Jerry Falwell was confronted during a 1984 TV talk show by audience member Jerry Sloan, a friend from their Baptist bible college days.
Why, the Californian asked, had the televangelist called the gay-friendly Metropolitan Community Church a "vile and Satanic system (that) will one day be utterly annihilated"?
Falwell denied making the slam and told Sloan he'd give him $5,000 if he could prove otherwise.
Sloan produced evidence. When Falwell refused to pay up, Sloan sued, won and used his winnings to start Sacramento's gay community center.
"Jerry Falwell is indirectly one of our community center's godfathers," Sloan quips.
Falwell was a big talker. The power of his voice turned his 35-member congregation into a mega-church, launched the Moral Majority and drew countless fundamentalist Christians into politics. Words were his weapons. The damage they inflicted didn't die with him.
In Falwell's distorted version of Christianity, "AIDS is the wrath of a just God against homosexuals." His blend of old-time prejudices stunted our nation's growth and is a prime reason it continues to lag behind much of the Western world in treating those of us who're gay with fairness.
But, ironically, Falwell was the unintentional godfather of some creative gay-rights projects. Soulforce, dedicated to peacefully challenging anti-gay religious leaders, was started by former Falwell ghostwriter Mel White. Soulforce sponsors the Equality Riders, young Christians who travel from campus to campus, urging evangelical colleges to embrace their gay students.
Falwell unintentionally spurred many folks to rethink their attitudes when his words proved too outrageous. Immediately after Sept. 11, Falwell blamed "the pagans and the abortionists and the feminists and the gays and the lesbians all of them who try to secularize America -- I point the finger in their face and say, 'You helped this happen.'" He later apologized.
By then, his influence was waning: America is increasingly intolerant of intolerance. When Falwell's National Liberty Journal trashed the purple Teletubby, Tinky Winky, in 1999 -- "his antenna is shaped like a triangle -- the gay pride symbol"-- gay-friendly young parents rallied behind Tinky Winky.
My spouse Joyce and I discovered this on an island-hopper plane in Costa Rica. As the little girl behind us clutched a LaaLaa Teletubby, her mom brought up Tinky Winky. "He's actually her favorite," she wanted us to know.
Even conservative Christians have warmed to gay people. A 2004 Los Angeles Time poll found, by 51-to-33 percent, fundamentalist Christians want laws to protect gay workers from discrimination. And by 63 to 31 percent, born-again or evangelical Christians favor expanding hate crimes laws to include attacks based on sexual orientation or gender identity, a new Gallup poll shows.
According to University of Akron professor John Green, "Once (evangelicals) became involved in politics, their horizons broadened and they began to see the world in a different way."
Falwell himself evolved. Though still urging gays to pray to become heterosexual, he endorsed housing and job rights for us. "Civil rights for all Americans -- black, white, red, yellow, the rich, poor, young, old, gay, straight, et cetera -- is not a liberal or conservative value. It's an American value that I would think that we pretty much all agree on," he said two years ago on MSNBC.
Had he lived longer, would Falwell eventually have become gay friendly? God only knows.
Reach Deb Price at or (202) 662-8736 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
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