Editor’s note: Mel White was the ghostwriter of Jerry Falwell’s autobiography, “Strength for the Journey.”
On Nov. 9, 2016, at 2:30 a.m., thousands of Donald Trump supporters screamed with delight as their president-elect walked onto the Hilton Midtown ballroom stage followed by his family and closest friends. One of those “closest friends” was Jerry Falwell Jr., president of Liberty University, the oldest son of its founder, Jerry Falwell Sr. It isn’t all that hard to imagine the ghost of Jerry Falwell Sr. standing in the shadows near his son enjoying that frenzied moment. Although Jerry Sr. died almost 10 years before “evangelical” voters helped give Trump the presidency, the elder Falwell knew, more than any other person, living or dead, that he was responsible for the rebirth of fundamentalism that helped divide our nation, elect a president and undermine all that is good about our democracy.
Falwell was not an evil man, but like so many fundamentalists, his determination to “Make America Christian Again” caused him to do evil on a grand scale. For example, he raised tens of millions of dollars to support his various ministries by terrorizing his supporters with visions of a growing army of homosexuals recruiting and molesting their children, destroying their marriages, corrupting traditional family values, undermining the church, weakening the military, threatening the nation and even ending Western civilization as we know it. Now that fundamentalists like Jerry Falwell have their man in the White House, they are making these threats again.
On a recent broadcast of Linda Harvey’s “Mission: America” talk show, she talked about the importance of working to “re-horrify” society about the sin of homosexuality. “People are becoming so comfortable with this,” she said, “even people on our side. We need to re-horrify them.” Unfortunately, our nation’s re-horrifyer-in-chief is no longer a Baptist preacher from Lynchburg, Va. Those who would “Make America Christian Again”—and in the process silence LGBTQ Americans, deny us our rights and drive us back into our closets—have powerful positions in the White House, Congress and courts. They call themselves “evangelicals”—but who are they really and why should we fear them?
1. Jerry Falwell Sr. was not an evangelical.
The day after the 2016 election, headlines read: “Evangelical Voters Elect Trump.” But Trump voters, for the most part, were not evangelicals. They were fundamentalist Christians (as in fundamentalist Muslims, Hindus or Jews). The word evangelical means “good news” that “God so loved the world.” Evangelicals proclaim the grace of God, that God loves us all unconditionally. Falwell proclaimed the judgement of God, that God can love us only when we meet certain standards, standards set by him and his fellow fundamentalists.
Those standards, “The Five Fundamentals of the Christian Faith,” were compiled officially (1910–1915) to protect the Christian churches from the growing influence of liberalism. The most dangerous of the five is the first fundamental: Biblical inerrancy. For fundamentalists, every word in the Bible was dictated by God and must be taken literally, that is “literally” as they understand it. Actually, Falwell and his fundamentalist friends are selective literalists. They pick and choose the biblical texts that support their prejudice and ignore the rest.
I experienced the consequence of that belief when I was debating a fundamentalist Christian pastor on a radio station in Seattle. My challenge asked if I’d read Leviticus 20:13: “If a man has sexual relations with a man as one does with a woman, both of them have done what is detestable. They are to be put to death; their blood will be on their own heads.”
As an out gay man, I knew its meaning all too well, so I asked this fundamentalist Christian what it meant to him. “It means you should be killed,” he said. I swallowed hard and asked, “Who should kill us, you church people?” “No,” he replied, “that’s the government’s job. That’s why we need to elect more good men of God into government.”
I’m sure this same pastor is thrilled by the election of Vice President Mike Pence, a real fundamentalist Christian who believes that every word in the Bible is true and should be obeyed.
[Pence, who helped Donald Trump win the evangelical vote in the 2016 presidential election and received a warm reception on a recent trip to Israel, poses a unique threat to democracy as he shapes U.S. policy in a number of areas.]
2. Fundamentalist mentality is rigid, intolerant and dogmatic.
When a fundamentalist takes the Bible literally, there is very little room for dialogue or debate. Fundamentalists think they know the truth—all of it—and they are determined to force their truth on the rest of us, even if it means placing biblical law above the U.S. Constitution and denying LGBTQ people the constitutional rights guaranteed all Americans regardless of religious or political beliefs.
