Jerry Falwell was a polarizing figure. The founder of The Moral Majority, he married evangelical Christianity to a political agenda, and mobilized millions to push it through. He angered some and inspired others. Falwell died in 2007, but two weeks before his passing he sat down with Kevin Roose, a Liberty University student and author from a secular background. This is what happened:
Every afternoon around three o’clock, Dr. Jerry Falwell drinks a bottle of Diet Peach Snapple very, very quickly. I know this because he told me so, and because right now, I’m watching him in action. First, he removes the plastic seal over the cap with a utility knife. He cuts horizontally, then vertically, then horizontally again, straining and struggling for the proper angle. It takes a little while, but he succeeds eventually, and once the cap is off, it’s five seconds, tops, before the empty bottle is set back down on the table. I’ve never seen anything like it.
Today is my interview with the Chancellor for the Liberty Champion, and this speed-drinking spectacle is a probably a good distraction. After all, marveling at the way Dr. Falwell guzzles his iced tea is a lot easier on my nerves than contemplating the reality of who he is. When you’re sitting five feet away from a man who has held the ear of five U.S. Presidents, a man whose Moral Majority changed the course of modern American politics, and whose life work has won the adoration of millions of people and the fear and loathing of millions more, it’s good to have a little mental distance. So … the Snapple.
I was actually feeling mildly relaxed about this interview until I checked my email this morning and saw the flood of panicked notes from my friends and family in the secular world, who apparently consider a tête à tête with Jerry Falwell about as safe as a lox brunch with Hannibal Lecter. The emails said things like “PLEASE be careful with him” and “Be aware that he is crazy like a fox.” Then there was the one from Mrs. Mott, the Champion’s faculty advisor, who seems to have realized that what she did in my case—assigned a major feature to a student she doesn’t know from Adam isn’t exactly standard protocol. She wrote: “Normally, such interviews are granted to senior staff members to who much trust has been given. As a new reporter, you will want to conduct the interview in a professional manner.”
Armed with all that emotional support, I put on a shirt and tie and walked over to the Chancellor’s office, which is housed in an opulent white estate in the middle of campus (Liberty students call it “the Mansion”). When I arrived, Dr. Falwell’s secretary escorted me past the reception area, where a portrait of Ronald Reagan hangs high on the wall, to the waiting room, where I spent 10 sweaty-palmed minutes staring at a bookshelf that contained such titles as Falwell: The Autobiography, Jerry Falwell: Aflame for God and Strength for the Journey: an Autobiography by Jerry Falwell. (A secular friend of mine quipped that this shelf could be called “Barnes & Ignoble.”)
When the secretary came for me, I wiped my hands on my pant legs and followed her down the hall through a thick wooden door, around a quick bend, and into a cavernous room where Dr. Falwell, clad in his signature black suit and red tie with a shimmering “Jesus First” lapel pin, stood to shake my hand.
“Come on in, Kevin!” he bellowed.
The first thing to know about Dr. Jerry Falwell is that his office is nice. The walls are lined with rich, dark wood, the high-back leather chair looks like it was plucked from Donald Trump’s personal collection, and there’s a private powder room next to the door. The shelves are smattered with portraits of Dr. Falwell’s personal heroes, men like Mickey Mantle and Winston Churchill, and carved wooden eagles and antique globes fill the space behind his desk. Everything is neat, tidy, polished to a shine. Dr. Falwell’s moral platform may be up for debate, but his taste in office décor is fairly unimpeachable.
The second thing to know is that, at the moment, Dr. Falwell is tired. After he drank his Snapple, he slouched down in his chair, splayed his legs out in front of him, and hasn’t budged since. As I introduce myself and tell him about the premise of my interview, he closes his eyes and breathes slowly and heavily, as if meditating. I don’t blame him. It’s been a hectic few weeks in the Falwell empire. After the Virginia Tech disaster, Dr. Falwell had to scramble to organize a prayer service at Thomas Road and comfort the Liberty community by email. (“During times like these when unexpected tragedy strikes,” he wrote, “I tend to refer to 1 Peter 5:7, which tells that we worship a God who is wholly concerned about us.”)
