaining enough attention at least to try.
Winter's book does an excellent job in helping to humanize a man who might otherwise have become nothing but a cartoony charicature. We find that Falwell really was a devoted family man (though his family of origin was messed up in many ways) who, unlike many televangelists, never was unfaithful to his wife, Macel.
And Winters describes a man who, though he may have been sloppy at times (especially early in his ministry) about finances, was thoroughly honest.
These characteristics gave Falwell credibility that public sinners like Jimmy Swaggart and Jim Bakker lost by their own actions. And that credibility helped to draw people into his no-nuances approach to Christianity.
What Jerry Falwell never seemed to grasp was that faith does not mean having all the answers. Rather, faith means living confidently without all the answers. It means having a willingness to wrestle with the questions. It means understanding that at the core of Christianity is paradox, not certitude. Other forms of Christianity don't always get this right, either, but in most non-fundamentalist forms there is at least a willingness to ask hard questions and challenge conventional wisdom in an effort to own one's faith in deeper ways.
By the way, did you know that Falwell once spent a bit of time as a youth pastor in Kansas City? After graduating from Baptist Bible College in Springfield, Mo., he came in 1955 to the Kansas City Baptist Temple (which recently changed its name to Graceway), which Winters once misidentifies as the Kansas City Bible Temple.
I asked Jeff Adams, the pastor of Graceway, about the Falwell time there. In reply, Jeff said that "Jerry Falwell did indeed serve as youth pastor here. . . As I understand the story, he was a student at Baptist Bible College in Springfield, Mo., and would drive up on weekends. I'm not sure how long that lasted, but not long. You might be interested to know that for a time Jerry was college roommate with Truman Dollar, the senior pastor here before me. Wendell Zimmerman founded the church in April of 1943. Truman followed him in 1968. I came in 1984 and am just the third senior pastor since 1943."
Falwell was a dedicated man with many skills. The sad thing to me is that he employed those skills to promote false certitude, which has not served either the nation or the church well. Such certitude is a product of fundamentalism, a rigidity that serves no religion well.
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LOVE GOD, BURN NEIGHBOR?
Religious intimidation comes in all shapes and sizes. An 18-year-old Hasidic Jew in New York has just pleaded guilty to setting another Jew on fire for not praying with the community in the synagogue. That was like a taste of hell, except that so is hanging out with people who would do that.
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P.S.: My latest National Catholic Reporter column now is online. To read it, click here.