Jerry Falwell and Larry Flynt

Last week, Reverend Jerry Falwell, founder of Moral Majority and religious-right pundit, passed away. I’m sure he will be missed by his community. Tributes poured in from the expected sources.

Rather surprisingly, Sunday’s LA Times op-ed page included ‘Larry Flynt: My friend, Jerry Falwell.’ If ‘Famous Pornographers’ is not your best Jeopardy category, Larry Flynt publishes Hustler magazine. In the 1980s, Falwell sued Hustler over a parody ad featuring Falwell which the Supreme Court described as ‘doubtless gross and repugnant.’ The case went to the Supreme Court, and Flynt won. Flynt portrays himself as a champion of the First Amendment; I would describe him as a self-promoting iconoclast who has nothing but scorn for morality of almost any kind.

In his piece, Flynt gives us the history of the case, then describes meeting Falwell in 1997 on the Larry King show.

I hadn’t seen him since we’d been in court together, and that night I didn’t see him until I came out on the stage. I was expecting (and looking for) a fight, but instead he was putting his hands all over me. I remember thinking, “I spent $3 million taking that case to the Supreme Court, and now this guy wants to put his hand on my leg?”

Soon after that episode, I was in my office in Beverly Hills, and out of nowhere my secretary buzzes me, saying, “Jerry Falwell is here to see you.” I was shocked, but I said, “Send him in.” We talked for two hours, with the latest issues of Hustler neatly stacked on my desk in front of him. He suggested that we go around the country debating, and I agreed. We went to colleges, debating moral issues and 1st Amendment issues — what’s “proper,” what’s not and why.

In the years that followed and up until his death, he’d come to see me every time he was in California. We’d have interesting philosophical conversations. We’d exchange personal Christmas cards. He’d show me pictures of his grandchildren. I was with him in Florida once when he complained about his health and his weight, so I suggested that he go on a diet that had worked for me. I faxed a copy to his wife when I got back home.

The truth is, the reverend and I had a lot in common. He was from Virginia, and I was from Kentucky. His father had been a bootlegger, and I had been one too in my 20s before I went into the Navy. We steered our conversations away from politics, but religion was within bounds. He wanted to save me and was determined to get me out of “the business.”

My mother always told me that no matter how repugnant you find a person, when you meet them face to face you will always find something about them to like. The more I got to know Falwell, the more I began to see that his public portrayals were caricatures of himself. There was a dichotomy between the real Falwell and the one he showed the public.

I find this compelling and remarkable. The left-right divide seems insurmountable, even within the church, and yet here are two opposing generals of the culture wars sending each other Christmas cards. It reminds me of the stories about the friendship between Orrin Hatch and Ted Kennedy.

Is the point that it’s all show — that the moral indignation and rage is just hyperbole to get heard? Or is it possible to hold strong beliefs and express them while maintaining a personal respect for those that do the same on the other side of the argument?

Comments

  1. Is the point that it’s all show — that the moral indignation and rage is just hyperbole to get heard? Or is it possible to hold strong beliefs and express them while maintaining a personal respect for those that do the same on the other side of the argument?

    It is possible, even required, if you believe the New Testament.

    As an attorney, I can tell you that my colleagues that I respect most are those that zealously represent their clients in court and still maintain a friendly demeanor and even friendship with opposing counsel out of court. Just because you are opposing someone’s point of view doesn’t mean you have to dislike them or treat them poorly in personal situations. I respect Falwell a lot more after reading this.

  2. This reminds me of an ancient Mad Magazine comic that showed two politicians vigorously fighting in a public debate. As they walk off stage they are started to go towards each other and with their hands outstretched, it looks like they’re going to kill one another. When they meet up, they are grasping each others’ hands saying something like, “great debate! Where do you wanna go for lunch?”

    In terms of Flynt and Falwell’s friendship, I like this idea. It’s always been a little of a conflict whether or not as a good “Mormon girl” to befriend those who had a “bad reputation.” It was the whole avoiding the appearance of evil thing. (Like when many of my friends were punk rockers in the 80’s). I felt that we should indeed befriend those with different values than our own. It’s the only way to learn about others and ourselves.

