The Book Stop Blog is featuring excerpts from chapter one of A Faith of Our Own: Following Jesus Beyond the Culture Wars by Jonathan Merritt.
Breakfast with Falwell
It's interesting that nowadays politicians want to talk about moral issues, and bishops want to talk politics. - Sir Humphrey Appleby, from Yes, Prime Minister
My restless legs shook under a table in the Lynchburg, virginia, IHOP. I sat in a booth facing the entrance, my eyes fixed on the door. My stomach churned with nervous excitement and a splash of scared silly. Next to me, my dad sat quietly—calmer than I, but a bit anxious as well. We both knew the significance of this moment: I was about to meet Jerry Falwell for the first time.
Depending on one’s upbringing, that name may not conjure up the same emotions that it did in me in 1999 at the age of 17. For some, the name “Jerry Falwell” incites a roll of the eyes or anger. But I was raised to revere and respect Dr. Falwell, the veritable founder of the Religious Right. I saw him as a paragon of principle, a crusader for common Christians. These sentiments were reinforced throughout my life, since I had grown up in the inner sanctum of evangelicalism.
My father was a prominent Southern Baptist minister who expected us to be in church four times weekly, twice on Sundays. As his church size and influence grew, politicians extended invitations for fund-raising dinners and public events where our family would follow in tow—his smiling entourage of support.
Today, a picture hangs in Dad’s office of him with me, my brother, and President George H. W. Bush. It’s an emblem of the place I grew up. The Deep South. A world of fiery religion and frenzied politics. A world in which the two are often indistinguishable.
Within months of this meeting, Dad would be elected president of the Southern Baptist Convention (SBC), the largest Protestant denomination in America, which boasted 16 million members. Dr. Falwell knew the importance of such things, so he asked Dad to bring me up to his college—Liberty University—for a good old-fashioned sales pitch.
As the door swung open, my eyes widened. Power clung to his frame like his pressed oxford and three-button blazer. The preacher’s silver hair and genuine smile contributed to his jovial persona, but Jerry Falwell always meant business. He owned the room.
“This must be the future Liberty student,” he said snatching my hand and giving a firm squeeze. “James, we need to get this young man in Lynchburg.”
“I’m doing the best I can to convince him,” Dad responded.
Dr. Falwell sat down and motioned for our server. Without opening a menu, he rattled off his behest. The precision of his order told me this wasn’t his first visit to the International House of Pancakes, and the way he bantered about with the waitstaff indicated that it wouldn’t be his last.
Dad and I followed with our selections, and then the time arrived to address the reasons for our meeting. Dr. Falwell explained why Liberty was the university for me. He was building Liberty to become “the Notre Dame for evangelicals,” and it had everything a Christian could ask for—NCAA sports, conservative education, a student body where the girls outnumbered the boys. (Later on, I felt like he had exaggerated on the last point, but that’s a separate issue.)
“That’s why you need to be here next year, son. There’s no greater place on earth for training champions for Christ,” he said.
Dr. Falwell finished his sales pitch knowing he’d closed the deal. He’d given this talk a thousand times before. Then he turned to Dad, who, as a member of the Liberty board of trustees, asked about the school’s finances. Dr. Falwell remarked they were stable, but could be better.
“Enough about Liberty, Dr. Falwell,” Dad said. “How’s your ministry going?”
The reverend’s jovial smile went somber, and he leaned in closely. “James, we’ve got the numbers. We’ve got the resources. We’ve got the leadership,” he said. “I’ve spoken to conservative Christians in churches all across this country, and they know what is at stake. We've got to get serious about Jesus, and we need to call this nation back to its roots. It’s time to stand for what is right.”
But then he added, “We’ve got to get our folks to the polls next year, and we need to do a better job telling people what will happen if liberal Democrats remain in control of the White House. We must save this nation!”
My brow furrowed. Even a 17-year-old realizes when someone’s answer doesn’t match the question. Dad asked Dr. Falwell about his ministry, and Falwell answered with a strategy for acquiring political power.
Jerry Falwell believed that our country was at a critical point in its history and that the responsibility to act rested on the Christian community. The stakes were high, and we couldn’t afford to lose. So strong were his feelings that he devoted a considerable amount of his time and ministry resources to leading the effort. With the resolve of Admiral Farragut—“Damn the torpedoes, full speed ahead”—he was prepared to fight at all costs.
Excerpted from A Faith of Our Own: Following Jesus Beyond the Culture Wars by Jonathan Merritt © 2012. Published by FaithWords, a division of Hachette Book Group. Used by permission.