NEWS- Jumpin' Jesus: Whitehead recalls Falwell's two sides
FILE PHOTO BY JEN FARIELLO
While lauding the personable and prankster sides of fundamentalist preacher Jerry Falwell, who died May 15 in Lynchburg, freedom fighter John W. Whitehead reveals that he was no fan of Falwell's interest in mixing church and state.
"I would eat dinner with him," says Whitehead, founder of the Rutherford Institute on Rio Road, "but as far as his philosophy, I couldn't disagree with him more.
"His view of things was typical of Christian right-wing fundamentalists," continues Whitehead, "but I hate to use the word Christian because I can't picture Jesus with an Uzi. Falwell probably could."
Ironically, it was Whitehead's 1981 book, The Second American Revolution, that inspired many of the same believers who became part of the Moral Majority, the Falwell-founded group that typically argued for a hawkish foreign policy and conservative domestic social programs. Whitehead says he later changed his mind about mixing church and state. (Incidentally, in his most recent essay, Whitehead says that Jesus would definitely oppose the war in Iraq.)
Although he provoked smiles in 1999 when he suggested that the Teletubby named Tinky-Winky might be gay, Falwell provoked widespread shock when he declared, while the twin towers were still burning, that 9/11 was brought on by "the pagans, and the abortionists, and the feminists, and the gays and the lesbians."
"I said, 'Oh, oh, something's wrong here,'" Whitehead recalls. "You get nervous when someone says they're speaking for God."
One other area in which Whitehead and Falwell did agree was a case in which Rutherford Institute attorneys successfully fought for the right of Liberty University football players to kneel after successful plays. The practice had been seen by the NCAA as unsportsmanlike grandstanding, Whitehead recalls.
Whitehead also reveals a couple of interesting Falwell-as-prankster stories. One took place in the mid-1990s at the Omni hotel when Whitehead was invited to Falwell's room to confer about a legal problem.
As Whitehead unsuspectingly strolled into the room, the well-fed preacher tackled him. "Falwell jumps me from behind, wrestles me to the ground, and starts laughing," says Whitehead. "His big old ham hock hands were wrapped around my throat. He was a practical joker."
A mutual friend relayed an unconfirmed Falwell anecdote, most likely from the the pre-9/11 era. "He was on a plane," Whitehead says, "and rolled a Coke can into the cockpit yelling, 'smoke bomb!'"
Nowhere was Falwell's sense of humor more publicly evident than in his November 1997 clash with America's leading wheelchair-bound pornographer, Larry Flynt. The two were in Charlottesville to discuss the lawsuit Falwell lodged after Flynt's Hustler magazine published a satirical ad suggesting that Falwell lost his virginity to his mother.
"Larry wasn't in good health," Falwell explained, "or we would have settled it behind the barn."
Falwell conceded that Flynt had become his parishioner– even though the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in favor of Flynt's unsavory magazine. "We didn't lose until we went to a less-talented jury," Falwell cracked.
"He was a very personable guy," says Whitehead. "Maybe he'll jump Jesus in heaven."