Jerry Falwell and Mel White Join Forces
Associated Press, November 1, 1999
by Lynn Rosellini
They really do love each other, though sometimes you have to look beyond the brickbats to see it. The Rev. Jerry Falwell call the Rev. Mel White an unrepentant sinner who is leading Christian youth down the path of evil. White says that Falwell is an ignorant victim whose "pathetic" personal attacks are exceeded only by his violence-inciting "hate speeches." Yet for 15 years, they have been friends – and that’s no coincidence, says Gary Nixon, White’s longtime partner. "It’s God who has brought these boys together," he says.
The oddball relationship between Falwell, the gay-bashing televangelist, and White, the gay activist who ghostwrote Falwell’s autobiography before publicly acknowledging his homosexuality, has produced one of those quirky American tableaux that may prove the old adage that if you live long enough, you’ll see everything. It was his friendship with White that prompted Falwell take the groundbreaking step this past weekend to meet with 200 gay men and lesbians to meet with 200 of his own followers at his Thomas Road Baptist Church in Lynchburg, Va. The stated purpose of the 90-minute meeting was to temper the hostile rhetoric that spawns hate crimes. The unstated purpose: to get evangelicals and gays talking, face to face. Forget changing minds: "For the first time in history," says Falwell, "we will have talked without fighting."
That’s no small feat, since Falwell and White themselves went for five years without talking to each other because of White’s homosexuality. Gay rights has been one of the most explosive issues in modern American churches, polarizing entire congregations over questions of ordaining gay ministers and sanctioning of same-sex marriages. While some denominations, like the United Church of Christ, have officially welcomed gays, the Southern Baptist Convention and most other evangelical churches teach that homosexuality is a sin.
But when White got to know Falwell in 1984, he was a model evangelical. A husband and father of two, White was a star writer for Pat Robertson, Jim Bakker, and Billy Graham. During frequent hops on Falwell’s jet while White researched the book, the friendship between the rail-thin, soft-spoken author and the avuncular, pudgy televangelist gradually took form. White found Falwell a "fun guy," a relentless practical joker with a passion for Hostess Snow Balls. Falwell admired White’s honesty and humor. "You understand me better than anyone," Falwell would say later.
Out and about. There was only one problem. Unknown to Falwell, White was attracted to men. From youth, he had struggled with homosexual impulses that his religion told him were sinful. "I spent 25 years in terror, trying to figure out what was wrong with me," he recalls. When electroshock treatment, exorcism, and $250,000 in psychotherapy failed to "cure" him, White finally left his wife and moved in with Nixon.
Falwell was stunned. He believes the Bible clearly states that homosexuality is a sin, and he built an $80 million-a-year ministry in part with strident fund-raising letters condemning gays as "deviants" committed to the "complete elimination of God and Christianity from American society." But after ignoring White’s letters and calls for years, Falwell began to wonder what purpose he was serving. Maybe it was time, he concluded, to think about "loving the sinner but hating the sin>" When they met again last August, White told him that hate crimes against gays were escalating and that Falwell was partly to blame: "I know you don’t mean to hurt people, Jerry, but your rhetoric is killing them!" Falwell listened, and in a speech prepared for Saturday vowed never to "make statements that can be construed as sanctioning hate or antagonism against homosexuals." Friends again, the two men suddenly had common enemies: The meeting was slated to be picketed by both the Oral Majority, a confrontational gay rights group, and the Rev. Fred Phelps, the Baptist minister who runs a virulently antigay Web site.
Neither White nor Falwell is sure where their dialogue will end. "How do two people who see each other as a threat talk to each other in nonhate language?" mused White. If he and Falwell can answer that, it could be a lesson for more than just the two friends and adversaries.
Copyright 1999 Associated Press. All rights reserved.