Chapter 11

Jerry Falwell and the Gnu Evangelicalism

If one of our modern psychologists were to examine a gnu I think he might describe it as an animal with an identity crisis. Viewed from the front, it looks like a cow. Viewed from the rear, it appears to be a horse. However, carefully classified, it is an antelope.

The title of this chapter is not an awful typographical error, nor a horrible pun. Rather, it is an editorial comment on the ecclesiastical position of Dr. Jerry Falwell. The proper religious taxonomy of Dr. Falwell has been a subject of considerable debate. He loudly proclaims himself a fundamentalist, yet his actions are those of a new evangelical. Like the gnu, he has an identity crisis. This has led some to classify him as a new fundamentalist. Dr. Bob Jones, Jr. designated him a “pseudo fundamentalist.” This title has caught on more than any other. I choose to resolve this religious identity crisis by terming him a gnu evangelical. I doubt if the title will become popular, but neither will this book.

Let’s back up to identify Dr. Jerry Falwell. He was born again as a college freshman at Lynchburg College, while listening to Dr. Charles Fuller of the Old Fashioned Revival Hour. After his salvation he transferred to Baptist Bible College in Springfield, Missouri to complete his education. He has honorary doctorates from Tennessee Temple University and the California Graduate School of Theology – and probably several more of which I am not aware.

Dr. Falwell is an impressive achiever. He is pastor of Thomas Road Baptist Church in Lynchburg, Virginia. I have driven around the parking lot of that monstrous facility and tried to count the endless rows of busses which are like the sand on the seashore. The last membership estimate I saw was in the 20,000 vicinity He is the founder, and now chancellor, of Liberty University, which he seeks to develop into a 50,000 student school which will challenge Harvard in academics and Notre Dame in athletics. He is the speaker for the “Old Time Gospel Hour” on radio and television. In his spare time he has founded and led the Moral Majority and its successor Liberty Federation. His executive gifts are amazing. He is one of those men who would be a success in whatever professional field he entered.

In 1991 Dr. Falwell declared his position on fundamentalism and new evangelicalism in a book titled, The Fundamentalist Phenomenon. Actually the book was written by two of Falwell’s compatriots whose names do not even appear on the book jacket, Ed Dobson and Ed Hindson. Falwell, whose name gets the major billing, wrote the concluding chapter titled, “Future-Word: An Agenda for the Eighties.” This chapter is twofold. It spells out the social action platform of the Moral Majority. It makes a twin appeal – to the fundamentalist and to the new evangelical. The gist of these appeals, the main thesis of the book, is spelled out in these words:

As the English theologian James Barr has already pointed out, non-evangelicals view Evangelicals and Fundamentalists alike anyhow. We have so much in common. Only the radicals among us (to the left and to the right) divide us. I say it is time we denied the ‘lunatic fringe’ of our movements and worked for a great conservative crusade to turn America back to God (1981:222).

In 1982 1 wrote a review of Falwell’s book for the International Committee for the Propagation and Defense of Biblical Fundamentalism. The title was, “An Analysis by a Fundamentalist of Falwell’s Book The Fundamentalist Phenomenon.” (The title was as long as the review.) I quote two paragraphs from that review:

By the ‘lunatic fringe’ of the New Evangelical movement Falwell means those whom he designates as ‘the young evangelicals’ and ‘the worldly evangelicals.’ This is the segment of New Evangelicalism which has dialogued with the liberals so fervently that it has decided to join them. They have followed the divergent path of New Evangelicalism to the end of the road. Falwell correctly says that obedient Fundamentalists could not join with them. This seems to be one of the unique places where Falwell would separate from anyone.

By the ‘lunatic fringe’ of the Fundamentalist movement he means any Fundamentalist who still believes in scriptural separation. Like the New Evangelicals, he seems to shed vicarious tears of repentance for the great warriors of the past who wrote ‘Ichabod’ over the doors of apostate denominations and walked out to begin anew with a pure church. Those who fearlessly left apostasy as true fundamental separatists, leading their churches with them, come off the battlefield wounded by the book, while the New Evangelical fathers like Harold Ockenga, Edward John Carnell, and Carl F. H. Henry retire from their dialogues with heroes’ medals. Moral Majority Inc., cannot hold together if godly men practice separation, so those who do must be sacrificed to facilitate the merger.

