Falwell and Robertson Stumble
by Michael E. Naparstek
Jerry Falwell and Pat Robertson are used to stirring up the mediaóitís
one of their pleasures in life. But on September 13 they discovered that
there are new rules governing public discourse in wartime. Speaking off the
cuff on Robertsonís cable television program, "The 700 Club,"
Falwell blamed "the pagans and the abortionists and the feminists
and the gays and the lesbians," for what Robertson called "God
lifting his protection over this nation."
The events in question were the terrorist attacks on the World Trade
Center, the Pentagon, and the crashing of a passenger plane into a
Instead of rallying the religious right, Falwell and Robertsonís
comments provoked the wrath of a public and press unified by crisis and in
no mood for religious finger pointing. Neither minister was prepared for the
astonishing barrage of condemnation that fell upon them from media outlets
of all shapes and sizes.
"How dare 'The 700 Club' give air to Jerry Falwellís
hate-inspired comments during this time of national crisis! If anything this
nation as a whole needs to come together, not be torn apart," Denverís
Rocky Mountain News thundered on September 23.
From the heart of the Christian Rightís political base, James Werrell
opened an op-ed piece in the Herald of Rock Hill, South Carolina with
the words: "Add the Ď700 Club Jihadí to the list of fundamentalist
extremists who pose a threat to the future of America."
Over the next few days, Falwell and Robertson learned a humiliating
lesson about the way rules for public discourse can shift in a time of
crisis. The press made clear the demands of this moment. "In this
scheme of things," the Baltimore Sun editorialized on September
23, Falwell became "a reminder of our own fault lines. One man talking
about the judgment of God is a warning about how we will stand. Together or
The media voted for together. Falwell got the message, quickly
apologizing on CBS's Good Morning America. He admitted that he
"missed the mark." But with widespread fear and images of
smoldering city blocks fresh in their mind, the press was unforgiving.
"There is nothing holy about devotees of human
degradation," Marilou Johanek, an editorial writer at the Toledo Blade
snarled on September 23. When interviewing Falwell on September 19,
MSNBCís Geraldo Rivera scolded the minister, saying in a mock confessional
tone, "never in all my life with glibness... and Iíve made so many
stupid statements; Iíve never said anything so hurtful to so many
people." Even Walter Cronkite, from retirement on journalismís Mt.
Olympus, hurled a hyperbolic denunciation in the New York Times,
calling Falwellís comments, "the most abominable thing Iíve ever
If Falwell had indeed "missed the mark," journalists found
other ministers who could hit the target. The Star Tribune of
Minneapolis commended other pastors for preaching patience and provided
context for Falwellís remarks, noting, "Falwell gets headlines for his
flame-throwing. But thousands of somber and reasoned voices speak for
Others condemned Falwell for trying to politicize an act as terrible as
the September 11 attacks. As the director of a Jewish community council in
Madison, Wisconsin, Steven Morrison warned in the Wisconsin State Journal,
"Donít confuse the horrific act of evil with an intellectual argument
about the mind of God."
Falwell and Robertson have often used consciously divisive statements to
stoke media feeding frenzies. For example, in 1999, Falwell denounced a
character on a public television childrenís show, "Teletubbies,"
Tinky-Winky, as a gay icon, and on another occasion announced that he
expected the Anti-Christ would come in the form of a Jewish male. For his
part, in 1998, Robertson predicted natural disasters for Florida because
Disney World allowed the flying of the rainbow-colored flags that support
These ministers have heaped special scorn on those whom they believe are
trying to extrude God from the civil arena. As he has often done over the
past two decades, on Robertsonís show Falwell singled out the "ACLU,
People for the American Way, all of them who try to secularize America"
for provoking Godís wrath.
While Falwell and Robertsonís comments about the terrorist attack were
slapped down in September, it is important to recall that their general
sentiment about the high cost of the secularization does find resonance with
a significant audience. Latching onto breaking news events to make forceful
complaints about secularization is a key part of their strategy for influencing
American public life.
And reading national calamity as atonement for national sin is hardly newóLincolnís
Second Inaugural Address interpreted the Civil Warís carnage and slavery
in this very light. Civil religion (which, for some conservative
evangelicals, is simply a polite version of their religion) includes
among its orthodoxies not only a special relationship between God and
America, but also judgment for failing to behave as a chosen nation should.
Though few of Falwell and Robertsonís evangelical and fundamentalist
supporters agreed with naming various liberal and secular groups as
"responsible" for provoking Godís wrath, signs of support for
Falwellís general concerns are easy to discern. On September 13, for
example, Anne Graham Lotz, Rev. Billy Grahamís evangelist daughter,
appeared on a CBS's Early Show segment about Godís role in the
September 11 attacks and said: "For years now Americans in a sense have
shaken their fist at God and said, ĎGod, we want you out of our schools,
our government, our business, we want you out of the marketplace.í"
A letter from Scott Rocca printed in the Lancaster, Pennsylvania Intelligencer
Journal on September 27 reflected the deep resentment that many feel on
the religious right. He expressed "true sadness" that "the
Rev. Jerry Falwell has apologized for his Biblical statements about the
recent terrorist attacks," adding that it is "not the vocation of
a Christian minister to please the mob but to speak Godís truth."
For his part, Robertson refused to apologize. He insisted that his
struggle to bring God back into the national consciousness must go on.
"It behooves us, then, to humble ourselves before the offended Power,
to confess our national sins, and to pray for clemency and
forgiveness," he wrote in a letter published in the Norfolk Virginian-Pilot
on September 24.
Robertsonís strong stance might have as much to do with his preference
that Falwell serve as the primary lightning rod as it does with any
particular religious perspective. In his letter to the Virginian-Pilot,
Robertson assured, "Jerry Falwell made remarks that I have disavowed as
intemperate and inappropriate"óciting Falwellís statement on Good
Morning America that, "Pat Robertson did not make them and should
not be held accountable for them").
At an October 1 celebration marking the 40th anniversary of
his Christian Broadcasting Network, Robertson returned to his main message:
the need for "a great deal of repentance" and calling on people to
"live the way the Bible tells them to live."
But journalists werenít listening sympathetically to that either.
Instead, they stressed the unacceptability of division. An editorial in the Press
of Atlantic City hit this hard, wondering, "[I]n fact, some might
have a hard time distinguishing between Falwellís ideologically based
hatred and the fanaticism of the terrorists." The editorial, like many
others, condemned Falwell and Robertsonís comments as rhetoric that
"serves no moral purpose," and "only creates more pain."
Perhaps the most poignant criticism of the ministersí remarks came from
the city they condemned. New York Times columnist Joyce Purnick
observed on September 20 that the moral and religious diversity that disturb
Falwell and Robertson was on full display in the rescue and recovery
operations at Ground Zero. "New York was still New York," she
wrote. "The country will again resent New York. Jerry Falwell will
again damn it. John Rocker may even ridicule it again. The sooner the