The Rev. Jerry Falwell at Thomas Road Baptist Church in Lynchburg, Va., in 1999.

It is now just over 7 hours since the death of the Reverend Jerry Falwell. While I certainly am not capable of offering anything like a eulogy for this man, I can’t help but feel something like a twinge of … disappointment? Relief? Hope? Not too many people can stir up the kinds of mixed emotions that I suspect the news of Falwell’s passing will awaken in thousands, perhaps millions, of Americans.

The fact is that today the United States lost one of its most controversial and yet influential figures of recent history. The Thomas Road Baptist church lost its founder, shepherd, and senior pastor. Liberty University lost its founder and president. The remnants of the Moral Majority lost its founder, and many in the Religious Right looked to Falwell for moral guidance in developing a Christian response to politics with some clout. Regardless of what we think–thought–of Falwell’s ideas and of the type of leadership he represented, it is still true that American politics and its relationship to the churches was transformed, perhaps permanently. Whatever the state of affairs vis a vis the separation of the State and the Church (by which I only mean Institutional Religion, not simply Christian churches), that relationship is not likely to ever be the same. History will help us decide whether or not that is a good thing.

I myself owe a considerable debt to Jerry Falwell, although he never knew it. His deeply offensive comments about Muhammad and of those who practice alternative lifestyles provoked in me such anger, not simply over his remarks, but over the fact that his comments were likely to be taken as representative of all Christians, that I decided that I could not sit back while Christianity went on an offensive of hate and intolerance to those “not us.” For me, that entailed returning to school, first to seminary and ultimately on for my doctorate in Religion.

And despite the fact that Rev. Falwell’s beliefs did not speak for many, or even most, of those who profess to be Christians (including myself, obviously), I have to admit that he had the stones to actually believe in something and he believed that he was right. There was simply no room for gray areas or wishywashiness in Falwell’s psyche or his religious belief system. I think that he was dead wrong on a lot. So did a lot of people. But it is easy to find critics. It’s not so easy, I’m discovering, to find churchgoers who believe in anything other than Falwell’s “wrongness,” but they nothing to replace that wrong with. It was easy to make Falwell the scapegoat for intransigent, stubborn, judgmental fundamentalism across the Christian board. But the work of putting together something (an alternative “Christian” worldview, perhaps?) to replace the legend that passed today is something else altogether. I am hopeful that this can still be done, despite the fact that there are plenty of other Jerry Falwells that are more than ready to carry on his vision. “Fundy-bashing” is in vogue, but the act of building and planting something that we believe in, other than the wrong-headedness of “them,” has barely begun. Perhaps with Rev. Falwell’s passing, we can get past some of the vilification and reach out to each other for reconciliation. I guess that may be asking too much, but part of being hopeful is having hope even in the absence of much optimism.

Brother Falwell, I’ll meet you on / God’s Golden Shores.