Column: The American Taliban

Mr. Carpenter is a writer and doctoral candidate in history.

Satan has no need to spawn the Antichrist as long as Jerry Falwell speaks. Just as the reverend once said that “God’s ozone layer is doing just fine, thank you,” the Devil can say that a roll in the hay with Rosemary might be pleasant, but the result redundant. Falwell is doing just fine as an understudy Mephistopheles, thank you.

By now, most Americans are probably familiar with Falwell’s assessment of the wholesale carnage of September 11, aired on Pat Robertson’s “700 Club” last Thursday: “I really believe that the pagans, and the abortionists, and the feminists, and the gays and the lesbians who are actively trying to make that an alternative lifestyle, the ACLU, People for the American Way – all of them who have tried to secularize America – I point the finger in their face and say, ‘You helped this happen.’”

Falwell later explained that he was “making a theological statement, not a legal statement.” First, the clarification is typical Falwellian hogwash, likely implanted in the gluttonous little man's brain by his attorneys. He clearly, knowingly had accused the named groups (do we really still have pagans?) as being accessories to the slaughter of September 11. Surely that’s actionable, and I’m praying to any god paying any attention to this sordid planet that the targeted groups sue the bejesus out of him. As a pagan, I guess, and definitely a card-carrying member of the ACLU, I hereby pledge what little is left of that imbecilic tax rebate to any conscientious attorney -- that should narrow the field -- interested in taking up a class action suit or whatever kind of legal voodoo is permissible against the “Reverend.” I would check some tort books on hand, but in my experience they’re pretty much irrelevant to the actual practice of law. Who dines with whom and who contributes to which judge’s election chest seem to be the prevailing legal principles of the day.

Second, if Falwell’s vile is accepted by more than a half-dozen other fundamentalist preachers as a legitimate “theological statement,” then who – other than fatheaded neo-Nazis and supplementary Neanderthals wearing pointy-headed evening gowns -- would want anything to do with the filthy business? Jerry may have done more to help stamp out the temptations of fundamentalist religion than any dedicated group of de-programmers could ever hope for. And for that -- though doubtfully true -- we, the pagans and pro-choicers and ACLUers and American Wayers and gays and lesbians, would say"Thank you, Jerry."

Yet I doubt Reverend Robertson is thanking Jerry. On the misnomered Christian Broadcasting Network that day, Falwell said"God continues to lift the curtain and allow the enemies of America to give us probably what we deserve.” Displaying Amen-Snorter Solidarity, Robertson first rejoined, “Jerry, that’s my feeling.” But then “I-just-saw-the-light” visions of plummeting donations prompted Robertson to some judicious amendments. “I think we’ve just seen the antechamber to terror. We haven’t even begun to see what they can do to the major population.”

Perhaps I’m giving too much credit to the legally trained preacher, but it seems to me Robertson’s speedy addition of “what they can do” was an attempt to derail Falwell from perilous tracks. Robertson’s baby, CBN, was headed for jammed switchboards, truckloads of outraged viewer letters, possibly the courtroom and no doubt scores of defensive, explanatory headaches.

But whatever Robertson’s intent in that instance, his love of extreme right-wing brotherhood and scapegoating the ACLU again got the best of him in a moment of survival-instinct apostasy. When Falwell blurted that the ACLU has “got to take a lot of blame for [the terrorist massacre],” Robertson responded, “Well, yes.” For that second of unconscionable agreement, I imagine Pat is still thrashing himself. The Lord may be his shepherd, but Pat’s secularist enough to know He can’t save him from bad ratings and vanishing contributions. Anti-feminist Robertson did, however, hide behind a spokeswoman, who issued a God- and press-fearing statement that the choirmaster was not available for comment. Oh my.

Even more daunting was the White House’s reaction to Falwell’s over-the-top malice. “Inappropriate,” said an official. Inappropriate? No. Inappropriate is peeing your pants at the dinner table. Inappropriate is coughing all over a freshly set table of nicely broiled cornish hens. Inappropriate is booing at church. Falwell’s maliciousness zoomed by the quaint level of mere inappropriateness at warp speed. What Falwell did was to immediately exploit national mourning and confusion in hopes of quickly launching a two-front war.

