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?