Jonathan Sacks, chief rabbi of the United Hebrew Congregations of the Commonwealth, defines fundamentalism “as the attempt to impose a single truth on a plural world.” In Karen Armstrong’s bestselling book, “The Battle for God,” she defines fundamentalism as “militant piety” with “no time for democracy, pluralism, religious tolerance, peacekeeping, free speech, or the separation of church and state.”
In “Armageddon and the Environment,” an editorial from 2004, Bill Moyers tells how the fundamentalists have “come in from the fringe, to sit in the seat of power in the oval office and in Congress.” For the first time in our history, he says “ideology and theology hold a monopoly of power in Washington. When ideology and theology couple, their offspring are not always bad but they are always blind. And there is the danger: voters and politicians alike, oblivious to the facts.”
3. Fundamentalists believe the U.S. is a Christian nation blessed and protected by God.
Although Falwell and his fundamentalist colleagues believed that our country is blessed by God and protected by God’s hand, they also believe that God’s blessing and protection can be withdrawn. The Hebrew Testament has endless texts warning the people of Israel that God will “remove his hand of blessing and protection” if they continue to disobey God’s laws. Judges 10:13 says: “You have forsaken me and served other gods, therefore I will deliver you no more.”
In the mid-1970s, Falwell’s preaching began to reflect his fears for the nation. He was certain that if the people of the United States continued their sinful ways, God’s blessings would be lost and God’s hand of protection be withdrawn. Just two days after the horrors of 9/11, Pat Robertson and Jerry Falwell Sr. were discussing why it happened.
FALWELL: I really believe that the pagans and the abortionists and the feminists and the gays and the lesbians who are actively trying to make that an alternative lifestyle, the ACLU, People for the American Way; all of them who try to secularize America. … I point the finger in their face and say ‘you helped this happen.’
ROBERTSON: I totally concur, and the problem is we’ve adopted that agenda at the highest levels of our government, and so we’re responsible as a free society for what the top people do, and the top people, of course, is the court system.
4. Fundamentalists ignore Jesus’ moral standards.
Falwell’s Moral Majority, a political organization he founded in 1979 that mobilized the Christian right with the Republican Party, was never moral as Jesus defined morality. When asked what is the great commandment, Jesus replied: “Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind. This is the first and greatest commandment. And the second is like it. Love your neighbor as yourself” (Matthew 22:34-40).
In his Sermon on the Mount, Jesus takes it one step further. “You have heard it said, ‘Thou shalt love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I say unto you, ‘Love your enemies, bless them that curse you, do good to them that hate you, and pray for them which despitefully use you, and persecute you; that you may be the children of your Father which is in heaven’ ” (Matthew 5:43-45).
Fundamentalists must know that love is at the heart of Jesus’ life and ministry, but for a variety of illegitimate reasons, they just can’t love LGBTQ people. And they’re too busy exploiting homophobia to “Make America Christian Again” to explore the mountains of scientific, psychological, historical, pastoral, personal and even Biblical evidence that homosexual orientation is just another mystery of creation. The hostile climate in which the suffering and death of my sisters and brothers takes place is created in large part because fundamentalists refuse to hear the truth.
5. Fundamentalists turn prejudice into moral standards.
During that 9/11 interview Jerry Falwell named the sinners whose words and actions led to 9/11: “Pagans (non-believers), abortionists, feminists, gay and lesbian activists, the ACLU, People for the American Way, all those trying to secularize America.” Long before 9/11, Falwell had convinced millions of fundamentalist Christians that the sins most offensive to God were homosexuality and abortion. Consequently, to save the nation from God’s wrath those two sins must not be legitimized, accepted officially or legally approved.
That’s why Falwell Sr. convinced fundamentalist Christians to vote for Ronald Reagan in 1980 and Falwell Jr. convinced fundamentalist Christians to vote for Trump in 2016. The individual moral reputations of these two men didn’t matter. Fundamentalists were convinced that Reagan and Trump would do what was needed to end the homosexual and abortion threats, the greatest threats of all, to maintain God’s hand of blessing and protection on our nation and “make American Christian again.” How ironic that these Biblical literalists ignore the words of Jesus and the Jewish prophets when deciding what is sin and what is not.
