Leader Blues

Monday, May 21, 2007

EDITORIALS>>A preacher's legacy

If a pastor is God’s vicar on earth, his life ought to be measured by the number of souls that he saved or at least by his effort. By that assessment, Rev. Jerry Falwell, who died suddenly on Tuesday, would have to have been deemed a successful pastor because the vast church and television audience that his rich voice and promotional skills developed must have reached lots of lost sinners.

We can never be quite sure of that effect, but we are quite sure that his legacy is larger and very different from that. Falwell certainly believed that it was, and the reaction to his death — the fulsome or polite encomiums in the mainstream media and the ridicule in the blogging world — attests to it.

Jerry Falwell never believed Edmund Burke’s dictum that politics and the pulpit had little in agreement. “No sound ought to be heard in the church but the healing voice of Christian charity,” the great conservative statesman wrote to a member of the National Assembly in 1791.

Pastor Falwell did more than anyone else besides perhaps his friend and follower Pat Robertson to secularize religion, which is one of the central developments of our era. He delivered to the Republican Party in the United States its biggest favor or its biggest curse, depending on your view, by pronouncing the GOP to be God’s Own Party. He and Robertson embraced the Republican Party and its leaders unflinchingly, and the party over his generation refashioned itself into the Falwell mold — the scourge of abortion, homosexuals and women’s rights and the government enforcer of religious doctrine.

He placed his church’s and God’s stamp on whatever initiative a Republican president or the party leaders undertook: repeal of the tax on vast inheritances, repeal of taxes on investment income, opposition to the minimum wage and, of course, support for both invasions of Iraq.

What the George W. Bush administration carefully only hinted — that Saddam Hussein had something to do with the 9/11 attacks — Rev. Falwell stated as fact although that connection never materialized and President Bush would insist that he had never suggested that the dictator had anything to do with the attacks.

Occasionally, his exuberance or vitriol embarrassed the president as when he said that the United States deserved the 9/11 attacks. God was punishing the United States for its immoral drift, Rev. Falwell said, by continuing “to lift the curtain and allow the enemies of America to give us probably what we deserve.” He said God was furious at the American Civil Liberties Union, the People for the American Way and federal courts and suggested that He took His fury out on the victims in the World Trade Center.

The worldwide scourge of AIDS, the preacher said, was God’s punishment to homosexuals although the disease touched millions, including children, who did not engage in homosexual sex. He suggested that HIV sufferers should be herded into compounds and quarantined like infected cattle or lepers.

He delivered all his screeds with biblical certitude and never made corrections for factual errors or missteps but only explanations as when to tamp down the fury over his 9/11 remarks, saying that he did not intend to shift blame from the terrorists.

His skills and his message brought him greater influence and wealth than any clergyman of the 20th century. He altered the politics of his time. Whether he advanced the faith or merely gave it a heartless face is another matter. That judgment is not left to us.