A voice of religious intolerance falls silent

With the death this week of the Rev. Jerry Falwell, the Christian right lost one of its most vocal champions — and America lost one of its most strident bigots. 

Condolences have rolled in from the Jewish world. Rabbi Eric Yoffie, president of the Union for Reform Judaism, praised Falwell for his “profound commitment to the safety and well-being of the state of Israel.” Morton Klein of the Zionist Organization of America said, “It’s a sad day for Zionists and those of us who love Israel.”

We wonder why there is so much praise.

One is cautioned not to speak ill of the dead. But justice demands we remember that Falwell often spoke ill of the living: of Jews, gays, lesbians, people with AIDS and anyone who did not subscribe to his exact brand of fundamentalist Christianity.

Falwell was not good for Jews or anyone outside his circle of far-right zealots. Lest we forget, here are a few Falwell quotes spanning his career:

He asserted that when the Antichrist comes, he “must be, of necessity, a Jewish male.” He said, “I do not believe that God answers the prayer of any unredeemed gentile or Jew.” He called AIDS “the wrath of a just God against homosexuals.” 

And, of course, who could forget his infamous words in the aftermath of 9/11: “I really believe that the pagans, and the abortionists, and the feminists, and the gays and the lesbians who are actively trying to make that an alternative lifestyle, the ACLU, People For the American Way, all of them who have tried to secularize America: I point the finger in their face and say you helped this happen.” 

All that is beyond the pale of civil discourse, and yet Falwell’s political power grew exponentially since he founded the Moral Majority in the late 1970s.

No one would deny Falwell’s right to speak his mind, to build his ministry or to exert influence. That is the American way. People that knew him concede he was a gracious man one-on-one.

But public actions matter far more than common courtesies. 

History will judge Falwell and his impact on American politics. No doubt it will deem him a significant player. For the Republican Party, he was a hero who brought millions into the fold, wrenching the party rightward. For Christianity, he was a mighty voice for fundamentalism. For Israel, he was an undeniably strong supportive voice.

Still, as Jews, as members of an ethnic minority historically marginalized by Christian majorities, we cannot but condemn Falwell’s social message.

May he rest in peace. At the same time, may we never rest in fighting his brand of religious bigotry.