Monday, August 3, 2015

Sincere Cheers for Jerry Falwell

It’s a cold night in Boise, Idaho, in the late autumn of 1972. I’m living in a Christian commune, a crash pad for trippers hitchhiking around the country; they come to eat and sleep, we try to communicate the gospel to them. The house pastor accepts an invitation to go a bit out of town to a Baptist church to hear a presentation by some radio evangelist or someone.
We didn’t know who it was, but going seemed like a good idea, so off we half-dozen or so scruffy counter-culture types went.
All I remember from that evening were the crewcut men in ties, the matching navy blazers with emblems, the refrain from one song that went “I am thankful to God for allowing me to be an A-mer-i-cuhn,” and the names Jerry Falwell, Thomas Road Baptist Church, and Lynchburg Baptist College. And the time in the presentation when this Falwell guy was asking what denominations people came from (our crash house was part of a chain, but we were not, thank you kindly, a denomination); when he asked, “And how many of our Mormon friends are here?” we looked at each other and wondered if he knew what a Mormon was.
(For those outside the evangelical fold, we consider the Mormon cliché “What man is, God once was; what God is, man can become” to be irreconcilable with the distinction between Creator and creature that underlies our world view.)
Fast forward a few years to the Moral Majority days. While I did not totally agree with the jibe at the time, “the Moral Majority is neither,” I could see why people said it, and I found false dichotomies like “Should evolution be taught in our schools?” that appeared in MM advertisements less than helpful. More than once I found myself saying, “Can’t this Falwell guy just shut up?”
He partially redeemed himself in my view when I overheard a radio broadcast about that time in which he confessed that he would look out his chancellor’s office window at students at what was then Liberty Baptist College, many of whom he knew by name, and try to predict who would be the leaders and who would be the flounders once they graduated. He said he was one hundred percent wrong. While I took that as evidence that he should indeed shut up, I could also see it as a brave admission by a man who makes his living convincing others that he can change the world through the students he is educating.
All of this is to say that I’m no particular fan of Jerry Falwell. But I found out some things today that are making me reconsider.
When I attended that Falwell fundraiser in 1972, I was part of the subset of Christians who expected the world as we knew it to end any day. How many times did I tell someone I was witnessing to “The Lord could come back before I finish this sentence”? (How I expected a statement that was proven false as soon as I finished making it to convince people of the truth of the gospel I have no idea.) After a while, I decided that the Lord couldn’t come back until the world as we knew it had fallen apart and there had been seven years (that’s 2555 days, probably give or take ten percent) of supernatural “tribulation.” But totally beyond anything anyone was saying for almost the first decade after I came to Christ was that Christians could build institutions that would have an impact on the world.
Meantime, Jerry Falwell was building what had become Liberty Baptist College. He had also been instrumental in helping a washed-up actor named Ronald Reagan become president. (Though I have regretted it ever since, I even voted for Reagan in 1980; I will never again vote for “the lesser of two evils.”)
In 1981, from reading the first edition of David Chilton’s Productive Christians in an Age of Guilt-Manipulators, I caught the vision of building educational, medical, and other institutions apart from the world system – and better than those of the world system – that would be visible evidence of the wisdom of God’s ways and visible communities into which we could invite nonbelievers.
The most obvious of such communities would be Christian schools: as humanist educational theories dumbed the schools down and turned them into moral cesspools, so the idea went, Christians would build schools where excellent academics met superior ethics, all with a mind to inviting anyone who would pay the bills and obey the rules to be part of it, learn from Jesus, and eventually surrender to him.
My children had what I would consider the inestimable privilege of attending just that kind of school: the faculty was all committed Christians, but the student body was “whosoever will.” While Bible courses were required, conversion was not: our last year there, the valedictorian was a Sikh from India.
Yet in three and a half decades of sharing the vision of evangelistic schools with others, I don’t know that I have pulled even one Christian into my camp: those who supported government schools still do, and those who supported Christian schools still want to require all students to have at least one Christian parent.
Guess who I found out today has put that vision into practice? Yup – Jerry Falwell. (Well, he’s off to Glory, so it’s really his successor as head of the family business, his son.) Liberty University, of all places, is open to anyone who is willing to pay the bills and obey the rules. I suspect that like any Division I school it receives more applications than it can possibly accept, but lack of Christian commitment is not a deal breaker. And apparently, no surprise, students are coming to Christ. Who’da thunkit?
Another neat thing I noticed was the flagpole collection at the entrance to the football stadium. Or maybe it was the entrance to the campus. Anyway, there were half a dozen or so flagpoles, but only one flag flying. And it wasn’t Old Glory. It was the “Christian flag.” While I have little use for the “Christian flag,” its presence alone among the flagpoles gives me hope that the best days of Jerry Falwell’s legacy may be in the future, and that his students will sing first and only that they are thankful to God for allowing them to be Christians.

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