  3. Is the point that it’s all show

    At times we really are playing parts of a greater play. We do become a certain character, and we continue that character because that’s how we want to be seen (or even later when everybody’s views are hardened, that character must be continued even though we may change).

    These days, for me at least, it is hard to know if those spilling vitriol really believe it or do they feel the need to make their character that extreme in order to be heard…

  4. Is the point that it’s all show

    At times we really are playing parts of a greater play. We do become a certain character, and we continue that character because that’s how we want to be seen (or even later when everybody’s views are hardened, that character must be continued even though we may change).

    These days, for me at least, it is hard to know if those spilling vitriol really believe it or do they feel the need to make their character that extreme in order to be heard…..

  5. My comment went to moderation.

  6. Peter LLC says:

    My comment went to moderation.

    As we should do with all things.

  7. Ardis Parshall says:

    It’s your second point — not show, but personal respect. My circle of friends and colleagues keeps expanding and embracing people who are more and more unlike me. We can talk — argue — religion and the controversial issues of history and come down on the opposite side of just about every question and still go merrily to lunch together.

    The only problems come when contempt and scorn creep in. It doesn’t seem to matter whether the contempt is aimed directly at a person or is expressed only for some debated point — that’s when the relationship collapses.

  8. I echo Ardis. Its all about personal respect. Its when you can’t separate the person from the ideas you disagree problems arise.

    Here in DC, there’s far too often a deep divide in politics but then again I know of many couples who are in politics and one is a liberal and the other is a conservative and they love each other. There’s many stories of republicans and democrats who are friends although the partisanship thing is making that a little pase and that’s a really sad thing.

  9. MikeInWeHo says:

    I have seen this kind of relationship in my own life. My partner and I are traveling right now with a Stake high council member (they’re on business; I’m freeloading). He’s a serious Republican, iron rod-type, but somehow we all get along spectacularly and it’s great fun. We can even talk politics and religion….totally cool.

    In Falwell’s case, it seems clear that he was a kind hearted man who enjoyed hyperbole as a means to get heard. I can certainly understand that, although I wonder if he realized how destructive and uncharitable his words were at times. He sends Christmas cards to Larry Flynt and then blames lesbians for 9/11??

  10. You equate the Flynt-Falwell friendship with Orin Hatch and Ted Kennedy? Let me guess, Kennedy is the Flynt character because he’s a catholic and, even worse, a Democrat?

    (sigh)

  11. Tony, get a grip. It was a perfect example of the point, one that I personally have heard Kennedy and Hatch use (meaning I have heard them say it – not that I have read it somewhere).

    AS I have said in anther thread, some of my best friends in college lived lives and espoused ideas with which I disagreed vehemently. Great people; lousy conclusions, IMHO.

    We are commanded to love our enemies, and yet I feel scorn in many comments on this very blog. (not from most, just from a few) If we can’t respect and love each other, how can we love someone like Larry Flynt – and we are commanded to do just that.

  12. Tony, I don’t think there’s any reason to read that analogy as anything but “opposites maintain friendly relationship”.

  13. Tony, you make me laugh. You’re way, way, waaaay off.

  14. “Is the point that it’s all show — that the moral indignation and rage is just hyperbole to get heard?”

    For some, perhaps, but I think even Al Sharpton and Rush Limbaugh probably have preached their indignation and rage long enough that their own angels have convinced them that it’s true and right and good. (Although I hear enough humor in much of what Limbaugh says that I think Sharpton is farther along that path.) There is a point where investing enough emotion into something turns intentional hyperbole into actual assumption.

  15. Like Ardis, I like interacting with people who are not necessarily like me. I like to hear a reasonable person explain why they think the way they do and challenge each other in a way that still allows for the possibility that reasonable people think differently than we do. But I’m not sure I’d describe Flynt or Falwell’s positions as reasonable, and that’s why I wonder if they just accept that the outrageous behavior (wearing the American flag as a diaper) or rhetoric (the aforementioned blaming of 9/11, or the Tinky-Winky affair) as theatrical extremism worth a giggle or sigh but little else.

