When the Rev. Jerry Falwell died May 15, he left behind a powerful conservative movement, Liberty University and an influential church. Now Falwell’s vast enterprises are selecting new leadership. Jerry Falwell Jr. has been named chancellor of the school, while brother Jonathan is expected to head Thomas Road Baptist Church, which draws 12,000 worshipers in Lynchburg, Va. NEWSWEEK's Alexandra Gekas spoke with Jonathan Falwell about his father’s death and what’s next for the Falwell family. Excerpts:
NEWSWEEK: How is your family coping with your father’s death?
Jonathan Falwell: We’ve had some good times and some bad times and certainly there are days when things aren’t quite as good as we would hope, but we have faith that God will lead us through. As a family we’re holding each other up and wrapping our arms around each other.
Do you intend to take over your father's role as the leader of the Thomas Road Baptist Church?
I’ve been the executive pastor since 1994, which is a role that would be second to a senior pastor. But in a church setting the congregation [chooses] the pastor, so it’s not automatic. The church is having a business meeting this Sunday night and that is one of the things that they are discussing. I know my dad wanted me to do that role and I feel that God is leading me that way, but again that is up to the church. God has called me to serve in whatever capacity that the church decides.
Your father was a very charismatic man. Is it intimidating to try to step into his shoes?
I’m not going to try to fill his shoes because I don’t think those shoes can be filled. He is an irreplaceable man. God used him in incredible ways and I don’t think that I can fill his shoes. God gave me certain skills, so I am going to stand up and do what God has equipped me to do, but filling his shoes is not something that I, or I believe anyone else, could do.
Are you worried at all about the future of the church and of Lynchburg, which is so connected to the church, without your father’s stewardship?
That’s something we’re going to have to trust God and see how things go. I do know that this past Sunday morning we had 37 families join the church and Sunday night I baptized 20, so I believe while Dad is and was an amazingly charismatic leader, he spent his life serving God; and while he was a visionary and a man who led us all, the vision God gave to him didn’t die and that vision and that message of taking the gospel of Jesus Christ continues, and we in our church are going to continue to preach that message.
Your father played a huge role in politics. Do you plan to be a political leader as well as a religious one?
He was the forefather of the religious right and he galvanized the movement, but now there are many people speaking for the church. I will continue to speak out on issues like he did from the pulpit, but with regard to politics I think his level of involvement is not as much needed today as 20 to 30 years ago when he started. Now there are millions of Christians standing in the gap saying the things we are saying. Dad has said many times himself that in the early ‘80s there was not a voice out there for the religious right. Now there are many people like James Dobson who are doing the same thing. So I will stand with them and I will do what I can to continue speaking for the culture, but I don’t think there is a place for one person, for one leader to speak for the religious right and to speak for the entire faith in this country.
Your father had many critics who felt that he inappropriately mixed religion and politics, and that he sometimes went too far with his criticisms of feminists, gays and other groups.
Indeed there are some who have made negative statements about dad since his death; of course these have all been made by those who totally disagreed with dad on the issues. Dad was controversial, but as Franklin Graham stated at Dad's funeral, the truth is always controversial, especially when you disagree with it. Dad never paid much attention to the harsh statements made about him in the media. He often said that God didn't call him to be popular, God called him to be faithful.
Are there any social, political or religious issues on which you and your father differ?
Dad didn’t stand up and speak out on issues of preference. The issues he spoke about are issues of scripture, which I believe are the words of God and are words we believe, read and follow. So the issues that I hold firmly to, that the church holds firmly to and that Christians around the country hold firmly to are not issues of preference.
Where do you stand on the separation of church and state?
The word separation is not in the Constitution. I believe it’s important for the church, but that separation clause that everyone claims is there doesn’t exist. That phrase that is there is to protect the church from the state, not vice versa. It’s important for the church of Jesus Christ to speak out. It’s not an issue of us trying to run the government or dictate what the world does, but there are issues we believe in and it is just as much our right as Jesse Jackson and Al Sharpton to stand up for those issues and exercise that right.
What is the state of Christianity in the United States today?
You can look at the incredible growth of our churches. I believe God is doing amazing things here, and I think we can see intangible results not only in America but also in the world. God is certainly blessing the efforts of millions of churches all over the country.
Do you feel that President Bush, a born-again Christian, has kept his commitments to religious leaders?
The promises that he made to the church are the same promises that he made to the American people: to defend our freedoms, to protect us and to lead us, and he certainly has been and continues to fulfill those promises. With regards to protecting our country against terrorism he has done an amazing job. He said he is against abortion and partial-birth abortion and he did that and it went through the courts and the Supreme Court [affirmed the ban on the ‘partial-birth’ procedure].