In addition to his usual slate of media appearances, he’s been busy denouncing the “Emergent Church,” a growing branch of evangelicalism that de-emphasizes political issues like abortion and gay marriage and seeks to return to a more “spiritual” (read: liberal) form of Christianity. This afternoon, he’ll be conducting a groundbreaking ceremony for a new Religion department building on campus, and he’s still fending off media pressure to endorse a candidate for the 2008 presidential election. Carrying out any one of these roles—mega-church pastor, theological gatekeeper, university president, conservative political icon—would exhaust most 73-year-old men, and even though Dr. Falwell is a renowned workaholic (one Newsweek profiler wrote of his 19-hour workdays fueled by a dozen cups of coffee), I can’t imagine he has a lot of energy to spare.
So today, I’m giving him a break. With the Champion’s permission, I’m planning to ask Dr. Falwell all the questions Anderson Cooper would never bother with—the ones that have nothing to do with gay marriage, abortion or the war in Iraq. Instead, I’ll ask about his personal life. What are his hobbies? Where does he take his wife out to dinner? Does he have an iPod?
“We’ll do it,” he says. “Ask anything you want.”
It might sound like a sophomoric way to interview a major American religious figure, but I figure sticking to small topics will help me humanize Dr. Falwell. By this point in my semester, I’ve read all of his biographies, visited the museum bearing his name and lodged a few dozen of his sermons in my brain. I might know more about Dr. Falwell than I know about my own grandfather, and yet, in my mind, he’s still a larger-than life movie villain, no more relatable than Vito Corleone or the Terminator. So today, I’m going to go on the offensive, asking him questions so lowbrow and banal that he’ll be forced to peel off the SuperPastor mask and expose his baseline humanity. That’s the plan, anyway.
In 20 minutes, I learn the following things: Dr. Falwell owns between 40 and 50 red ties, his favorite TV show is 24 and he has recently learned how to send text messages on his cell phone, although he has never used Facebook or MySpace. His favorite dessert is Vanilla Haagen-Dazs, and when not on the job, he likes to ride four-wheelers with his sons. (For the record, he does not have an iPod.)
Surprisingly, Dr. Falwell doesn’t seem to mind my line of questioning. In fact, he seems relieved to be asked about something other than his controversial political and religious opinions. He even helps me debunk some popular campus myths. The rumor that Liberty’s administration is planning to legalize dances? False. (“Not while I’m living,” he chuckles.) The legend that he drives a bulletproof SUV? Also false—although he did have a bulletproof pulpit installed at Thomas Road during the Moral Majority’s heyday. (“There were people who wanted to do us harm,” he explains.)
Bulletproof pulpit aside, the in-person Dr. Falwell reminds me of every other septuagenarian I’ve ever known. He coughs a lot, he’s obsessed with his eight grandchildren (at one point, he lists all eight in order of age) and he’s an early riser. “I wake up a little before six, and I go right to my study,” he says. “That’s where I do my daily reading of the Oswald Chambers book, My Utmost for His Highest. I’ve read that day by day for 50 years now. I have a one-year Bible, too. I read the Old Testament, New Testament, Psalms and Proverbs every day. I’m at work by 8 or 8:30, and when I get home every night, my wife and I walk around the lawn. We have dinner together, and then we spend most of our evenings alone.”
Shooting the breeze with Dr. Falwell is a bizarre experience, because when you keep him on benign topics, the patriarch of the Religious Right is actually a likable guy. He slouches low in his chair, making his points while jabbing the air with his index finger and saying things that, while not particularly newsworthy, seem altogether reasonable. Consider what he tells me about Liberty’s dating scene:
“I think Liberty students ought to date a lot without commitment in mind. If you’re thinking commitment—and you probably shouldn’t until you’re a senior—you don’t want to start your marriage off under the constraints of poverty and schooling. I see it all the time: kids get here, fall in love the first year and it prevents them from getting the best education possible. Sometimes, they drop out of school. When that happens, it’s usually the girl, and she doesn’t feel good about that later on.”
Things get even more bizarre when I bring up his widespread reputation as a prankster.
“Oh, yes,” he says. “The pranks.”
An admitted no-goodnik in his youth, Dr. Falwell wrote in his autobiography that he still savors a good practical joke “like some people savor old wine.” When I quote this line back to him, he spends 10 minutes regaling me with decades-old stories about hotwiring his colleagues’ cars and blowing up mailboxes with M-80 firecrackers. His back comes off his chair as he tells me about the time he placed a stinkbomb under the chair leg of Bob Jones, Jr., then-president of Bob Jones University, at a conference of pastors.
