What’s Wrong with Falwell?

I just heard Kevin Phillips on CSPAN-2 denouncing the Religious Right on the ground, inter alia, that “Jerry Falwell interpreted a hurricane as proof of God’s wrath.”  “How ridiculous is that?” asked Phillips, or something to that effect. 

To the contrary.  I give credit to Falwell and others for having the guts not to flinch at the implications of more sanitized religious pronouncements.  If we credit God for the good things that happen to us, the corollary must be that God at the very least tolerated the bad things, if not willed them outright (one is really groping in the dark here to come up with some adequate way of describing God’s different levels of intentionality).  I frequently hear that God has kept America safe since 9/11–John Ashcroft so pronounced upon leaving the Justice Department, but others have voiced the sentiment as well.  If God could keep us safe after 9/11, he obviously chose not to exercise that protective power on the day itself.  And since he did not, it seems to me perfectly appropriate to search for reasons why he may not have–the Religious Right at least has been willing to step up to the plate and provide some possiblilities.   

The Old Testament is chock-full of instances where God decided to wipe out large numbers of innocents in punishment for the sins of a few.  So Falwell’s prophetic interpretation of a hurricane strikes me as perfectly legit.  Phillips and others are just ducking the truth of an omnipotent God.

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13 Responses to What’s Wrong with Falwell?

  1. y81 says:

    What’s interesting to me is that there is a large contingent that treats Falwell’s interpretation as ridiculous. But if you say that the current financial crisis is due to misguided deregulation, or if you say that it is due to excessive government interference with the free market, no one treats either answer as ridiculous, even though at least one of these two statements must be laughably wrong.

  2. A-Bax says:

    Quite so.

    In a related, but much more down-to-earth example, I’ve always found it amusing when athletes point up toward the sky after scoring a touchdown, or getting a key hit in the late-innings of a tight game. Yet after a struck-out-looking, or a pick-six, no athlete will credit god for the bungled play.

    The Simpsons had a funny line in this one episode where Bart was in danger of failing history. He crammed and studied, but to no avail. Finally, in a moment of desperation he called out to god for assistance. When he then took the test, he just barely passes. Exceed about his achievement, he posts the test to the refrigerator and utters the memorable line: “You know, part of that D- belongs to God”.

    Classic. 🙂

  3. A-Bax says:

    I meant “excited” instead of “exceed”. D’oh! Stupid spell-check! 😉

  4. Polichinello says:

    From what I remember, the Christian argument is that all men are essentially a sentence of death because of Original Sin. Eastern Orthodox eschew the legal analogy in favor a medical one, but the effect is the same: we are all going to die because of Adam’s sin.

    Yes, this is manifestly unjust from our point of view, but the believer will say God has a different and more complete picture. This, of course, opens up another can of worms: how can we know God is good, but let that be for now. The point is, for some reason of divine justice all men must die, and they must suffer in the world, too. It’s all in the sentence the Lord laid down in Genesis.

    So, when a hurricane, a tsunami or a genocidal maniac murders millions, it’s no injustice on God’s part, since our death and suffering have already been determined as necessary. Now, if you pray for mercy and God grants your request, it’s because He has decided to give you a reprieve. Thus gratitude is in order. Mind you, God hasn’t saved you from death. We all die. Still, for some reason, He’s decided to grant you a bit of clemency from punishment you had brought on yourself by being human. That’s why it’s logical (given the premises I’ve listed) to thank God for good things but not blame Him for the bad.

    Now, to Falwell: he and Robertson (who actually gave the Hurricane judgement, I believe) may very well be right to say this is God’s doing, and that it’s a divine judgment, but they’d better have some kind of sign to back it up. They’d at least better have an unimpeachable character. That is the difference between a Falwell shooting off his mouth and a Moses (who in the Bible could at least perform miracles). Jeremiah was no miracle worker, but he had an impeccable character, from what we’re told. Falwell, again, falls rather short in this department.

    So, I would say that Phillips has something of a point, but not for the reason he seems to give: “It just looks bad on TV!”.

  5. JM Hanes says:


    You assert that “Phillips and others are just ducking the truth of an omnipotent God.” but I just see them rejecting the version of an omnipotent God being promoted by Falwell, and, by extension, what you’re promoting as the necessary truth (meaning proof?) of such omnipotence.

    What I object to is Falwell’s prominence as the perceived representative of Christian thinking. He owes much of that prominence to the adversarial format in which commentary is habitually couched these days. Lively discussion means choosing folks separated by as much of any relevant continuum as possible. Media’s rolodex is pretty slim, and religious leaders actively seeking political engagement are the easiest gets.

