Jerry Falwell's foul rantings prove you can get away with anything if you have "Reverend" in front of your name.
The discovery of the carcass of Jerry Falwell on the floor of an obscure office in Virginia has almost zero significance, except perhaps for two categories of the species labeled "credulous idiot." The first such category consists of those who expected Falwell (and themselves) to be bodily raptured out of the biosphere and assumed into the heavens, leaving pilotless planes and driverless trucks and taxis to crash with their innocent victims as collateral damage. This group is so stupid and uncultured that it may perhaps be forgiven. It is so far "left behind" that almost its only pleasure is to gloat at the idea of others being abandoned in the same condition.
The second such category is of slightly more importance, because it consists of the editors, producers, publicists, and a host of other media riffraff who allowed Falwell to prove, almost every week, that there is no vileness that cannot be freely uttered by a man whose name is prefaced with the word Reverend. Try this: Call a TV station and tell them that you know the Antichrist is already on earth and is an adult Jewish male. See how far you get. Then try the same thing and add that you are the Rev. Jim-Bob Vermin. "Why, Reverend, come right on the show!" What a fool Don Imus was. If he had paid the paltry few bucks to make himself a certified clergyman, he could be jeering and sneering to the present hour.
Falwell went much further than his mad 1999 assertion about the Jewish Antichrist. In the time immediately following the assault by religious fascism on American civil society in September 2001, he used his regular indulgence on the airwaves to commit treason. Entirely exculpating the suicide-murderers, he asserted that their acts were a divine punishment of the United States. Again, I ask you to imagine how such a person would be treated if he were not supposedly a man of faith.
One of his associates, Bailey Smith, once opined that "God does not hear the prayers of a Jew." This is one of the few anti-Semitic remarks ever made that has a basis in fact, since God does not exist and does not attend to any prayers, but Smith was not quite making that point. Along with his friend Pat Robertson, who believes in secret Jewish control of the world of finance, and Billy Graham, who boasted to Richard Nixon that the Jews had never guessed what he truly thought of them, Falwell kept alive the dirty innuendo about Jews that so many believing Christians seem to need. This would be bad enough in itself, and an additional reason to deplore the free ride he was given on television, if his trade-off had not been even worse.
Seeking to deflect the charge of anti-Jewish prejudice, Falwell adopted the cause of the most thuggish and demented Israeli settlers, proclaiming that their occupation of the West Bank and Gaza was a holy matter and hoping that they might help to bring on Armageddon and the return of the Messiah. A detail in this ghastly narrative, as adepts of the "Left Behind" series will know, is that the return of the risen Christ will require the mass slaughter or mass conversion of all Jews. This consideration did not prevent Menachem Begin from awarding Falwell the Jabotinsky Centennial Medal in 1980 and has not inhibited other Israeli extremists from embracing him and his co-thinkers ever since. All bigots and frauds are brothers under the skin. Trying to interrupt the fiesta of piety on national television on the night of Falwell's death, I found myself waiting while Ralph Reed went all moist about the role of the departed in empowering "people of faith." Here was the hypocritical casino-based Christian who sought and received the kosher stamp from Jack Abramoff. Perfect.
Like many fanatical preachers, Falwell was especially disgusting in exuding an almost sexless personality while railing from dawn to dusk about the sex lives of others. His obsession with homosexuality was on a par with his lip-smacking evocations of hellfire. From his wobbly base of opportunist fund raising and degree-mill money-spinning in Lynchburg, Va., he set out to puddle his sausage-sized fingers into the intimate arrangements of people who had done no harm. Men of this type, if they cannot persuade enough foolish people to part with their savings, usually end up raving on the street and waving placards about the coming day of judgment. But Falwell, improving on the other Chaucerian frauds from Oral Roberts to Jim Bakker to Ted Haggard, not only had a TV show of his own but was also regularly invited onto mainstream ones.
The evil that he did will live after him. This is not just because of the wickedness that he actually preached, but because of the hole that he made in the "wall of separation" that ought to divide religion from politics. In his dingy racist past, Falwell attacked those churchmen who mixed the two worlds of faith and politics and called for civil rights. Then he realized that two could play at this game and learned to play it himself. Then he won the Republican Party over to the idea of religious voters and faith-based fund raising. And now, by example at least, he has inspired emulation in many Democrats and liberals who would like to borrow the formula. His place on the cable shows will be amply filled by Al Sharpton: another person who can get away with anything under the rubric of Reverend. It's a shame that there is no hell for Falwell to go to, and it's extraordinary that not even such a scandalous career is enough to shake our dumb addiction to the "faith-based."
Christopher Hitchens (1949-2011) was a columnist for Vanity Fair and the author, most recently, of Arguably, a collection of essays.
Photograph of the Rev. Jerry Falwell by Alex Wong/Getty Images.