Bearing Witness To the Gospel According to Falwell

Televangelist Jerry Falwell weathered many a critical storm.
Televangelist Jerry Falwell weathered many a critical storm. (By Stephanie Gross For The Washington Post)
By Peter Carlson
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, May 16, 2007

Jerry Falwell promised to give me an hour of his time and he kept that promise, pretty much down to the minute. He had no desire to linger longer with a representative of the heathen media.

It was the fall of 2001, not long after he'd uttered the most controversial statement of his controversial career. I drove down to Lynchburg with a list of tough questions that I figured would poke holes in his holiness. Needless to say, he made a monkey out of me.

He was a big man sitting behind a big desk in a big office at Liberty University, where he died yesterday at 73. He stood up, flashed his televangelist grin and shook my hand. With his bulky body, fleshy face and sagging jowls, he looked like a Thomas Nast cartoon of a Gilded Age plutocrat.

He plopped down onto his green leather swivel chair. The blinds in the room were shut tight, sealing out all evidence of the beautiful sunny day outside. But his secretary had left his door open and he could hear some bustling outside.

"Close the door or come on in," he barked gruffly. "One or the other."

The door closed. The room was dim except for the screen saver on Falwell's desk -- a churning psychedelic pattern of neon colors that would have seemed less incongruous on Timothy Leary's computer.

He knew why I was there -- to discuss the statement he'd made on Pat Robertson's "700 Club" TV show two days after 9/11.

The terrorist attacks, he had said, were signs that "God continues to lift the curtain and allow the enemies of America to give us probably what we deserve." Then he had revealed who among us had angered God enough to bring on the attack: "I really believe that the pagans, and the abortionists, and the feminists, and the gays and lesbians who are actively trying to make that an alternative lifestyle, the ACLU, People for the American Way -- all of them who have tried to secularize America -- I point the finger in their face and say, 'You helped this happen.' "

In the weeks after he made the statement, he first defended it, then said it had been taken out of context, then apologized. Then his son sent out a fundraising letter saying liberals and gays "have launched a vicious smear campaign to discredit him."

I came armed with a list of questions: How does God "lift the curtain"? Did He also lift that curtain to let the Japanese bomb Pearl Harbor? Why? How do you know God's reason for lifting the curtain? Did He tell you? Is it possible that He's angry at materialism? Or poverty? Or money-changers in the temple?

You get the idea. But as soon as I mentioned the issue -- I don't think I even managed to get a question out -- he fired back his answer:

"I misspoke."

CONTINUED     1        >

© 2007 The Washington Post Company