In a dramatic turnaround, Falwell reaches out to gays and lesbians, a group he once openly despised
Time Magazine, November 1, 1999
By John Cloud
The Rev. Jerry Falwell stuffs a leather-bound "giant-print" Bible under an arm so he can pop a Rolaids into his mouth. He eats fatty food too often at the Backyard Grill in Lynchburg, Va., and he turned 66 last summer, but friends say he hasn’t let up on his schedule. This morning he’s speaking to 1,500 cheering students at Liberty University, the college he founded in 1971 that has become the largest evangelical college in the world. "Jesus is awesome!" they shout, many faces contorted with joy.
Christian rock blares. Eventually, Falwell takes the podium, as he has countless times in his 47 years of preaching. But when he speaks, the words sound a bit strange.
photo: Chad Hunt for Time
|REUNION: Falwell, right, with Mel White, his ghostwriter who came out of the closet|
"We can have friendship with homosexuals," he says. "you need to learn that. We can have friendship with people we disagree with." Many of the kids have grown up in conservative homes where gays are rarely spoken of, especially not in exhortations to friendship, and now they sit stone-faced, motionless. Falwell laments the murders of Matthew Shepard, the gay Wyoming student, and Billy Jack Gaither, the gay man clubbed to death and burned in Alabama. Falwell makes clear that, to him, homosexuality is still a sin. But he says Christians must be more vigilant about observing both halves of "that clich鬢 as he calls it: "Love the sinner but hate the sin."
Is Jerry Falwell mellowing with age? Sort of. The edge has dropped from his voice a bit. The Christian conservative movement he helped start 20 years ago became a political and financial giant, but Falwell believes it also has sometimes gone too far in its rhetoric. "If we are to have a real Christian witness to millions of gay and lesbian people," he says – abandoning such terms as "homosexual deviants" – "we have to use our language carefully."
For many years, but especially during the 1990s, as gays have won more power, Falwell has used language harshly to frighten millions of dollars from donors. Last weekend Falwell apologized for such statements. The occasion for Falwell’s soul searching was an unprecedented meeting between 200 of Falwell’s supporters and 200 gay people of faith.
Falwell agreed to break bread with them after several talks with the Rev. Mel White, a 60-year-old gay activist who runs Soulforce, an ecumenical gay group. White and Falwell used to be pals; White, a former filmmaker and writer for conservative causes, ghostwrote Falwell’s autobiography. But they lost touch after December 1991, when White, tired of fighting his true nature and incensed by one of Falwell’s fund-raising pitches, came out to Falwell. Within two years, White was working full time for gay causes, blasting Falwell and other conservatives.
Now they are friends again. They have bonded over mutual horror at the high-profile violence of the past year, beginning with the Shepard murder and culminating in September, when seven Christian young people were murdered at a Baptist church in Fort Worth, Texas. "Columbine, Paducah, the Gaithers, the Shepards, we don’t like any of that," Falwell told Time. It sounds a little odd to compare school shootings in Colorado and Kentucky with anti-gay slayings, but over the past few years, evangelical Christians have lost political battles on issues like school prayer, and now many feel they are threatened physically. Falwell kept an armed plainclothes guard nearby last weekend. "We watch our steps," he says.
To be sure, Falwell has changed more in style than in substance. "Compassion" is in vogue among conservatives, but it sometimes doesn’t mean much. On Saturday, Falwell called for "compassionate conviction," a sort of religious counterpart to Republican candidate George W. Bush’s "compassionate conservatism." But Falwell and Bush both believe employers should be able to fire people just for being gay. Neither wants gays to be able to marry or adopt children. And Falwell, at least, believes sincerely that gays can change into straights. Indeed, he hopes his softer words will allow that message to meet less resistance in the gay community. Other religious conservatives, like Robert Knight of the Family Research Council, said last week they won’t even meet publicly with people like White. A few dozen picketed the Falwell summit.
But Falwell has made an important break, on he compares in historical importance with his baptizing blacks in the early 1960s (which many whites in his church opposed) and his founding of the Moral Majority in 1979. "Homosexuals are the last pariahs in this society," he says. "We’ve got to reach out."
(c) Copyright 1999 Time Magazine