“When he sat down, the bomb broke,” he says, his belly rising and falling with laughter. “And in a crowded auditorium, it got pretty rank pretty quick. Everyone was choking for 10, 15 minutes.”
A juvenile sense of humor is an unexpected thing to find in a religious zealot. It’s hard to imagine James Dobson telling Yo Mama jokes or Pat Robertson making fart noises with his armpit. And yet, I have to admit that Dr. Falwell’s blend of religious authority, preening self-importance and irreverent wise-crackery—equal parts Billy Graham, Henry Kissinger and Walter Matthau—combines for a fairly likable package.
After he finishes with his prank anecdotes, Dr. Falwell tells me a story about an African-American family that lives next-door to him.
“This family has young children,” he says, “and one of the lads knocked a baseball over my fence one day. I have an eight-foot fence around my property, and my security officer found the ball and showed it to me. I said ‘See if you can find out who lost it, and get it back to him.’ A few days later, a young boy came around to the gate and said ‘I lost my ball.’ The guard said ‘Alright, you can have it back … if you talk to Dr. Falwell.’ I met him. He was a fine young man. I asked him ‘Where are you going to go to college?’ He didn’t have any idea. I said ‘I’ll tell you what. I’m going to write on this ball.’”
So Dr. Falwell took a permanent marker to the ball and inscribed:
This ball entitles you to a full four-year scholarship at Liberty University, whether I’m dead or alive. —Jerry Falwell
As anyone who has spent time in evangelicalism’s inner orbit knows, there are really two Jerry Falwells. One, of course, is the fundamentalist most Americans have seen on television, the man who once denounced homosexuality as “a vile and satanic system” and the feminist movement as “a satanic attack on the home.” This is the Jerry Falwell who not only blamed the terrorist attacks of 9/11 on a long list of domestic minorities (homosexuals, feminists, pagans, abortionists, etc.), but who also tried to cash in on the public outrage over those remarks by telling his supporters in a letter signed by his son Jonathan—that he was being victimized by “a vicious smear campaign” and asking them to send “a special Vote of Confidence gift … of at least $50 or even $100.”
The other Jerry Falwell, the one I’m seeing today, is more akin to a religious Willy Wonka—a whimsical, mercurial figure who delights in unexpected acts of generosity and trickery. This is the Jerry Falwell who gives away college scholarships to kids who hit baseballs over his fence, who plays lighthearted pranks on uptight fundamentalists and speaks adoringly of his grandchildren. This Jerry Falwell has made some unlikely friends over the years, including Senator Ted Kennedy and Penthouse publisher Larry Flynt, both of whom praise Dr. Falwell as a decent human being while condemning his political views.
What both Jerry Falwells have in common is a rock-solid streak of self-confidence. Dr. Falwell is almost universally described as a man who never wavers, never waffles, never second-guesses his beliefs in the open. In his autobiography, when writing about the day he became a Christian, Dr. Falwell wrote, “I accepted the mystery of God’s salvation. I didn’t doubt it then. I haven’t doubted it to this day.”
That certainty dominates his management style as well. During our interview, he gets a call from Jerry Falwell, Jr., a lawyer-cum-businessman who, along with his brother Jonathan, is being groomed to take over the Falwell empire someday. Jerry Jr. is calling, it seems, because he needs his father’s approval for a new bookstore being proposed for Liberty’s campus. The elder Falwell listens to his son rattle off the pertinent facts and figures, looks up at the ceiling while performing a series of quick mental calculations, and slams his empty Snapple bottle on the desk.
“I’m for it!”
That’s it. No committee meetings, no focus groups, no spreadsheets. Dr. Falwell runs his university like a Tammany Hall politician, with direct edicts, micromanagerial governance and an organizational chart shaped like an upside-down T.
When applied to his evangelical faith, that gut-based conviction leads to a worldview that is almost preternaturally unshakable. When I ask him the famous Proust question—“What do you want God to say to you at the Pearly Gates?”—he smiles and leans back in his chair.
“That’s easy. He’ll say ‘Well done, good and faithful servant.’”