The first front, of course, would be military-based against increasingly confirmed enemies, assuming the Pentagon and Colin Powell know what their doing. The second front is his dreamy-eyed vision of splitting a unified nation into ideologically committed camps of absolute good versus those of absolute evil. For years Falwell has sputtered apocalyptic prophesies of Armageddon to come. The terrorist bombings of September 11 beckoned him to grab the proprietary rights to the purportedly fundamentalist Golden Chalice and its messianic promises of entrenched intolerance; rampant hate-mongering; demagogic edicts of “Choose now or forever be damned”; social and cultural cleansing; and most of all, the legal repression of all those opposed to his twisted, personal view of “morality.”

Had the White House any gumption and total commitment to national unity utterly beyond their cheap pandering to the Religious Right and its precious base, it would have denounced Falwell as the lowest species of opportunistic and thoroughly heartless political slime who could best serve his country by slithering off to a long, long retreat to southern Mongolia: no phones, no faxes, no reporters, no cameras, and no mikes, but plenty of tasty scorpions on which to befittingly feast. Instead, the White House’s unimpassionate comment of “inappropriate” was the equivalent of a temple gong announcing Falwell’s base of fascist homophobics was as welcome as ever in the Republican Big Tent -- especially come fall, 2002. If ever I held out hopes that W., once in the big chair, might begin distancing himself from cretinous fundamentalist baboons, that was the end of them. W. is simply incapable of independent initiative and wouldn’t dare to venture beyond the aprons of his Machiavellian bean counter, Karl Rove.

In the absence of Republican leadership disavowing Falwell, the founding father of 18th-century principled conservatism, Edmund Burke, must be wishing he could die again or at least get his bony fingers around the elephantine neck and triple chins of Jerry Falwell. And Burke won’t be alone when the day comes. If you ever get to heaven, Jerr, watch your back. You may get multiple love offerings in the shower by hordes of angelic gays and saintly pantheistic pagans. Fortunately for you, the ACLU will likely be there to break things up and immediately proceed with arbitration.

Yet the unabashed ideals of Falwell’s suppressed psychotic rage –usually muted diplomatically because of political and fund-raising realities – is alive and well in the person of the Rev. Fred Phelps. Phelps is Falwell with no empire. This peripatetic preacher commands a “traveling theater of hate” on “a homophobic road show” [Los Angeles Times 11-16-99 and Seattle Times 6-8-01] that even Falwell pretends is too much of God’s Angry Wrath. Ralph loves to hoist his ever-present poster, ”God Hates Fags,” while bellowing aspersions at “rich Jews,” instructing the unlearned that “you can’t preach the Bible without preaching hate!” and deriding Falwell for trying to convert hell-bound homosexuals to heterosexuality – that other alternative lifestyle.

Phelps, though, has a tight bundle of political perspicuity hidden behind his bumpkin persona. (He was a civil-rights lawyer in the early 1960s.) As the Los Angeles Times reported in 1999, “gay activists complain that Falwell and Dobson take private delight in Phelp’s attacks because they end up appearing more sympathetic each time he lambastes them.” Said a spokesman for a gay-rights group, “Phelps is Falwell and Dobson without the nice wrapping.” Fred Phelps couldn’t agree more and finds, oddly, common ground with his gay and lesbian nemeses. “I do believe there’s a whole lot of truth to what these homosexual activists say.” Phelps confided. “I’m the evangelists’ fall guy. They pretend to be the moderate centrists and use me as an example of what they’re not. And they know better than that.”

