Thursday, May 17, 2007

Final Words

The "legacy" of Jerry Falwell continues to pester my consciousness, if only because I'm not sure there will actually be one. David Kuo , as I mentioned earlier, gave an excellent commentary on the price many Christians will pay for a long time because Jerry Falwell was the public face of Christianity in this country (although he never led the largest congregation in the country, nor was he the head of a denomination or the champion of a institution other than his own Thomas Road Baptist Church and Liberty University. ) Falwell was media savvy the way, say, Joel Osteen is media savvy. We're all dazzled by big congretations and massive gatherings of people. But Ted Haggard's former church is suffering now that he's gone, in no small part because of the blazing hypocrisy of the scandal that caused him to step down. Still, his presence is clearly being missed. Falwell's "Moral Majority" is truly neither, now; it's a spent force in American politics, although the GOP debates indicate the last people to get the news are the GOP candidates (No surprise, of course. As Sen. Christopher Dodd said yesterday, the American people are far ahead of the Congress on the need to get out of Iraq. Political tectonic plates take a long time to shift.) But will there be 6000 people in Thomas Road Baptist Church this Sunday? Probably. However, how many will be there a year from now?

As Ed Kilgore has pointed out, Falwell was not actually the favorite son of Lynchburg. Which is neither here nor there, except it points out Falwell was like the rest of us, and put his pants on one leg at a time. And now, to put it crudely, that he won't be putting pants on ever again, whither Thomas Road Baptist Church and Liberty University? Or, more crucially, where will the cable news networks and Sunday morning talk shows turn for a sound bite about "moral issues" in America? As NPR pointed out yesterday, Falwell's influence among like-minded Christians was waning before his death. What possible influence can he have now?

One of the peculiarities of mega-churches and non-denominational churches with charismatic leaders, especially those who earn fame and fortune from their preaching, writing, or personalities, is that such churches seldom outlast their pastor. Joel Osteen's church is the exception that proves the rule. He's done nothing more than do his father one better, carrying the church onward and upward in ways that Richard Roberts tried in vain to do for his father Oral, who was once a "big deal" in his own right, but whose "ministry" (what he called the institution he tried to set up) has faded from public notice (the last I heard he was trying to get the city of Tulsa to pay for the hospital he built against their wishes. But that was about 2 decades ago, and I've heard nothing about him since). Before Osteen there was Jimmy Swaggert, and Jim and Tammy Faye Bakker, and Pat Robertson, and Robert Tilton. Tilton is still carrying on in the backwaters of cable TV, and Robertson, per NPR, is steadily losing influence just as Falwell did. But there is more to this than is publicly visible.

A dynamic, charismatic, powerful, and influential pastor, is largely the product of Protestantism. True, there are Dorothy Days and Oscar Romeros and Thomas Mertons in Roman Catholicism, but they never have the institutional power at their fingertips that even a Joel Osteen does right now. And their legacy remains alive because of the institution, which may tend to honor them more in death than in life, but honors them just the same. It is, in other words, the institution which carries on. The influence of the personality flickers out with the life of the person.

Retired pastors learn this lesson the hard way, especially in congregationally based churches. The more you move away from a church with a hierarchy, an overarching institutional tradition or polity, the more the congregation comes to see itself as "the church," and it's favored pastor as the reason for its blessings (the distinction between episcopal and congregational polities is a very subtle one in this case, I understand). Inevitably, the pastor retires, though, and then the church much adjust, and at that point it becomes an institution apart from the pastor who shepherded it for what may have been decades. Sometimes that transition goes very smoothly, and the pastor is a healthy person who simply walks away. Just as ofthen, though, it is like a divorce after a very long marriage, or even a death, and the grief at finding out you aren't that important after all, that you can't continue to inspire and influence people after retirement, leads, in the very worst of cases, to an almost Lear-like situation. Pastors, in other words, soon realize that they have influence only so long as they have responsibility, only so long as they are still the pastor. Retirement is often the death of influence, especially if they, like Jerry Falwell, want to insist their views are the views everyone else should adhere to. When pastors retire and go graciously, they can be honored for their service and still be a guiding hand. But it is, as ever, a question of power: you can't keep the power forever, and you certainly can't wield it, once you are no longer there to do so. I've known pastors who understand this; I've known pastors who had to learn it the hard way. Jerry Falwell, of course, is past all such considerations now.

But his church isn't; his institution isn't. It may turn out, however, it was already long past such influence, and the death of its famous and media-savvy personality and public leader, simply reveals what we all should have known. It will certainly be interesting to see if anyone rises to become the next choice of the media for a religious soundbite or a guest seat speaking for Christians. It seems unlikely, and it seems very likely Falwell's lasting legacy for the nation will be a negative one: he will be the public face of Christianity that almost anyone can revile, the public face of Christianity as intolerant and duplicitous and just as power-seeking as any politician. Christianity, in other words, as just another human, all too human, institution. I can't think, at this point, of much that he did which was a net positive for Christianity; not as a public figure. There are legitimate questions as to whether his opinions were even worse than we remember. Still, the institutions of Christianity will carry on; and as long as people seek out the famous and respond to the infamous, we will have Jerry Falwells among us. They seem to arise about once every generation or so, and are sustained by the generation which gave birth to them; but seldom by much beyond that

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