As one committed to diversity, equality, pluralism, religious freedom, secular democracy and a whole host of related values, I abhorred Jerry Falwell’s politics and his demonization of gays and lesbians, non-Christians and the non-religious, feminists, and liberals. (I think it is expected of us as religious people that we respond to news of the demise of those whom we oppose in a manner that is dignified rather than boorish. This can be a challenge. But, I have a hard time imagining Jesus pumping his fist and high-fiving his disciples if Pontius Pilate had died. Similarly, Gandhi would not have done a victory dance or cracked tasteless jokes if the Prime Minister of Great Britain had died.)
When I learned today of the death of Jerry Falwell, my reaction was particular rather than general. In one of the oddest moments in my young ministry, I had breakfast with Jerry Falwell. Actually, it is probably more truthful to say that I had breakfast in the same room as Jerry Falwell.
A few weeks before the 2004 election, I was contacted by a reporter with Air America radio. He was coming to Kansas City from New York to do a story on conservative Christians engaged in politics. Jerry Falwell was going to be in town to hold a Pastor’s Breakfast and the reporter (no doubt feeling a bit intimidated) wanted a friendly person who could help him blend in.
The morning of the breakfast I put on my navy blue suit and red tie (got to look the part) and set off to meet up with the reporter in the lobby of the large mega-church on Antioch overlooking I-35. Pulling into the parking lot I had my first double-take. The Fred Phelps clan was there protesting Jerry Falwell! (Seriously, who knew that Falwell was an agent of the homosexual agenda?)
The Air America reporter stuck out like a sore-thumb. He was wearing wing-tip shoes, a trim black pin-stripe suit, a lime-green buttoned shirt with a flared collar, and horn-rimmed hipster glasses. I approached him and whispered that I was his ally. I felt a bit like the Rev. James Bond.
There was a plentiful breakfast buffet set up in the cavernous, sterile foyer. There was even a champagne fountain (which trickled orange juice, not champagne.)
The program began with an introduction by Jerry Johnston. Falwell followed with his speech. The program was designed to embolden the hundreds of conservative Christian pastors in attendance to lead their congregations in greater participation in political issues. Falwell told the story of his conversion to political Christianity and traced his rise to power and influence. The messaging was very aggressive and militaristic. They had a power that could vanquish anyone who stands in their way. The program ended with Kris Kobach (who was contesting Dennis Moore for his US House of Representatives seat) giving an inarticulate and confusing speech on the legal case against gay marriage.
The whole event was telling for what it did not include. I have no memory of the Bible being quoted. Jesus’ name was hardly spoken. It was an exercise in Christian tribalism.
On the way out, the Air America reporter tried to bait several of the guests into arguments. He gravitated towards a Messianic Jew wearing a yarmulke and asked him pointed questions. The conversation became heated and I almost had to separate the two.
Following this odd morning as a secret agent, I sent the reporter an email that read in part, “What struck me most about this pastor’s breakfast was that not one thought was given to the needs and concerns of the tens of thousands of people who belong to congregations pastored by those ministers. As we listened to Falwell go on and on about abortion, same-sex marriage, and violent fantasies of blasting terrorists, I wondered about the actual needs of the people in these congregations that are not being spoken to. We didn't hear one word about poverty and employment, one word about care for the elderly or health care, one word about education or the environment. We only heard about how they could be mobilized to further a political agenda.”