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Holes in the 'Curtain of Protection' Around Falwell

The televangelist's apology for blaming gays and liberals for Sept. 11 is attacked from left and right.

November 20, 2001|PETER CARLSON | WASHINGTON POST

LYNCHBURG, Va. — Televangelist Jerry Falwell is sitting behind his big power desk in his big power office at Liberty University, the Baptist college he founded 30 years ago, before he became famous as a leader of the religious right.

He rises, flashes a big grin, reaches out to shake hands. He's a large man and, at 68, his round fleshy face has sagged into a set of impressive jowls. He sits down. He looks toward the office door, where secretaries and his media advisor are bustling about.

"Close the door, or come on in," he barks. "One or the other."

The door closes.

The last few weeks haven't been pleasant for Falwell. On Sept. 13--two days after the terrorist attacks that killed more than 4,300--he appeared on "The 700 Club," the Rev. Pat Robertson's TV show, and made a statement that inspired widespread anger and mockery.

"What we saw on Tuesday, as terrible as it is," he said, "could be minuscule if in fact God continues to lift the curtain and allow the enemies of America to give us probably what we deserve."

"Jerry, that's my feeling," Robertson replied.

"The ACLU's got to take a lot of blame for this," Falwell said.

"Well, yes," Robertson agreed.

"And I know that I'll hear from them on this," Falwell continued. "But throwing God out successfully with the help of the federal court system, throwing God out of the public square, out of the schools. The abortionists have got to bear some burden for this because God will not be mocked. And when we destroy 40 million little innocent babies, we make God mad. I really believe that the pagans, and the abortionists, and the feminists, and the gays and 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."'

Over the next several weeks, Falwell's comments about those controversial comments kept changing.

A few hours after the show, he reiterated his remarks, telling the New York Times that "the collective efforts of many secularists ... has left us vulnerable."

The next day he issued a statement saying his comments were made during "a long theological discussion" and were "taken out of context."

A few days later, he appeared on Geraldo Rivera's cable TV show and repudiated everything he'd said on "The 700 Club": "This is not what I believe, and I therefore repudiate it and ask God's forgiveness and yours."

His words had come out in a moment of fatigue, he explained: "I'd been up all night the night before, coming in from Houston."

Then, two weeks after Falwell apologized to God and Geraldo, the Jerry Falwell Ministries sent out a fund-raising letter written by Falwell's son, the Rev. Jonathan Falwell. The letter charged that "Satan has launched a hail of fiery darts at dad" and that "liberals, and especially gay activists, have launched a vicious smear campaign to discredit him."

The younger Falwell suggested that supporters assuage the elder Falwell's "personal hurt" by sending "a special Vote of Confidence gift for Jerry Falwell of at least $50 or even $100."

It was all a tad confusing. Was Falwell blaming the terrorist attacks on liberals and gays, or wasn't he? Was he apologizing, or wasn't he? And what, exactly, were those fiery darts that Satan had launched against him?

Fortunately, Falwell has agreed to spend an hour answering these questions. "I misspoke," he says.

Misspoke?

"I apologize for my Sept. 13 comments because they were a complete misstatement of what I believe and what I've preached for nearly 50 years," he says. "Namely, I do not believe that any mortal knows when God is judging or not judging someone or a nation. In my listing of groups and persons who might have assisted in the secularization of America, I unforgivably left off the list a sleeping church, Jerry Falwell, etc.... It was a pure misstatement, unintentional, and I apologize for it uncategorically."

But wasn't it a rather lengthy misstatement? "About 35 seconds," he says. "I think somebody said it was 37 seconds."

It happened because he was tired, he says, and because he didn't know Robertson would bring up the issue of God's curtain of protection around America.

"Pat Robertson had that agenda going when I came in by satellite" from Liberty University, Falwell explains. "He said, 'Jerry, we're talking about God lifting the curtain,' and I started in on that subject and I said what I said there. A lot of it was weariness and really anger over what happened to the country. And I didn't complete what I was going to say. If I added the church as one of the offenders--a sleeping church that is not praying enough--it would have been acceptable."

Which brings up the question: What does it mean to lift the curtain of protection?

"That was part of the misstatement," he says. "I have no way of knowing when or if God would lift the curtain of protection."

Did God lift the curtain of protection around Pearl Harbor in 1941?

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