    It works both ways. Very few atheists here have endorsed the confrontational signage out in Washington state, but that is the unfortunate public face of atheism at the nether end of the spectrum.

    An observation from the Gross & Simmons paper David Hume brought up in his Religion and Culture thread bears repeating:

    If there is a single sociological lesson to be learned from American religious pluralism, it is that how one believes in God matters as much as whether one does.

    Fundamentalist evangelicals certainly have a substantial presence on the American stage, but they are not uncontroversial within the Christian community either. While their literalist views are most susceptible to nominal scientific refutation, that dialectic always strikes me, in large part, as an argument with the “how” not the “whether” or the “why.” Even if you could manage bringing that disputation to a satisfactory close, you will still have the actual majority of believers to go. So too, arguing with those who find the esoteric intricacies of doctrine more seductive than simple faith is just arguing with a different variety of “how.” I believe atheists make a mistake when they don’t distinguish between churches and believers themselves — easier, perhaps, but not necessarily more fruitful.

    I can see why you might believe that each of these battles is worth fighting, but from my perspective you’re fighting under a street lamp which mostly illuminates your own conviction that you know the truth already. Does your personal search for the truth or falsity of God not stop when you commit to atheism (as opposed to mere skepticism)? It seems to me — and I do use the word “seems” purposefully here — that what you cannot comprehend is how any putatively reasonable person could disagree. I doubt you’ll ever find the answer to that question in the kind of confrontations you set up, if that is, in fact, their purpose.

  6. ryan says:

    I think it’s important to recognize that it’s possible to view natural disasters as God’s judgment without agreeing with Falwell. I do happen to believe that, for example, Hurricane Katrina was an act of judgment against America. But I do not believe, as Fallwell and his ilk do, that this can be attributed to a single set of actors, i.e. the gay community. No, it is entirely sufficient to say that America is just like every other nation in history and, as Polichinello describe above, equally deserving of judgment.

    This isn’t a particularly ambitious claim, and you can’t use it to point a finger at any particular group in society. Hell, the church needs to repent too, so it isn’t as if we’re free from blame and it’s those people over there who need to shape up.

    Scripture does seem to teach that God uses natural disasters to judge the nations. The Old Testament teaches it, and the New Testament teaches it. Christians who shy away from this are, as the post suggests, not being honest with the Scriptures (which is actually a pretty common problem in 21st century America). The message to be learned here is not the one Falwell wants, but that “God calls all men everywhere to repent,” which while significant, isn’t nearly as interesting as Falwell and his ilk would like it to be.

  7. Panopaea says:

    When one of you atheists starts quoting Francis Turretin I’ll be impressed. And intimidated. And enthusiastic all at once.

  8. Ed Campion says:

    I do happen to believe that, for example, Hurricane Katrina was an act of judgment against [these United States of] America.

    That’s just plain fun isn’t it.

  9. Panopaea says:

    From an orthodox (small ‘o’) biblical point-of-view extreme weather exists for Matt Drudge and deadly natural disasters happen because when Adam fell the natural creation fell as well (both awaiting renewal), hence all deadly natural disasters are part of an ongoing judgment against fallen man.

  10. Panopaea says:

    In other words, on the one hand Falwell can’t single out gays (or whoever) as a reason for natural disasters because all fallen humankind are not innocent, including Falwell and all Christians. Yet, on the other hand, a Falwell resents the gays doing their thing in America because there is a sense that God’s common grace mitigates natural disasters in the U.S. and keeps the U.S. safe from the worst of it (tsunamis that kill a quarter of a million for instance) because the U.S. is a nation founded by Christians and based on a Christian foundation. So when Falwell says a recent disaster happened *because* of gays what he is saying is he is seeing something new happening. He is seeing the veil of protection being withdrawn from the U.S. by God because of some sort of tipping point of bad behaviour among certain groups (9/11 would actually be better evidence of this). In this he could be just engaging in the usual mistake people make who predict the end of the world, i.e. it’s always worse in our particular time, etc.

    And I know that Mr. Falwell has passed away, but everyone else seemed to be talking about him in the present tense, so…

  11. kerFuFFler says:

    Y81, actually it is possible for both to be contributing factors. The excessive government interference in the market could have been something entirely unrelated to the deregulation.

  12. JM Hanes says:

    Panopaea: Guess we have to give props to Falwell on the afterlife then. 🙂

  13. Panopaea says:

    JM Hanes, regarding your comment further above, we don’t see much of J. I. Packer or R. C. Sproul getting turned to when the mainstream media needs an evangelical voice.

    By the way, I invite all secular cons here to view the interesting interview of Ben Stein by R. C. Sproul (don’t google Sproul, his son has his exact same name and is a bit whacky)-


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