RELIGION IN THE NEWS
Fall 2001, Vol. 4, No. 3

Table of Contents
Fall 2001

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Other articles
in this issue

From the Editor: The Civil Religion Goes to War

Religion After 9-11:

Good for What Ails Us

Islam is Everywhere

Pacifism on the Record

When Our Allies Persecute

No Bad Sects in France

The Stem Cell Conundrum

Gain, No Pain

On the Beat: Covering Religion in Hard Times

Letter to the Editor and Reply


 

Religion After 9-11:
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 Pennsylvania field.

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 apart."

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 heard."

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 Christianity."

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 sexual diversity.

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 better."


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