It’s not a wishful answer—Dr. Falwell feels absolutely, 100 percent sure that when he gets to Heaven, the Lord will thank him for his service and usher him swiftly in. A television interviewer once asked him what he’d do if he turned out to be wrong—if, when he got to Heaven, God thanked him for his ministry, but chastised him for getting involved with the homophobes and the misogynists and the people who want to use Christianity as a battering ram. Dr. Falwell responded, “I wouldn’t think it was Him I was talking to.”
Almost an hour into our interview, I’ve learned what Dr. Falwell’s favorite meal is (steak and baked potato, no butter) and where he gets his hair cut (Lynchburg’s “A-Plus Barbershop”), but I still haven’t glimpsed any mystical, quasi-divine side of his personality. Maybe, I decide, I should be asking him about bigger, more consequential things.
“What’s the biggest cultural deficit in America today?” I ask, holding my breath for some fire and brimstone.
“The breakdown of the family,” he replies. “We have a 50 percent divorce rate. Seventy-five percent of all African-American children born in the United States this year will grow up in a single-parent home. The trend is going the wrong way, not the right one.”
Huh? What about gay marriage?
“That’s serious,” he says, “but frankly, I think we’ve got it pretty well hedged in now. Of course there are gays, but you can’t make laws against that. They just have to meet the Lord.”
I can certainly see why diehard liberals like Larry Flynt and Ted Kennedy have been able to forgive Dr. Falwell for his sins. In person, he beats you over the head with his folksy charm, his relaxed confidence and his polished interpersonal skills (in the last hour, he’s started almost every sentence, “Well, Kevin, you see…”).
And in the end, you’re ultimately cajoled into liking him, even if you still hate everything he stands for.
So who is the real Jerry Falwell? Is he a rabid, hate-spewing fundamentalist? Or is he a dutiful family man, a talented preacher and a competent administrator? Was John McCain right when he called Dr. Falwell an “agent of intolerance” during the 2000 presidential campaign? Or was the Wall Street Journal right when, in 1978, it described him as a “man of charm, drive, talent, and ambition”?
Well, in a way, both are right. In fact, that’s the overwhelming impression I get from the time I’ve spent watching Dr. Falwell this semester and talking to him this afternoon: He’s a complex character, but he’s not hiding anything. He may be a blundering, arch-conservative provocateur, and he may spew anti-gay venom more often than most people brush their teeth, but I honestly think he believes every word he preaches, and I’d bet everything I own that he really does stay awake at night worrying about the homosexual agenda, the evils of abortion and the imminent spread of liberalism. He really does think America needs to be saved.
Realizing that Dr. Falwell isn’t a fraud—as troubling a notion as that is—has helped me solve one of the great mysteries of this semester. For months now, I’ve been puzzled by the thousands of good, kind-hearted believers at Liberty who follow a man who seems, to my mind, to be almost unredeemable. They like him, I’m learning, because he’s a straight-shooter. In a half-century of preaching, Dr. Falwell has said some indisputably outrageous things, and he’s angered Christians and non-Christians alike, but he’s never revealed himself as a hypocrite. He’s never been caught in sexual sin, and he’s been as transparent in his financial dealings as you could reasonably expect. And in the world of televangelism, a world filled to the brim with hucksters and charlatans and Elmer Gantry swindlers, a little sincerity goes a long way.
After an hour of talking, Dr. Falwell sounds like he’s ready to wrap things up, but first, he says he’d like to pray for me. And who am I to refuse? So right there in his office, he bows his head while I bow mine, and in his God-like basso profundo voice, he calls down the heavens on my behalf.
“Father, I pray for Kevin. I pray that your anointing will be upon him in a very special way. And Lord, if you want him in journalism, I pray you’ll put him in key places where he can make a difference in the culture. God, give him a great family and children that he’ll raise up in the nurture and admonition of your Son. I put Kevin in your hands, that you’ll make him a special tool, a special instrument in your Kingdom. For Christ’s sake, Amen.”
He shakes my hand and signs my Bible (“To my friend Kevin, Phil.1:6, Jerry Falwell”), and when I’m almost out the door, I hear his voice boom behind me.
I turn around to find him holding his empty Snapple bottle with two hands, the label pointed towards me.
“Make sure to tell ‘em that every afternoon, I drink a peach tea,” he says. “Diet peach tea. Make sure to tell ‘em that.”
I assure him that I will. He smiles, and I smile back, and then I turn and walk away.