By MARK A. KELLNER, Adventist Review News Editor, reporting from Lynchburg, Virginia
hose looking for oracular significance in the relatively low-key funeral of 73-year-old Dr. Jerry Falwell, Southern Baptist firebrand and “Moral Majority” founder, may ultimately be disappointed. Many reporters working in the literal media “echo chamber” — remotely viewing the event in an academy gymnasium adjacent to Falwell’s Thomas Road Baptist Church — began their reports noting the lack of major political figures in attendance. Their claim: Falwell’s day had passed, his influence had waned.
True, the service drew neither the President of the United States of America, nor the Vice President. Virginia’s two United States Senators were not on hand, nor was the governor, a self-professed man of faith. About the highest-ranking political officials were Virginia’s lieutenant governor and attorney general, each eyeing a statewide run this year.
But the lack of dignitaries and politicos – not a single 2008 presidential candidate of either party attended – might be an inaccurate measure of the legacy Falwell leaves behind. A better indication might be the impact he had on a once-sleepy southern hamlet, measured by the reverent presence of his church members on the day of the funeral.
The line formed outside the Thomas Road church at 1:30 in the morning. A quartet of high school students, congregants, fell in at 6:45 a.m., saying they had "grown up in the church." Even though they were young enough to be his grandchildren, they felt a connection with Falwell: "His message was to be a better person," 15-year-old Ashley Pinigis declared.
Falwell, noted for many years as the founder of the Moral Majority, an evangelical political movement which was credited in part with putting Ronald Reagan in the White House, died after being found unconscious in his office at Liberty University, the 27,000-student school which has graduated 125,000 in 36 years. His church has 24,000 members and claims to have led 3.5 million people to make “decisions for Christ.”
"He was a megachurch before megachurches were cool," declared fellow Southern Baptist pastor Jerry Vines, who preached the funeral sermon. Falwell, Vines said, claimed “'I believe God has called me to confront the culture,' and did he ever confront it! And the political landscape of America has been different since that day because he had a special touch for a special task."
A married couple, Glenn and Diane Carniol, stood farther back in the line, which snaked around the massive Thomas Road Baptist Church, out of respect for their pastor and Mrs. Carniol's employer: she is a teacher at the Liberty Christian Academy, the school where reporters from around the nation and across the world gathered to report on a funeral which may have marked the end of an era of evangelical politics, or at least a major transition.
Politics were not on the minds of the Carniols, who said Falwell's enterprise made Lynchburg a larger and more prosperous town, and also a friendlier one: "In 1974, if you weren't from Lynchburg, people wouldn't speak to you [on the street]," Glenn Carniol said. "It's a much friendlier town because of Jerry Falwell," Diane Carniol added.
There was a sprinkling of famous faces in attendance at the memorial service, which packed out the church Falwell started more than 50 years ago, spilling the overflow crowd into other venues on the campus. The White House sent Tim Goeglein, deputy public liaison director, to offer condolences from the pulpit: "Jerry Falwell was a friend of this administration; he was a force of nature,” Goeglein said. “Of all my time in the White House I have never met a man that loved God and country more than Jerry Falwell.”
A Chicago-based Jewish leader, Rabbi Yechiel Eckstein of the International Fellowship of Christians and Jews, attended the Falwell rites, acknowledging it was unusual for a Jewish cleric to heap praise on an evangelical Christian. Eckstein told reporters that Falwell opposed then U.S. President Ronald Reagan's speaking at a cemetery in Bitburg, Germany, where Nazi soldiers had been buried: "Jerry Falwell was one of the few evangelical Christian leaders who agreed [with our protest]. It was not just when it was convenient that he stood with Israel," Eckstein said.
Franklin Graham, son of evangelist Billy Graham, spoke seriously about the late televangelist: “People have asked me, ‘Franklin, did you agree with Jerry Falwell?’” he said. “I said, ‘Every time he opened the Bible, I agreed with Jerry Falwell.’”
Goeglein hinted at a future political legacy for Liberty graduates, claiming the school “had come to the White House” via a number of interns and job candidates. He said during “the last conversation I had with Jerry Falwell, among all the things he was praising God for, he was pleased there was a new generation committed to first principles.”
Yet for those who favor a strict separation of church and state, something Falwell’s views often appeared to brush up against, the commingling of religion and temporal rule offered potential pitfalls.
Clifford Goldstein, a longtime Adventist observer of Falwell's ventures into the political arena, said the deceased preacher was a "prime example of how, no matter how well meaning Christians are when they jump in [to politics], they ultimately lose more than they gain. They get pulled in by the whole system …and tend to get dragged down by it.”
Perhaps that loss was noted in the dearth of political celebrities at the event; then again, Falwell was, first and foremost, a pastor to his congregation, and the overwhelming share of those patiently lined up for the service were his flock, including thousands of young Liberty students, and those aspiring to attend the school Falwell built into an evangelical Christian powerhouse.
If that generation picks up Falwell’s political mantle, the quick dismissals by some in the media may yet ring hollow. Falwell’s sons, Jonathan and Jerry, Jr., were primed to take over both the church and university. While the tone and style may change, there appears to be no departure from their father’s beliefs, religious or political.