The prophet Ezekiel describes why God removed his hand of protection (and rained down fire and brimstone) on the great Middle Eastern city of Sodom. “Behold, this was the sin of thy sister Sodom, pride, fullness of bread, and abundance of idleness … neither did she strengthen the hand of the poor and needy. And they were haughty, and committed abomination before me: Therefore, I took them away as I saw good” (Ezekiel 16:49-50).
Homosexuality was not Sodom’s sin. LGBTQ activists are not Sodomites. In his first year in office, Trump proved to be the real Sodomite by closing our borders to refugees, by his racist, sexist and xenophobic words and actions, by eliminating programs that help care for the poor, feed the hungry, house the homeless, by refusing health insurance and medical care to the sick and dying. Need I go on?
6. Fundamentalists will use anyone to reach their goals.
In 1979, Jerry Falwell asked his friend Francis Schaeffer: How can Christians save America when there are not enough fundamentalists to do it alone?Schaeffer introduced Falwell to the principle of “co-belligerency.” In past centuries God had used sinful believers (King David the adulterer and murderer) and even non-believing pagans (Cyrus, the Babylonian king who rebuilt the temple) to accomplish God’s will. Falwell realized he could recruit millions of sinners and pagans by finding a cause they had in common. Ending gay rights and reversing Roe v. Wade was a perfect goal to recruit co-belligerents. The allies Falwell recruited didn’t need to share his religious beliefs. They had only to share his prejudice.
Falwell’s co-founders of the Moral Majority—especially Paul Weyrich and Richard Viguerie—were mass mailing experts. To test Falwell’s intuition, they surveyed American voters precinct by precinct, county by county, state by state to see what co-belligerency issues worked best at fundraising and, invariably, the so-called “gay threat” and abortion topped the list.
7. Fundamentalists lie.
I learned from my fundamentalist clients that telling lies was perfectly all right when one is “called to save the nation.” When I was young, they called the practice “evangelistically speaking.” It was common to exaggerate the size of a crowd, or the number of people “saved,” or the amount of money that was “needed” desperately. At least in those days, they knew they were lying—but “for a good cause.”
Jerry Falwell and his fundamentalist allies lied about the homosexual threat so long and so often that they ended up believing their lies. Unfortunately, to raise enough funds and recruit enough people, the threat had to increase with every new appeal.
Hyperbole is a favorite fundamentalist pastime. Falwell’s lies were the biggest and the scariest of all. For example, “[Homosexuals are] brute beasts,” Falwell warned, “… part of a vile and satanic system [that] will be utterly annihilated, and there will be a celebration in heaven.” Because his cause was “righteous,” Falwell felt no guilt or shame when he lied about LGBTQ people to fund his university, his TV ministry and his Moral Majority. He didn’t realize that an end cannot justify a lie when the lie gives gay bashers and bullies a license to kill us and LGBTQ people a license to kill ourselves.
I’ve heard so many people condemn Trump for lying or Fox News for lying about him. In fact, truth is not at the heart of fundamentalist Christianity. Fundamentalists lie to win because winning is everything. Over the centuries, the followers of Christ told the truth even when telling it led to dishonor and death.
8. Fundamentalism is a threat to our nation.
When will Americans realize that fundamentalist Christianity is a threat, and not just to LGBTQ Americans, but to all Americans who refuse to support their so-called “absolute family values” or join them in making this “a Christian nation again”? Like a mutating virus, fundamentalism infects and sickens evangelical Christianity on a regular basis. Whether or not our American democracy survives this illness, develops at least a temporary immunity and grows strong and healthy again is a decision every one of us must make. On a daily basis. We can watch in silence as fundamentalist Christians continue to reshape church and state in their own idolatrous image, or we can choose to resist before the fundamentalists do what they have promised: turn our democracy into a theocracy ruled entirely by “righteous men.” It is a struggle we dare not lose. Falwell Sr. may be dead, but the ghost of Jerry Falwell haunts us still.