  16. Kevin Barney says:

    Very interesting, Norbert. I remember the court case, but I had no idea about this more personal follow up to it. Rev. Falwell was acting as a person of God should, and his reaching out was very commendable.

    (I too am appreciative of the Orrin and Ted relationship.)

  17. I think relationships like these are a mixture of the both friendly respect and showboating to have one’s voice heard. With regard to politicians, they showboat to get more votes and have a few popular talking points. Deep down inside, though, they could easily be friends with politicians on the other side, the friendship based on respect for the shared values. My wife and are at opposite ends of the political spectrum, but we still love and respect each other (that’s not to say we haven’t had a few political arguments).

    On the other hand, some relationships might be fostered for motives other than genuine friendship (conversion attempts and the like).

  18. I’d wouldn’t exactly claim Flynt as a bastion of the left. Nevertheless, to me they don’t seem that different this is hardly surprising. The both peddled stuff I’d call repugnant, awful and socially ireesponsible and made money off people’s weaknesses. If you look at it that way, they’re very much the same.

  19. Fascinating story, Norbert; thanks for forwarding it. I think anyone who paid attention to Falwell at any point must have realized that, on a certain level, he was a showman first, and everything else after. On that point, if no others, surely he and Flynt clicked.

    My circle of friends and colleagues keeps expanding and embracing people who are more and more unlike me….The only problems come when contempt and scorn creep in.

    This is a great observation, Ardis, and one that I try to told to firmly. I can be friends with people who think I’m decidedly wrong about even some of the most important things, so long as they are able to maintain (and I am able to maintain in return) a respect for why I am or I embrace those things he or she considers to be flawed. But even here there will always be difficult-to-negotiate grey areas. I have a friend who recently published what some might consider an anti-Mormon article. I don’t think it was anything of the sort; I think it was a challenging argument about our doctrine, behavior, etc. In short, I didn’t find his actions to be “scornful” of Mormonism; I saw no lessening of respect there. But I have other friends who do–which leaves open the possibility that by remaining friends with him, I will appear “scornful” to other acquaintences, with possible bad consequences for my friendships there. And so it goes.

    I don’t know–it maybe that true and lasting friendships across deep ideological divides can only be managed be people who are, at least in part, “unreasonable” in the way Norbert described Falwell and Flynt. To set the bar of mutual reasonableness too high may mean that, at some point, one person’s reasons are going to appear simply appalling or unacceptable to another person, and then the friendship is imperiled. A lack of seriousness, in such a case, might be in order.

  20. Norbert,

    I had a comment that is still in moderation. Can you please extract it. :)

  21. Re: 11- Well, I’m glad I was able to make you laugh, Norbert. Nice to know that my post, if nothing else, was able to make someone feel good!

    Upon further review, my comment probably was a little snarkier than it should have been. I apologize, it is the result of the continuing realization of how difficult a path I have chosen as a convert and a Democrat. I knew going in that the church is (at least in the US) overwhelmingly conservative and Republican. Still, that didn’t detract from the Truth of the message that I was receiving and I figured then and still do now that I can handle being a political minority in the church. It’s just a little more difficult and frustrating lately with the election approaching and the Romney candidacy, etc.

  22. We should have BCC vote.

    Who is worse off on Judgement day?

    Jerry Falwell or Larry Flynt?

    I am serious. Steve put it up.

  23. Steve Evans says:

    bbell, a poll can’t decide that. It is up to each of us, secretly in our hearts, to judge both of those poor bastards.

  24. Dan — Sorry about that. I’m still a greenie here and forgot I had the power.

    Tony — If I was making the kind of SAT analogy you guessed at, you’d be justified in being as snarky as you like. Nope, just trying to give this some context.

  25. Steve,

    I would be fun to vote and the results would be interesting.

    I am guessing they would be about 50-50 in a poll.

    You could phrase it like this.

    ” Who is going to Hell quicker. Jerry or Larry?”

  26. Matthew 7:1 :-)

  27. Steve Evans says:

    Ray, there’s always someone in the audience who has to whisper to his date to explain the comedian’s last joke. We call that guy the “joke killer.”

  28. My head is bowed in shame, although my comment was intended as a further extension of the joke – not as a joke killer. Sometimes my humor falls flat on its smiley face.

