Falwell’s Death – the Passing of an Era?


When I was fresh out of seminary, the year was 1980, an election year. I was a newly ordained Episcopal Deacon, serving in a parish with a priest who told me on the first day, “I do not pray.” That same summer I began to get mailings from something called the “Moral Majority.” Those of you who are younger than I will not remember a time when American politics were less polarized – but 1980 is the pivotal year, when, primarily driven by the politics of the abortion debate, politics took on the character of a culture war.

I kept getting inundated with mail. The newly minted “Rev.” on the front of my name put me on mailing lists for groups I’d never heard of. I have to confess that at the time abortion was not a large issue in my voting conscience, nor if you listen to the debates of politicians, was it very large for them either.

In the years since then, much water has gone under the bridge. The polarizations on abortion have grown wider, though, frequently voting one way or another has made little difference other than the makeup of the supreme court (and not much there – Reagan nominated some of the more liberal members of today’s court).

But politics came rushing into religion (or was it the other way around) with a bang. Frequently this has served to sharpen issues (as did the debates surrounding abolition in the 19th century) but has also served to politicize Christianity.

In the years since 1980, I have served in parishes that included one Democrat Governor of South Carolina (later Secretary of Education under Clinton), one Republican Governor of South Carolina (earlier a member of the House of Representatives and now a victim of Alzheimers), their surrounding families and a host of local politicians.

I do not preach politics – I try to preach the gospel. And though the gospel will sometimes have political ramifications, often those ramifications are for the short run, mostly seeking any base of support that will put them over the top.

I believe that the existence of the Church is profoundly political (I did study under Stanley Hauerwas, afterall), but not political in a way that any party should want to endorse. I believe that the Kingdom of God is real and should have such real consequences in our lives that Caesars (under whatever form of government) should tremble before the King of Kings and the Kingdom that is not of this world.

Shortly before the fall of the Soviet Union, on one of the days in which the Politburo stood atop Lenin’s Tomb to watch the parade of Soviet military might pass by, a priest came bursting through the crowd with a handcross in his hand. He shouted, “Michail Sergeivich! Christos Voskrese!” And he was not shot or hampered in any way. It was the signal of a change in that regeme.

There are still plenty of politics in America’s religion, and plenty of religion in America’s politics. There is far too little proclamation to George W. and anyone else in power, “Christ is risen!” Or a recognition by our culture of the significance of the statement.

But Christ is risen, the significance does not depend on anyone’s recognition. Christ is risen and everything else has passed into shadow beneath the power of the Cross. There is a Quaker song that I enjoy that may have more to say to the politics of being a Christian than many things I have heard:

My life goes on in endless song
Above earth’s lamentations,
I hear the real, though far-off hymn
That hails a new creation.

Through all the tumult and the strife
I hear it’s music ringing,
It sounds an echo in my soul.
How can I keep from singing?

While though the tempest loudly roars,
I hear the truth, it liveth.
And though the darkness ’round me close,
Songs in the night it giveth.

No storm can shake my inmost calm,
While to that rock I’m clinging.
Since love is lord of heaven and earth
How can I keep from singing?

When tyrants tremble in their fear
And hear their death knell ringing,
When friends rejoice both far and near
How can I keep from singing?

In prison cell and dungeon vile
Our thoughts to them are winging,
When friends by shame are undefiled
How can I keep from singing?

About Fr. Stephen Freeman

Fr. Stephen is a retired Archpriest of the Orthodox Church in America, Pastor Emeritus of St. Anne Orthodox Church in Oak Ridge, Tennessee. He is also author of Everywhere Present: Christianity in a One-Storey Universe, and Face to Face: Knowing God Beyond Our Shame, as well as the Glory to God podcast series on Ancient Faith Radio.





12 responses to “Falwell’s Death – the Passing of an Era?”

  1. fatherstephen Avatar

    Photo: Painting of the Baptism of St. Vladimir – whom, it should be noted, tithed one tenth of his realm to the Church, outlawed captital punishment and torture – and all that in the 10th century.

  2. Margaret Avatar

    Thank you for taking the time to reflect on this, Fr. Stephen.

