The moment that almost redeemed Falwell

May 20, 2007|By Leonard Pitts Jr.

A few words about the Rev. Jerry Falwell's finest hour.

Some would say his life did not produce many such hours but, rather, a surfeit of regrettable ones. Like in 1958, when he preached that God meant for black Americans to serve white ones. Like in 1985, when he offered warm support to the apartheid government of South Africa and denounced Bishop Desmond Tutu as a "phony." Like in 1999, when he published an article warning parents that Tinky Winky of the toddlers' show Teletubbies was gay. Like in 2001, when he blamed abortion providers, gay rights proponents and the American Civil Liberties Union for the Sept. 11 attacks.

Though seldom as flat-out nutty as the Rev. Pat Robertson, Mr. Falwell, who died Tuesday, nevertheless had an uncanny ability to miss the moment. Time after time when great issues of the day demanded moral leadership, the founder of the Moral Majority proved himself bereft of same.

Which is what makes that finest hour fine.

It happened in 1999, when Mr. Falwell and other Christian conservatives met with a group of gay, lesbian and transgender people of faith. As gay observers condemned the gay delegation for its involvement and his fellow Christians excoriated Mr. Falwell for his, the two groups worshiped together and talked.

Mr. Falwell and the Rev. Mel White, leader of Soulforce, a group of gay Christian activists, said they organized the meeting out of a sense that the language between them and the groups they represented had become harsh, acrid, un-Christian. If they could not change one another's minds, they reasoned, perhaps they could at least change one another's words. In the spirit of the moment, each apologized for hateful language directed at the other. It was a brave and moral moment.

In a column I wrote at the time, I warned both sides that, while it's easy to stigmatize anonymous others, it would become a lot more difficult after they had spent time in one another's company, gotten to know each other a little. "How," I asked, "do you go back to being who you were and hating as blindly as you did?" The answer, I said, is that you don't.

Which was way too optimistic. It wasn't quite two years later that Mr. Falwell blamed gays for the terrorist attacks.

Still, as we pause to assess his legacy, it's hard not to glance back at that 1999 meeting with a certain respect for what the two sides sought to achieve.

With Mr. Robertson and a few others, Jerry Falwell presided over the rise of a Christianity unrecognizable to many of us who were raised in that faith. This Christianity's moral purview was reduced to two issues: abortion and homosexuality. It had nothing to say about feeding the hungry, housing the homeless, helping the helpless.

Worse, it was mean, smug and self-satisfied. The language of faith, forgiveness and forbearance became the language of demonization, marginalization and objectification - the language of us against them, particularly where "them" were gay.

That's why the 1999 meeting seemed such a hopeful - and, more to the point, such a Christian - thing, the sort of thing you should be able to expect from men and women of God.

That you can't says much about the Christianity Mr. Falwell helped create. In girding it for political warfare, he seemed to simultaneously strip it of the revolutionary love that is supposed to be at its core.

When he reclaimed that love eight years ago, Mr. Falwell did himself proud, as he had not done before, as he would not do again. So that moment is a singular thing, filled with if.

Makes you sad for what was. Sadder still for what might have been.

Leonard Pitts Jr. is a columnist for The Miami Herald. His column appears Sundays in The Sun. His e-mail is lpitts@miamiherald.com.

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