  29. You know, I disagree vehemently with Flynt, but I hope that I could develop this kind of a relationship with someone who’s my political/ideological enemy. I think that could be one of the most difficult things I’d ever do. As it is now, whenever I get into a heated argument, I have a tendency to just cut off contact with that person. Even though it ends the argument, it’s probably not very healthy, and makes it hard for reconciliation or friendship to take place. This story really surprised me.

  30. Tony–there are a few of us liberal, democrat types around :)

    I often feel like the inverse of this Mallard Fillmore comic when I’m at church (from Sunday, 20 May if it doesn’t come up correctly).

  31. Kristine,
    That comic only stands up if you change the 10 in the last panel to 100.

  32. Norbert writes: “The left-right divide seems insurmountable, even within the church, and yet here are two opposing generals of the culture wars sending each other Christmas cards. It reminds me of the stories about the friendship between Orin Hatch and Ted Kennedy.”

    I’m sorry – you’re putting Larry Flynt on the left wing and equating him with Ted Kennedy? Or for that matter, you’re implying that Jerry Falwell was a serious and responsible example of the American conservatism?

    No.

    Here’s why – Flynt and Falwell were “two opposing” shock-jocks of politics and cultural morality. They meant nothing to the “left-right divide” beyond the fact that their circus debate provided a carefully-orchestrated and emotionally-charged simulcrum for the issues – Culture Wars and the Liberal and Conservative Ideologies, as if done on “Jerry Springer”. Flynt’s description of their evolving relationship is an acknowledgement that he and the reverend found each other increasingly useful in putting on the show.

    Not a very useful metaphor, imo.

  33. Norbert says:

    I’m sorry – you’re putting Larry Flynt on the left wing and equating him with Ted Kennedy? Or for that matter, you’re implying that Jerry Falwell was a serious and responsible example of the American conservatism?

    Oh for the love of Mike. I am not smearing Ted Kennedy by equating him with Larry Flynt in any way except for the fact that both men have friendships with people with whom they publically and/or symbolically disagree. I’m not putting Larry Flynt on the left wing — Larry Flynt is doing that; he portrays himself as a free-speech hero and martyr. As for Falwell, I don’t know if he was serious or responsible, but he was definitely influential and conservatives still line up to speak at Liberty U.

  34. PaulWrigh says:

    What makes you think Larry Flynt is on the left side of such a divide?

    You can safely assume Flynt was, contrary to what his mother told him, so sufficiently repugnant a person that you need not bother meeting him.

    Falwell, for his part, was one of the great bigots of his generation.

  35. It makes sense to me that Flynt would be a lefty. As is Jenna Jameson and the DC Madam and Hugh Hefner. The left is simply more tolerant of modern sexual mores.

    There are two big political orientations in the US. So the Porn people have to go with somebody. The right has its own jerks.

    Who is more inclined to pressure the porn industry?

    Ted Kennedy or Robert Bennett?

    I do not think for a second that Ted Kennedy is a big porn proponent he simply feels that porn is protected under the 1st amendment. I doubt he is taking Hustler money as a political donation. I think the consensus political position is that Porn is shameful. For those on the left the First Amendment stands in the way of “going after the industry”.

  36. “I’m not putting Larry Flynt on the left wing — Larry Flynt is doing that; he portrays himself as a free-speech hero and martyr.”

    Well, I wasn’t taking issue with your love of Mike or anyone else. I was pointing out the carelessness of your metaphor. And again, the carelessness of the above statement – the idea that being a “free-speech hero and martyr” somehow makes a person intrinsically leftwing.

    It doesn’t. Flynt himself has been highly critical of the American left; when it suits him he can paint himself in libertarian or Goldwater-conservative colors.

    That’s the problem with the divide – knee-jerk reactions on both sides that aren’t necessarily relevant to the points being made. To his credit, Flynt generally avoided that. Falwell didn’t.

  37. Norbert says:

    While Flynt definitely positions himself on the left, I don’t think it’s inevitable that involvement in pornography puts you there: Rupert Murdoch is a good example.

Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 9,475 other followers