  3. November In My Soul Avatar

    I grew up not all that far from Lynchburg and I know many people who attended Liberty University. In fact it’s one of those colleges willing to accept homeschooled children and children educated at non-accredited Christian schools. So the university is very popular in that part of the country.

    I think the issue with Rev. Falwell was not his sincerity but his delivery. I suspect that how he viewed himself and how many people saw him were vastly different.

    But he was successful at forwarding his agenda and drawing attention to the issues he thought important. Did he go too far sometimes? Maybe. Thankfully it’s not our place to judge.

  4. Jfred Avatar

    I interviewed him once during my days as a reporter and found myself liking him quite a bit. He became the “go to” guy to speak on behalf of fundamentalist Christians and he never hesitated to say that the Bible condemns some very specific things.

    And this is what got him into trouble. He didn’t just say “sexual immoralilty,” or “abortion,” he would name it: “lesbianism, homosexuality, perversion, murdering babies in the womb.”

    But what is all to infrequently mentioned, and often edited out, is that he would say that his job was to show love and kindness to everyone.

    But because he projected confidence in his beliefs, and did it all with a southern accent, the media loved to serve him up as a Christian stooge, and unfortunately, Falwell was all too willing to play the game.

    IMO, the media has been irresponsible in failing to find out who the real leaders in the Christian world are. They choose to ignore the thoughtful, scholarly evangelical leaders like Tim Keller, John Piper and RC Sproul, lest someone think that we’re not all a bunch of knuckleheads.

    I cringed everytime I’d hear a news anchor say, “Now let’s get some reaction from the Christian world……..” and up would pop Falwell. You would think they would give us someone new after 25 years, and now that they don’t have Jerry to kick around anymore, they’re going to have to.

  5. David_Bryan Avatar

    St. Vladimir, pray for us.

    Indeed, it’s hard sometimes to remember that our King and Kingdom are not of this world…

    Thank you, Father, for the jaw-dropping reminder that not even our Head can say He has no need of His Body…

  6. Theron Mathis Avatar

    If feel like I should comment on this, but don’t know really what to say. I graduated from Liberty in 1995. I met my wife there. It was a great experience. I met Jerry several times and he always remembered who I was. He was surprisingly friendly and kind regardless of the status of the people he interacted with.

    I think in some weird way, Jerry moved me to Orthodoxy. It was at Liberty that I began a serious study of the early church, and began questioning some of my Evangelical presuppositions. Five years after graduation from Liberty I was chrismated.

    May the Lord have mercy on his soul.

  7. Fatherstephen Avatar

    Please note that I offered no comments on Rev. Falwell. I did not know him, but was aware of his political activity. I think his passing is significant in the contemporary American religious scene.

  8. Theron Mathis Avatar

    Fr. Stephen,

    My comments were in no way a reaction against your post. In fact, I agree wholeheartedly with your assessment. If there was one thing that was frustrating as a student at the University it was the constant political sermons. I think it is definitely an end of an era with his passing. The other interesting thing to watch over the next year is what will happen with the University and church. Falwell may have built the first mega-church which seems highly centered upon one charistmatic leader. What happens in Lynchburg may be an indication of the direction many of the other megachurches around the country will take when their leaders are gone.

  9. Steve Avatar

    What’s interesting to me was seeing the people at Liberty say how Falwell has given them instructions and they will carry on his legacy. Not exactly Paradosis, but tradition? Definitely.

  10. handmaidmaryleah Avatar

    I was surprised to see that the Rev. Jerry Falwell had reposed, it was like an institution had passed, he was just on CNN not a few weeks ago saying that an Atheist could be president. I think he will be missed. He articulated his views and then took the heat, he can be admired for that, he never wavered, right or wrong.
    St. Innocent’s Academy has a lovely version of that hymn on a CD it is beautiful to hear sung acapella, in fact that is their title track.
    Christ is Risen!
    the handmaid,

  11. Justin Avatar

    Enya, my most beloved of singers, has a version of that song. It is nothing short of beautiful.

  12. joseph Avatar

    N.B., the use of “Democrat” as an adjective is considered perjorative by many, and should be “Democratic,” as in, “The Democratic governor…” The use of “Democrat” as an adjective is a modern innovation used by Republicans to, I suspect, lessen the stress on the “democratic” connotations of the correct word.

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