Falwell’s shell game could soon be a thing of the past. I’m not conspiratorially inclined, but since the truly weird and tawdry unconstitutional actions from Watergate through the hunting of Clinton through W.’s theft of Florida, I have become, let’s say, a trifle more suspicious of ultraconservative, good-old-boy wickerwork. Falwell & Co. may be huddling with True Believer John Ashcroft, his Justice Department and FBI. The thought of that foursome discussing new law enforcement measures and “reasonable” civil rights while sipping Shirley Temples is simply too much for my neurotic personality to bear. Add to that a national patriotic frenzy stewed to the gills and Congress’ need for pre-election emotional pandering, and some rather time-honored constitutional guarantees could take a dive. Indeed, the entire “vast right-wing conspiracy” could go for the whole enchilada in this time of upheaval and fiery 100 percent Americanism. Personal surveillance, intimidation of or even physical violence against gays, lesbians, pro-choicers and other strata of thoughtful secularists are not out of the realm of plausible speculation. Similar national psychoses erupted in WWI’s aftermath and again in the 1950s. Today, such short-sided acts of executive and congressional vigilance could be sold to the public as appropriate suppressions of home-grown “enemies of the State” who “helped this [tragedy] happen.” I wouldn’t make book on it, but in this increasingly right-wing nation, it’s at least feasible.

I have one final thought for Falwell and his winged monkeys to ponder, but it’s a whopper that may leave Jerry agonizingly vexed, if he at all gives a damn. In the same (and probably last?) interview with Robertson, Falwell mused that “when a nation deserts God … the result is not good.” There is, however, an Eastern paradox from the theologic-philosophical school of Taoism -- the ancient Chinese counterpart to Confucianism -- that resonates with deep truth, I think: ”When morality and goodness reign in a land, the Great Toa [God] has been forgotten.”

The paradox may not be much of a puzzler for HNN readers, but it could keep Jerry tied in mental knots till he’s once again harmless.11

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John F. Gannon - 9/20/2001

P.M. Carpenter's article begins on the right track, condemning Falwell and Robertson for their bigotry and intolerance, but unfortunately descends quickly into paranoid, irrational nonsense. Can he really believe that there may soon be an organized, fundamentalist theocracy running the country? Does Mr. Carpenter truly think that State sanctioned physical violence against homosexuals and pro-choicers is just around the corner? I fear for the future of higher education in this country if paranoid, delusional individuals like Mr. Carpenter are soon to be teaching our youth. By the way, just because President Bush is a Republican and a Christian doesn't mean he is a bigot and a fascist. He is not nor are most Republicans, be they moderate or conservative. Sadly, Mr. Carpenter falls back on the lazy, intellectually irresponsible tactic of far too many of the so-called intellectual elite. Rather than engage the President and others on specific issues, Mr. Carpenter chooses instead to simply cast insults and make extreme and unsubstantiated allegations. I might remind him that multiple independent news organizations have concluded that President Bush did in fact win Florida. I challenge Mr. Carpenter or anyone else to produce a solitary shread of hard evidence( ie, something more substantial than hearsay or idle speculation) that the Republicans stole the election in Florida. Just because Carpenter wants that to be the case doesnt't make it so. In another instance, Mr. Carpenter refers to himself as a thinking secularist. Surely he doesn't mean to suggest that religious, specifically Christian individuals can not be thinking people. Mr. Carpenter certainly realizes that to do so would be to engage in exactly the kind of group discrimination and bigotry for which he rightly condemns Messrs. Falwell and Robertson. In conclusion, I pity Mr. Carpenter because I cannot imagine how he can sleep at night or function during the day with visions of our national security team, hunkered with Falwell and co., planning an organized coup against our constitution and our civil liberties. More frightening, I imagine, are his visions of the bulk of the American population happily participating in this vast, imagined revolution. Those of us who live on the planet earth and operate in the realm of reality will continue to engage in rational, intelligent discourse with those with whom we disagree. We will continue to recognize that tolerance means accepting those who hold different beliefs than our own, not just those whose skin color or sexual orientations are different. Finally, we will not sink to the level of demonizing and despising others simply because we may not agree with them on political or social issues. Surely this is how a truly enlightened, liberal society is supposed to operate. Hopefully, those who live in fantasy land will decide to join us someday.

John Gannon

Bradley Skelcher - 9/19/2001

I like it. Keep up the good work. But, don't let Falwell and company keep you from finishing your dissertation.

Bradley Skelcher

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