Friday, April 08, 2005

Falwell Falters

Reverend Jerry Falwell has been in the hospital recently for severe pneumonia. As the world reflects on the life and death of Pope John Paul II, a man of religious conviction and authority, let’s look at some recent history of Falwell, an American icon of religious authority, also in failing health. As Orwell showed in 1984, mere words can have a power that lead to terrible actions. This excerpt from a book I have written which is not yet published, titled Pardon My Prejudice: America’s Excuse for Bigotry, presents an awful example of thoughtless ignorant talk leading to real bad deeds:

[begin book excerpt] "The fanning of the flames of bigotry against Muslims in America since the events of September 11, 2001, comes partly from the statements made by influential well-known leaders of conservative Christianity, also referred to as the “religious right,” as in “right wing.” Included in this group is the Reverend Jerry Falwell. Not a recognized expert on Islam, Falwell gave an interview for 60 Minutes in October, 2002, in which he stated,

"I think Mohammed was a terrorist. I read enough…by both Muslims and non-Muslims, [to decide] that he was a violent man, a man of war. In my opinion…Jesus set the example for love, as did Moses, and I think Mohammed set an opposite example."

Falwell is the founder of The Moral Majority, a membership of millions of Americans who follow his right-wing Christian point of view, which is practically a formal doctrine. This “doctrine” includes his outlook that Israel must be a Jewish state, because according to him, the second coming of Christ can only happen under this specific circumstance. His idea also stipulates the exclusion of Muslims being in control of any Israeli “biblical” territory. Then, after the ultimate war of Armageddon, he believes Christianity will rule at which time all remaining Jews will convert to Christianity.

The fact that this point of view is supported by millions of Christians means that it can not be eschewed as some strange claim of a fringe group. The views of Reverend Falwell, Pat Robertson, and other leaders of the right-wing Christian “Moral Majority,” are interpreted by them as mainstream biblical fact; they believe this is what makes an honest, moral American.

The truth is, Falwell, Robertson and others of the religious right, only represent a minority of Christian Americans. Just as the extreme point of view of the religious right does not represent the belief of a majority of Christians, the same can be said about those who follow Islam. Not everyone who is of the faith of Islam can be categorized as extremist as depicted by Falwell’s comments on the 60 Minutes broadcast.

Regardless of religious faith, it is the fanatics who are dangerous, not the religion. When asked about Falwell’s interview, Ibrahim Hooper, the spokesman for the Council on American-Islamic Relation in Washington, DC, said:

“Anybody is free to be a bigot if they want to. What really concerns us is the lack of reaction by mainstream religious and political leaders, who say nothing when these bigots voice these attacks.”

It is one thing for Falwell to have a platform to promote bigotry, it is another problem to have silence from the majority who could speak out against this bigotry. His comments only polarize the country, pandering to the simmering hate that he claims he wants to quell. Really his intent was to provoke a racist and blaming atmosphere.

In a Los Angeles Times article almost two weeks later, the Executive Board of the National Council of Churches finally said “Falwell’s remark…was uninformed and dangerous. This council called on President Bush to repudiate Falwell’s words.” [LA TIMES 10/12/02]

They wanted the President to speak out against Falwell and bigoted statements like these. In fact, Falwell’s Moral Majority is Bush’s political base. George W. Bush listens to, and believes in, the Christian right wing in this country, even though they are a minority as small as one-fifth of all Christians.

After the interview on 60 Minutes, the effects of Falwell’s words were put into action. Conflict arose, and killing was the outcome.
The headline read, “Nine people dead” [LA TIMES 10/13/02]
Muslims were angered around the world due to what Falwell said about their founder and prophet, Muhammad, being a terrorist, and Hindu-Muslim clashes in India resulted in death. This incident took place the next day after Falwell’s remarks.

It is hard to "unring" a bell. It is hard to take back words. These statements incited global anger that resulted in people killing one another. Under enormous pressure, Falwell apologized for his remarks. He stated he meant no disrespect to “any sincere, law-abiding Muslim.” Still, his intent to justify his words displayed a lack of integrity.

An editorial by Benjamin J. Hubbard, describes the ripple effect words have. Hubbard is professor and chair of the department of comparative religion at Cal State Fullerton. He wrote,

“Evil and ignorant words—whether directed against a religion, a racial group or a minority such as gays and lesbians—have the power to incite hatred and violence. Falwell and his anti-Muslim ilk, and the world’s anti-Semites, need to consider the spiritual pain and potential verbal and physical abuse their words can cause to Muslims or Jews. Correspondingly, the courageous words and deeds of good people, in opposing ignorance and hate, have the power to blunt bigotry and
mend the world.”[LA TIMES 10/13/02]

If anything good can come out of this it is the idea that we have the power through our words to build bridges rather than create divisions. If a platform can be provided for bigotry, why not create a bigger stage for tolerance and acceptance? If the news media want to give a balanced point of view, then when an interview with Falwell is aired, why not also put on a spokesperson who can educate and inform with the truth." [end book excerpt]

In honoring Pope John Paul II, we can recall his reaching out to all religions of the world, and to all people. That memory can “have the power to blunt bigotry and mend the world.”

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