Falwell’s open courtship of new evangelicalism in this book did not fall on deaf ears among the courted. Dr. Clark Pinnock, a card-carrying new evangelical, wrote a review of The Fundamentalist Phenomenon in the March-April 1982 issue of the Theological Students Fellowship Bulletin. Referring to Dobson, Hindson and Falwell he wrote, “These men are right wing evangelicals, not what we would call fundamentalists at all…They are already part of the evangelical coalition as it now unsteadily exists.” If the dictum, “it takes one to know one” is true, here is clear identification. Further, Pinnock wrote, “either Schaeffer and Ockenga are fundamentalists or else these men are evangelicals. The point is, they are well-nigh identical if this book is correct.” Incidentally, this is the same Dr. Ed Dobson who now pastors the Calvary Church of Grand Rapids, Michigan in the fellowship of the Independent Fundamental Churches of America. His church was host to a recent IFCA National Convention. Not many years ago that was the fundamentalist pulpit of Dr. M. R. DeHaan.

Newsweek for April 26, 1982 reported on the gathering of a new evangelical search committee in Washington. The purpose of the search was expressed in a sentence Newsweek highlighted as its theme: “The Billy Graham era is drawing to a close, and there is no one who can replace him.” The article stated as follows:

Search Committee: The most conspicuous would-be heir is the Rev. Jerry Falwell, the fundamentalist firebrand and leader of ‘the Moral Majority’. Earlier this year Falwell flew in his private jet to Washington for a secret meeting with the closest thing in evangelical circles to an official search committee. A dozen of evangelicalism’s most prominent interpreters – including theologian Carl Henry, philosopher Francis Schaeffer, Christianity Today editor Kenneth Kantzer and several evangelical college presidents – quizzed Falwell on his views and promised to meet with him again.

In the Newsweek article Falwell’s co-author, Ed Hindson, is quoted as saying: “Jerry is the only person to come along to appeal to both groups. There’s no question that he is the leader of conservative Christians in America today.” However, I rather think that the fathers of new evangelicalism who interviewed him in Washington felt that Falwell’s journey from fundamentalism was a bit quick and that he should be detained at Ellis Island awhile longer before being accepted into new evangelicalism’s upper echelon.

As I have pointed out before, the first hallmark of new evangelicalism is a repudiation of separatism. Dr. Falwell’s personal contempt for separation is demonstrated very clearly in his cooperation with unbelievers in the organization of the Moral Majority Inc. and his willing involvement with charismatics in the PTL episode.

I have often referred to the “good cause syndrome.” This is the feeling that it is proper to join hands with unbelievers if the cause is good enough. In the formation of the Moral Majority the cause was good enough. It was described as being pro-life, pro-moral, pro-family, pro-American and pro-Israel. (Some of us might want to argue the last point, but we will ignore that here.) In the name of these good causes men like Dr. D. James Kennedy Dr. Charles Stanley, Dr. Tim La Haye and Dr. Greg Dixon joined with Falwell in organizing a crusading group. In The Fundamentalist Phenomenon Falwell said the following:

Today Moral Majority, Inc., is made up of millions of Americans, including 72,000 ministers, priests, and rabbis, who are deeply concerned about the moral decline of our nation, the traditional family, and the moral values on which our nation was built. We are Catholics, Jews, Protestants, Mormons, Fundamentalists, blacks and whites – farmers, housewives, businessmen, and business women. (1991:188)

The problem of separation is obvious here. Christians have been and always will be, a minority. Men always think they need a majority to do the job. If a majority is to be built, it must be much broader than the circle of brethren. Falwell recognizes this and answers, “Moral Majority is a political organization and is not based on theological considerations” (1981:188). However, one needs only to read the Old Testament to see that it was never necessary for God to form a coalition with the Philistines, the Egyptians and the Babylonians to win His battles. That is still true today and it is what 2 Corinthians 6:14-18 is all about. The Moral Majority has now been succeeded by the Liberty Federation which is supposed to provide a larger platform for international issues.

