Falwell changed his mind – once

Fresh Air replayed an old interview with Jerry Falwell yesterday, in which Terri Gross asked one very good question, in fact the crucial question. Unfortunately it went right past or over Falwell; he either pretended not to get it, or really didn’t get it. Gross made one attempt to press the point, to straighten him out and thus get him to answer the real question rather than a bogus one, but it didn’t work, and she didn’t press it further. I wish she had, because it’s absolutely central. I wish everyone would press this question. As a matter of fact, come to think of it, it’s the same question (in a different form) that Dawkins asked of the homophobic preacher in ‘The Root of all Evil?’, and he too did not press it, and again, I wished he had, for the same reason. We’ve got to learn to keep pressing this question until we get a real answer – we’ve got to stop accepting non-answers and letting it go at that.

What question. This one. She asked if he ever had any doubts, then to explain her meaning further she pointed out that he had opposed the Civil Rights movement until about the mid-60s, when he changed his mind. He cut in to say that God had taught him; Gross cut in to say that she wasn’t asking him to defend his former views, that wasn’t the point, the point was that they had been one thing and then he changed his mind, so did not that lead him to think he could be wrong about something in the same way now? A blindingly obvious and essential question – and it simply went right past him and flopped harmlessly into the dust. It was immensely frustrating – because it gets to the heart of what is wrong with people like Falwell, and what is dangerous about their influence and power, and what is wrong with theocracy in general – and he not only didn’t answer, he seemed not even to understand it.

It’s so basic. If you got it wrong about Civil Rights, if God showed you that you’d been wrong and you changed your mind – how can you possibly know that you’re not wrong about (say) homosexuality or feminism now? What possible conceivable reason can you have for thinking you know that? What is it about what you know now that makes it fundamentally different from what you knew in 1959?

Nothing, Dr Falwell. Not one thing. What you think you know and what you think your God wants you to say is just your own entrenched opinion, just a human opinion like any other, mine, hers, his, theirs; it’s not God’s, it’s not God-endorsed, it’s not cosmic, it’s not Absolute, and it’s certainly not immune from error. That’s why people like you, who apparently can’t even allow that idea house room, are so damn dangerous. That’s why we hate you and fear you: because you’re not just wrong, you’re impervious to correction or argument or persuasion, and not only that but proud of it. Despite knowing and acknowledging that you have changed your mind in the past, you dress up your current opinions as God’s laws and make a virtue of refusing to doubt them. You’re a horror show, you and your gang.

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