The Other Preacher in Lynchburg: My Life Across Town from Jerry Falwell, by John Killinger (New York: St. Martin’s Press/Thomas Dunne Books, 2009, ISBN: 0-312-53858-8) 208 pp., Cloth $24.95.
John Killinger, Harvard and Princeton educated theologian and author of more than sixty books, served as minister of First Presbyterian Church in Jerry Falwell’s hometown from 1980 to 1986. Those years and a stint in Los Angeles gave him unique insights into the Falwell phenomenon. In The Other Preacher in Lynchburg, he writes that Falwell “more than anybody else was responsible for forging the religious right into a formidable political bloc in America”; he was “Karl Rove before there was a Karl Rove.”
Killinger describes how Falwell ran afoul of the Securities and Exchange Commission; how “the religious culture of America was filled with these audacious, narcissistic, self-serving priests of the airwaves, who were forever hawking books [I recall seeing a Falwell edition of the Bible on the cover of which Falwell’s name was larger than the book title!] and gewgaws and keeping vast teams of employees at work opening people’s gifts, recording addresses into donor rolls and sending out SOS’s requesting more and more money to keep them from ‘going under.’” He writes: “The whole basically anti-cultural religious movement was spreading like a mucky fungus across American Christianity.”
Killinger notes that he, a Lynchburg Episcopal minister, and two local professor/ministers, all four of them critics of the Religious Right, were subjected to Internal Revenue Service (IRS) audits during the Reagan administration. At about the same time, New York Society for Ethical Culture leader and humanist author Edward L. Ericson also faced an IRS audit. Until I told Killinger and Ericson about the audits, neither had known of the other’s audit. Was Falwell behind the audits? Who knows?
Killinger’s book is not only a good read but also presents a wealth of background on an important religio-political operator and bully. He concludes: “I knew [Falwell] was a street fighter, but even some street fighters have ethical standards. Jerry Falwell, I decided, didn’t.”
Having had my own encounters with Falwell, I found the author’s book very much on target.