Posted Monday, May 21st, 2007
Jerry Falwell Identity Crisis
Joy Gerdy Zogby
I grew up in Lynchburg, Virginia, a small city of about 65,000 residents nestled on the James River. Oftentimes, upon revealing my hometown, I am greeted with the immediate, excited response that I grew up in the town where Jack Daniels is made. Unfortunately, all that liquor is made in Lynchburg, Tennessee, not in my Lynchburg. The other response a mention of my hometown receives is, "Isn't that where Jerry Falwell lives?"
Up until now, I could answer affirmatively to that question. Jerry Falwell, the Moral Majority icon, was more than just a local celebrity in Lynchburg, Virginia. He was part of the city's identity and, as a Lynchburg native, I considered him a piece of my identity, too. When he collapsed last week, the news spread quickly through Lynchburg, and my mother sent me an e-mail to make sure I knew. I can honestly say that I had never thought about how I would react to Jerry’s dying. He has been a force in Lynchburg my entire life, and now that he is gone I cannot imagine Lynchburg without him.
My reaction has surprised me. Jerry and I have not always been on good terms, not that he was ever aware of that. I never knew Jerry personally. I am not sure I ever even met him, but I do call him by his first name when I talk about him. I know a lot of people who do. He so influences Lynchburg that one need only mention his first name to elicit some reaction. In my case, the reaction was usually an unfavorable one.
When I was young, I do not even remember being aware of him. I went to church with my family but not to his church. I think I was first introduced to Jerry through the Old-Time Gospel Hour, which my grandfather watched because he loved Jerry's politics. At the time, I do not remember thinking much about him, and I am not sure I even knew he was from Lynchburg. For all I knew, his program could have been broadcast from anywhere in America.
Years later, I began to question God and religion, as just about every other adolescent in the world does, and suddenly, I saw Jerry everywhere. I did not understand how he could take the Bible literally and then use it for political gain. How could Jesus rise from the dead? Why, if written by God, does the Bible contradict itself so often? Why do people believe these words that were clearly, in my view at least, written by men? I did not understand their faith, and since Jerry was their leader of sorts, I did not understand him. He immediately became a target for any and all of my lack of understanding of Christianity.
His politics embarrassed many a Lynchburger for years. Comments after 9/11 were appalling, but he had said many of those things before. Even though he later apologized, those of us from Lynchburg have not forgotten. When all people know about your hometown is that Jerry lives there, you never forget those comments. As a liberal, most of what he says on an average Sunday is enough to embarrass me, but many of my conservative friends were surprised and hurt by his comments.
I did not realize how much Jerry was involved in my everyday life until I left Lynchburg. One of my jobs in high school was working at the movie theater. We often complained that Jerry and the Falwellites, as we called them, had too much control over which movies played at the theater. However, I always associated his influence with the bathrooms. Each shift one employee was assigned bathroom duties, which involved a standard list of tasks such as checking the toilet paper, soap, and paper towel levels, sweeping the floors, and wiping down the counters. The one decidedly Lynchburg addition to the list was that when picking up trash around the bathroom, the attendant also had to remove any and all Jesus paraphernalia from the counters. Apparently public restrooms are prime locations for doing God’s work in the ‘Burg.
The best-known local Jerry treat is Scaremare, a Christian “House of Death” meant to remind lost souls that they will die and that Christ can offer them eternal life. My friends and I went to Scaremare every October to enjoy a pretty impressive haunted house put on by Liberty students. In fact, in October of my freshman year of college, realizing that I had not been saved in some time, I seriously considered driving home for a scare and some saving. On my most recent visit, Scaremare was located in a very large old house that was divided into various scenes of frightening deaths: suicides, drug overdoses, abortions, etc. The last room in the house was small and dark. Two women dressed as Marys grieved in front of a large wooden cross. After you had a moment to take in that sobering scene, you exited the room by riding down a twisting slide and were herded into tents for saving. My friends and I would go for the haunted house and then laugh through the saving, mocking the leaders who were only trying to protect us from eternal damnation. The entire event really is something to be experienced.
In some ways I feel sorry for the Falwellites who feel the need to take every word of the Bible literally and who are constantly trying to save people like me, but at the same time, they feel sorry for me that I do not have the relationship with God that they do. I read somewhere that Jerry’s father was an atheist, and I am begrudgingly respectful of the way he rebelled against his upbringing. I am certain his father did not wish for him to become one of the most famous Born Again Christians in America. In my life, Jerry took on the role his father did for him. My distaste for Christianity was only fueled by the unwavering faith that surrounded me.
I still question the church and the Bible on a regular basis. I know I would have questioned these beliefs even without being bombarded with evangelical teachings early on, but I wonder if I would have fought against them as hard as I have if I had not grown up in Lynchburg. I have come to terms with God in many ways that I could not have years ago, but I wonder if my spiritual development has been slow because of Jerry. I also wonder if I will be stronger in the end because of how furiously I have questioned him, simply because he represented a form of authority in my upbringing. I never thought I would miss him, but now that he is gone it is hard for me to imagine my life without him.
Comments [post a comment]
Posted by Donna Levy [ email@example.com
] on Monday, May 21st, 2007 at 8:17 PM
Dear Joy, Thank you for writing this article. It had to be a challenge growing up in "Jerry's neighborhood." As you acknowledge, you probably can thank him for who you are today. Men like Falwell scare me as much as inquisitions and jihads. I think a fundamentalist is a fundamentalist, regardless out of which religion he speaks. Respectfully, Donna Levy