I just finished Mel White’s Stranger at the Gate: To Be Gay and Christian in America (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1994). Mel White was a ghostwriter for such figures as Jerry Falwell, Pat Robertson, and Billy Graham. Unknown to them at the time was Mel’s sexual orientation. Mel White is a homosexual.
Mel talks about Jerry Falwell and Pat Robertson up close, for he got to work with them on several occasions. What’s interesting is that his account of their personalities matches what I have read or heard about them elsewhere, in a variety of sources. Or, actually, I have several sources about Falwell. My information on Pat Robertson is from someone who’s met him.
Mel White describes Falwell as a practical joker. Jerry once put a baby crocodile in his bathtub, scaring his wife, Macel Pate (who may be related to me, who knows?). That matches something I read on the Internet. There was a journalist who did not like Falwell because of the divisions he caused in her community. She visited Liberty University in Lynchburg, Virginia to do a story about him, and, much to her surprise, she found him to be a nice, funny guy. When she rode around with him in his truck, he pretended that he was about to run over the students. He definitely had a funny streak.
But, according to Mel White, Falwell also had problems with the truth. White says that Falwell was not overly homophobic up close, for he had a homosexual on his staff. For Falwell, as long as the gay kept his homosexuality to himself, he and Falwell would get along fine. But, at the time of White’s writing, Falwell denied that he had a homosexual on his staff (according to White).
White also refers to a mass-mailing that Falwell sent out, detailing his rescue from a homosexual mob in Los Angeles. According to Falwell, the LAPD had to rescue him from a bunch of murderous homosexuals. But the police deny that this even occurred.
I’ve read in other sources about Falwell’s problems with the truth. In Keeping Faith, Jimmy Carter recounts that Falwell was telling people that he (Carter) had homosexuals in his administration, based on a statement that Carter allegedly made to him in a meeting. But, in Carter’s recollection, he told Falwell no such thing. Carter says that Falwell later apologized, yet he still aired ads in which a mother told her little girl that Carter was bad because he tolerated homosexuals.
In William Martin’s With God on Our Side: The Rise of the Religious Right in America (New York: Broadway, 1996), Falwell recounts that his church began reaching out to African-Americans in the early 1960s. Here’s Falwell’s version of events:
“[T]he real test came–it was probably 1960 or ’61–when a black family came forward to join our church and wanted to be baptized. I said, ‘All right, I’ll baptize you,’ and I did. But I told them that night, as we were about to go down in the water, I said, ‘Neither one of us may come up out of that water, so I hope you’re right with the Lord. I am.’ And I baptized them. We lost a couple of families over that, but just that quickly it was all over. And as far as I know, we became the first church in this town to aggressively begin ministering to everyone…[I]n 1960 in the South, it was a big deal. And it caused criticism–in the city, in the community, not just in the church. There were people wondering, ‘What is this young preacher trying to do, ruin our town?'”
According to Martin’s research, Falwell’s story is inaccurate, for “Thomas Road Baptist Church remained segregated until 1968, and the first baptism of an African-American person appears not to have occurred until 1971” (page 58).
So was Falwell a liar? I don’t know. Maybe he just had a certain perspective on past events. On some level, we all place things that happened to us into a narrative, which isn’t necessarily accurate in every detail. Perhaps Falwell sincerely believed he was telling the truth.
Regarding Pat Robertson, Mel White depicts him as very intense. White contrasts Robertson to Falwell: “Pat Robertson, on the other hand, was almost always polite, but distant, totally self-absorbed in his ambitious plans, and certainly not much fun.” When White was on Robertson’s plane, Robertson dropped him off, put a more influential person in Mel’s place, and took off again. Mel found himself in a strange airport, “hoping to catch a commercial flight home” (page 205).
That reminded me of someone who told me a story about Pat Robertson. “Why don’t you invite Pat Robertson to this area?” he was asked. He replied, “I know Pat and Dee Dee. I’ve had lunch with them. They’re charming, wonderful people. But his attention span for you is like that if you don’t present him with the hottest thing since French toast.” When he said “that,” he snapped his fingers. “If I invite Pat here to speak, he’ll look through the curtains to see if he’s got a big crowd, and I don’t want him to be disappointed.”
His interpretation of Pat wasn’t as negative as White’s, but both seem to present similar characteristics: a man who is ambitious and driven, yet friendly.
When I hear different people say the same thing about someone, I think, “Okay, we’re talking about the same person here.” But who knows? These figures may have had deeper things in them that never came to the surface. Can we truly say that we know someone? Motivations may be hidden.