WASHINGTON – The Rev. Dr. Jerry Falwell, the controversial figure remembered for his provocative comments and for bringing evangelicals to the forefront of politics, has left Christians divided on him as a man but united on his immense impact on Christianity and the nation.
As the face of Christian fundamentalism, Falwell has been praised by supporters for his unabashed criticism of secular culture and his fierce upholding of biblical truth.
“It was Jerry who led an entire wing of Christianity, the fundamentalist wing, away from isolation and into a direct confrontation with culture,” recalled Dr. James Dobson, founder of Focus on the Family Action, in a statement issued honoring Falwell’s life.
“It was my honor to share the front lines with him in the battle for righteousness in our nation. We will continue that fight, in his honor, until our mutual goals are achieved.”
Similarly, the Rev. Franklin Graham, son of the Rev. Billy Graham and president and CEO of Samaritan’s Purse and the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association, adored Falwell for his strong stance on biblical teachings and called Falwell a “giant” in the Christian world.
“He was very strong on his moral convictions and what he believed,” said Franklin on CNN’s Larry King Live on Wednesday. “He would not back down. And that was controversial, especially in a world where everybody has to be politically correct.
“Jerry stood by what he believed. And that’s what I appreciate about the man.”
Falwell, 73, died Wednesday morning after being found unconscious in his office at Liberty University, the school he founded, in Lynchburg, Va. Falwell’s physician, Dr. Carl Moore, presumes that he died of a heart rhythm abnormality after having suffered several years from a heart condition, according to The Associated Press.
Meanwhile, Falwell’s critics – although acknowledging his profound impact on American Christianity – found fault with his uncensored public statements on homosexuality, abortion and God’ judgment.
Among his most polarizing statements was his comment following the Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attack when he said on Pat Robertson’s “The 700 Club” that he believes the tragedy is essentially the consequence of God’s judgment on gays, lesbians, abortion providers, and feminists in the nation. He later apologized for his remarks.
“Some media pundits tended to think of Falwell as representative of American Christianity, but most church leaders, while claiming him as a ‘brother in Christ,’ strongly differed with many of his outspoken views, including his puzzling denunciation of the ‘Teletubbies’ children’s TV program,” said the Rev. Bob Edgar, general secretary of the National Council of Churches USA, in a statement.
Falwell had accused the creators of the PBS children’s series “Teletubbies” of promoting homosexuality through the purple teletubby Tinky Winky and warned parents that the show was morally damaging to children.
Moreover, the late Christian leader has also drawn criticism for saying AIDS is God’s punishment for homosexuality and supporting apartheid.
Yet Christian leaders who would disagree with Falwell on almost everything expressed awe at his leadership abilities and his personal likeability.
“We didn’t agree on anything. I mean we really debated…We used to do a weekly debate on another show,” recalled the Rev. Al Sharpton, president of National Action Network, on Larry King.
“But he was the kind of person, as you got to know him, you couldn’t dislike. He was a genuinely kind person.”
Sharpton also recalled Falwell’s gift for organizing people.
“He was a regular guy who had a phenomenal ability to organize,” said Sharpton. “Even though I was against all of what he organized for, he really showed an iconic level of putting people together in this country. You had to appreciate his ability even if you felt they were misused.”
Falwell leaves behind a legacy that includes one of the nation’s first megachurches, the 24,000-member Thomas Road Baptist Church in Lynchburg, Va.; one of the largest evangelical university in the world, the 25,000-student Liberty University; as well as Christian elementary schools, homes for unwed mothers and a home for alcoholics.
He is survived by his wife of 49 years, Macel Pate Falwell, three children, and eight grandchildren.
Falwell will lie in repose at Liberty University and the sanctuary of the new Thomas Road Baptist Church for public viewings from May 17-18 and May 20-21, respectively. Falwell’s funeral will take place next Tuesday at Thomas Road Baptist Church.