I was saddened to learn that Rev. Jerry Falwell passed away this morning at age 73. Rev. Falwell and I met many times over the years, as the media often paired us as debate partners on issues of faith and politics. I respected his passionate commitment to his beliefs, and our shared commitment to bringing moral debate to the public square, although we didn't agree on many things. At this time, however, what matters most is our prayers for comfort and peace for his family and friends.
But many conservative Christians are now also embracing poverty, HIV/AIDS, Darfur, sex trafficking, and even the war in Iraq as matters of faith and moral imperatives. It would have been nice to hear on those TV shows that Jerry Falwell, too, had moved to embrace a broader agenda than just abortion and homosexuality. Rev. Falwell, who was admittedly racist during the civil rights movement, was in later years honored by the Lynchburg NAACP for his turn-about on the issue of race, showing the famous founder of the Religious Right's capacity to grow and change. But two nights ago on television, I saw the pain on the face of gay Christian Mel White, who lamented that despite his and other's efforts, Falwell never did even moderate his strong and often inflammatory language (even if maintaining his religious convictions) against gay and lesbian people. They still feel the most wounded by the fundamentalist minister's statements; that healing has yet to be done.
Ralph Reed said that Jerry Falwell presided over the "marriage ceremony" between religious fundamentalists and the Republican Party. That's still a concern about the Religious Right for many of us, and should be a warning for the relationship of any so-called religious left with the Democrats. But perhaps in the overly partisan mistakes that Jerry Falwell made - and actually pioneered - we can all be instructed in how to forge a faith that is principled but not ideological, political but not partisan, engaged but not used. That's how the Catholic Bishops put it, and it is a better guide than the direction we got from the Moral Majority. But Falwell proclaimed a public faith, not a private one. And I am with him on that. As I like to say, God is personal, but never private. So let's pray for Jerry Falwell's family, the members of his Thomas Road Baptist Church, and all the students at his Liberty University. And let's learn from his legacy - about how and how not to best apply our faith to politics.