In 1983 the pornographic magazine Hustler published a parody ad attacking Jerry Falwell. The ad featured a fake interview in which the evangelical minister described having an incestuous encounter with his mother in an outhouse.
Falwell sued Hustler’s publisher, Larry Flynt, for libel, invasion of privacy, and emotional distress. Falwell said that while he could tolerate insults against himself, he couldn’t abide attacks on his family.
Falwell won most of the lower court rulings. But he lost at the Supreme Court, which ruled that the satirical ad was legal under the First Amendment. The justices wrote that the ad was “doubtless gross and repugnant,” but that since Falwell was a public figure, his mom was fair game. After exhausting all legal recourse, Falwell accepted the decision.
In the aftermath of the massacre at the offices of Charlie Hebdo in Paris on January 7, many commentators have strained to avoid mentioning the religion of the alleged attackers, even though the attackers themselves made it clear that they felt called to violence by their Muslim faith.
Other pundits engaged in a kind of false equivalency, suggesting that Christians are just as likely to resort to violence when offended. During a discussion of the massacre on the MSNBC show Now with Alex Wagner, a panelist cited Falwell’s lawsuit as proof that, in his words, “this isn’t just Islamic extremism,” but Christian extremism too—to the apparent approval of the other panelists.
In a free and democratic society governed by the rule of law, people have many avenues of recourse—not only lawsuits but also protests, boycotts, ad campaigns, and the ballot box, to name a few—against perceived injustices.
But the Falwell lawsuit is evidence of a very different kind of response to religious insult, one that is uniquely Christian. Many people know of Falwell’s lawsuit against Flynt. But few know the rest of the story.
Ten years after the Supreme Court’s decision, Falwell and Flynt appeared together on Larry King Live. The occasion was the release of The People. vs. Larry Flynt, a Hollywood film in which Falwell‘s lawsuit is prominently featured.
During the interview, Falwell embraced Flynt and told King that though he believed Flynt’s work was “demeaning to women and children,” he “never had any ill feelings toward him.”
King was incredulous. How could Falwell separate the business from the man—if you will, the sin from the sinner. “I am a Christian,” Falwell responded, continuing:
“My interest is that the next time around Larry, when he accepts Christ, he’ll really mean it and go on and get rid of that magazine and go for God. …I do like him. More than that I love him… I love him, but I hate what he does. And that is not difficult…Christ, when he was on earth, he condemned sin, but loved sinners. And I think what Larry is doing is very damaging to people. I think it is wrong. That is who we are, we are pastors, we were not supposed to be preaching to the choir. I’m sitting here when you invite me to come, I want to get this close to him to tell him I love him, I’m praying for him, I want to see him come to Christ and I want to be his pastor one day.”
Flynt was taken aback by Falwell’s profession of Christian love. As he recounted in a 2007 op-ed/eulogy for Falwell in the Los Angeles Times:
“[W]hen he started hugging me and smooching me on television 10 years later, I was a bit confused. I hadn’t seen him since we’d been in court together, and that night I didn’t see him until I came out on stage. I was expecting (and looking for) a fight, but instead he was putting his hands all over me.”
Flynt titled his piece “My friend” and described how he and Falwell formed a friendship in the years after their joint appearance on King’s show. They chatted and visited one another often. They had philosophical conversations and exchanged Christmas cards and dieting tips. They even traveled the country together debating morality and First Amendment issues in colleges and other venues.
Falwell’s actions after losing the lawsuit are a wonderful example of how Christians are called to respond to insult or injury. They follow Christ’s admonition to turn the other cheek, to forgive our enemies, and to love those who persecute us.
Christianity and its adherents will continue to be mocked and ridiculed, in part because those doing the mocking and ridiculing know that Christians will almost never respond with violence. And Christians will continue to respond nonviolently because love and forgiveness are not merely byproducts of the Christian gospel. They are the Gospel.
Former Presidential candidate Gary Bauer is president of American Values and chairman of the Campaign for Working Families.