A prophet is not without honor, save in his own country.
Things may not be that bad yet for the Rev. Jerry Falwell, but the New Testament warning is beginning to find expression around Falwell’s home base in Lynchburg, Va. To many of his neighbors and most of the 18,000 members of his Thomas Road Baptist Church, Falwell is still a hero—the local boy who made good by turning a tiny up-from-scratch ministry into a $70 million empire. He is the founder and guiding light of the national Moral Majority organization, whose reported four million followers revere his God-and-country view of what’s right and wrong with America.
And yet Falwell’s tactics and reputation in his hometown are now being publicly called into question. During the past two years three prominent local ministers have attacked him from the pulpit. One, the Rev. John Killinger, pastor of the First Presbyterian Church, delivered a sermon entitled “Would Jesus have appeared on The Old-Time Gospel Hour!” That program, carried by 392 TV stations in the U.S. and abroad, is taped every Sunday morning at Falwell’s massive red brick church and features a Falwell sermon as well as frequent appeals for money to support his TV ministry and the fundamentalist Liberty Baptist College, which Falwell founded 14 years ago. In his sermon Killinger suggested that if Jesus were invited to be on the program, He would tell His hosts, “You appear to be very religious before your television audience. But inside you are rapacious, unconverted wolves, seeking only a greater share of the evangelical TV market.”
Local academics have spoken out also. Says Dr. James J.H. Price, a religion professor at Lynchburg College, “Falwell tells us he is leading a moral crusade, yet he lies. He misrepresents some of the basic tenets of Christianity.” Price and another Lynchburg College professor, Dr. William R. Goodman Jr., sparked a local furor last year with their book Falwell: An Unauthorized Profile. The authors, after examining Falwell’s sermons over a 15-year period, claim that they found a pattern of racism, anti-Semitism and general intolerance in the independent Baptist minister’s gospel. (His Thomas Road church is not affiliated with any Baptist denomination.) Of welfare recipients, for example, Falwell once said, “That crowd ought to be left to starve until they decide that a job is a good deal.”
Of late, according to Price and Goodman, Falwell has referred to them in his sermons as “emissaries of Satan.” Dr. Edward Hindson, one of Falwell’s assistant pastors, dismissed the two professors in a sermon as “not worth shooting. You couldn’t find professional killers who would hire on for the price those guys are worth.”
Even Falwell’s own college has spawned critics, but they have learned the price of questioning his policies. In a bizarre incident, Lynn Ridenhour, a former English teacher at Liberty Baptist College, says he was fired last summer for questioning some of the school’s authoritarian policies. After his dismissal, he claims, he was held in his office for four hours by gun-toting security guards. One of them told him, Ridenhour says, “No one ever defies Dr. Falwell and lives.” Ridenhour has since filed a $3 million suit against Falwell, charging “false imprisonment and defamation.”
Falwell seems so far unconcerned about any action pending against him. “In view of the fact that this is only one of four lawsuits against us,” he says, “it is in my opinion merely a form of harassment.”
Among his other problems, Falwell has been sued by the city of Lynchburg for $300,000 in back real estate taxes. The dispute involves a shopping center owned by The Old-Time Gospel Hour. Falwell maintains the property, occupied in part by a bar and a supermarket, should be tax-exempt as a religious business, since offices for the Gospel Hour are located in the center. The city demurred. “It’s a purely profit-making venture,” declares Assistant City Attorney William Clyde Irwin. The case has been argued and now awaits the judge’s decision.
Though Falwell is a Lynchburg native, he has remained in some respects an outsider. He doesn’t belong to the local ministers’ organization and shows little interest in community affairs. Given Falwell’s disdain for public assistance, his flock places a significant drain on local health and welfare funds, city officials contend. According to the Lynchburg Health Department, about 100 families from Liberty Baptist College take advantage of the city’s free medical services. Says one municipal official, “I’m sick of taking care of Jerry’s people. They come into town with nothing at all, thinking the church will take care of them.”
Falwell’s response to those who would find fault with his ministry is to point to the size of his church’s presence in Lynchburg (pop. 70,000). “I don’t think there is any trend away from me,” he says. “A fourth of the town worships with us. All of our people purchase from local business and buy homes from local Realtors. It is just that the size of our ministry would be a threat to any town of this size. We have more friends here now than we had 10 years ago.”
The son of a prosperous Lynchburg businessman, Falwell started preaching 25 years ago in a converted soft drink factory with 35 parishioners and $1,000. Today his combined ministries are Lynchburg’s fourth largest employer. Falwell admits that such a presence may leave some people wondering “if we are going to take over the town. But we’ve never gotten involved in council elections. One or two of our people have considered running for city council, and we asked them not to.”
The question of who might win is not all that certain anyway. Though the Moral Majority played a key role in the New Right’s defeat of several liberal Senators and Congressmen in 1980, the impact of Falwell’s forces was nil in last fall’s elections. “These days,” says political media consultant Robert Squier, “Falwell’s endorsement is the kiss of death.” According to an October poll of Virginia voters, Falwell emerged as the least-liked public figure, and his power base seems no longer secure. “In this city,” says a Lynchburg lawyer, “Jerry couldn’t be elected dogcatcher.”