1 Corinthians 15:33 warns: “Be not deceived: evil communications corrupt good manners.” Have Dr. Falwell’s associations with unbelievers affected his personal convictions? The Washington Post Magazine for July 24, 1988 carried a long story on Dr. Falwell and stated the following:

He has changed his mind about pants on women. He has decided that God isn’t a segregationist. He has changed his mind about attending parties where booze is served, about sharing the stage with Catholics or Jews or people who speak in tongues. He now says God answers the prayers of all people, no matter their faith. For this, hardened fundamentalists have attacked him. He has even changed his mind about who can go to Heaven – with not only fundamentalists but Catholics and other Christians of all faiths now having a chance.

Truly, “evil communications (companions) corrupt good manners.”

Perhaps Dr. Falwell’s greatest deviation from fundamentalism has to do with his part in the PTL Network Scandal. On March 20, 1987, following the shocking revelations of immorality and financial sleaze, Dr. Falwell announced that the reins of the charismatic PTL conglomerate had been turned over to him by the Rev. Jim Bakker. In the days of amazement which followed, the daily papers quoted Falwell as saying that Bakker’s resignation was a “blow to the cause of Christ,” that “God would not want me to allow the collapse of this ministry,” that he was “trying to save a sister ministry,” that his goal was to “rebuild the credibility and guarantee the ongoing testimony of Jesus Christ,” and that “the entire cause of Christ is at stake.” All of these statements gave credibility to an enterprise which had been a spacey combination of tongues, healing, prosperity Gospel, success testimonies and unabashed deceit. Later revelations exposed all types of immorality, drug addiction, high living, and misappropriation of funds. In the takeover which ensued, Falwell personally chose new board members including new evangelicals such as Ben Armstrong of the National Association of Religious Broadcasters, Southern Baptists such as Sam Moore of Thomas Nelson Publishers, Dr. Baily Smith and Rev. Richard Lee Common, and charismatics Richard Dortch, Rex Humbard and James Watt. Most of these appointments were not long-lived, as men resigned for a variety of reasons. Falwell himself forsook the task in due time, and recognized that even he could not handle the mixture produced. Methinks he must have felt somewhat like David did in 1 Samuel 29 when he was expelled from his ill advised cooperation with Achish and the Philistines.

I have already commented on the situation in the Southern Baptist Convention. Although not a member of that abomination, Falwell has always had a strong tie to it. In the September 15, 1989 issue of the Sword of the Lord he is quoted as saying: “Forty percent of the Liberty University student body comes from SBC churches. Scores of SBC pastors send their children here. More SBC pastors speak here at Thomas Road Baptist Church and Liberty University than from any other fellowship of churches, and I personally speak for more SBC churches than any other one movement.” Other new evangelical visitors to Falwell’s pulpit have included Josh McDowell, Dr. Harold Lindsell, Dr. Warren Wiersbe, Evie Tornquist, Robert Walker, Dr. E. V Hill, Dr. Billy Kim, Rev. Jesse Jackson, Dr. Clyde Narramore, Eldridge Cleaver, Charles Colson, Dr. Larry Ward of World Vision and Dr. Jack Wyrtzen. The Biblical Evangelist for June 1, 1987 reported that Wyrtzen was on campus at the time of the PTL takeover. Mrs. Falwell’s advice was, “Don’t do it.” Jack Wyrtzen advised, “Do it! Do it!” This is not a great surprise to those who have followed Word of Life’s increasing new evangelicalism.

Contemporary Christian musicians and musical groups appearing on the Liberty Campus have included Gary McSpadden, Sandi Patti, Steve Green, Larnelle Harris, Vernard Johnson, Squire Parsons, The Talleys, Carman and Truth. Most of these freely appear at charismatic gatherings.

The low point of Falwell’s guest list came in 1983 when he wined, dined and dialogued with Senator Edward Kennedy and featured him in an address to the student body of Liberty Baptist College. Shades of Jehosaphat sitting down with Ahab! (Perhaps I should apologize to Jehoshaphat. At least he did not issue the invitation.)

The time has come to end this little essay on “Jerry Falwell and the Gnu Evangelicalism.” Let us send the gnu back to the zoo and admit that the evidence shows that Dr. Jerry Falwell is a new evangelical, no matter which end of the beast does the talking.