“Did ya hear?” my friend wrote to me in an email last week. “Falwell died. Now Tinky Winky can come out of hiding.”
It’s been eight years since televangelist, Moral Majority founder, and Liberty University chancellor Jerry Falwell “outed” the purple Teletubby in the February 1999 edition of his National Liberty Journal. Triggered by the biggest Teletubby’s gay-friendly color, triangular aerial, and red magic bag (which Falwell said looked too much like a purse), the Religious Right leader decried Tinky Winky as a gay character intentionally and subversively inserted into children’s television viewing lives — a charge the Teletubbies’ creator staunchly denied.
“As a Christian I feel that role modeling the gay lifestyle is damaging to the moral lives of children,” Falwell wrote in a statement at the time. Notably missing was any speculation as to what modeling harsh views and behaviors in the name of religion does to these same kids. Or about the damage done to our society when spiritual leaders who emphasize judgment over love serve as spokespersons for an entire religion. (I won’t even get into the questionable logic that credits an asexual purse-carrying fictional character with “modeling the gay lifestyle.”)
It’s not my intention to defend the Teletubbies, per se. The Falwellian nemeses known as Tinky Winky, Dipsy, Laa-Laa, and Po annoy the crap out of me. But I’ll defend to my death Tinky’s right to carry a handbag — as well as my four-year-old son’s right to dress up in his sister’s pink princess dress (which, incidentally, doesn’t make him any more gay — not that there’s anything wrong with that — than TW’s bag or color makes him a homosexual). More importantly, I’ll defend parents’ responsibility to decide for ourselves, apart from religious media figures’ edicts, what our children should be allowed to watch — or wear. Or be.
In our house, my husband and I make the rules. My particular rules include no violent cartoons, no grown-up TV, and, yes, “no Teletubbies.” (Also, no Barney, because — while the purple dinosaur seems more or less harmless — the kids on that show make me want to stab myself in the thigh with a plastic fork.) My choices are a matter of aesthetics, and also of morals. But they’re my morals. Not the morals of a preacher living thousands of miles away, who has no connection to my children or my family — or my actual, real, nitty-gritty everyday life.
Some will argue that Jerry Falwell was simply preaching Biblically-based values. But the words found in the Bible — like those in the Koran, the Bhagavad Gita, the Upanishads, and other sacred texts — are just letters printed on paper until we absorb them into our hearts and allow God, or the Sacred (or, some atheists might suggest, common sense), to reveal to us their meaning. Those of us with children know that it’s one thing to read a parenting book and another to internalize and apply what we learn in a meaningful way. In the same way, living out spiritual lives that positively impact our children requires that we not pass the responsibility of deciding what’s moral on to other people, such as self-appointed religious leaders and teachers, but instead be willing to do the hard work of discerning for ourselves what we believe to be true and life-giving.
It’s easy to laugh off the absurdity of Falwell’s crusade against Tinky Winky, especially now that Falwell is gone. It’s also tempting, in the weeks following his funeral — as it is after any person’s death — to publicly recount only the man’s accomplishments. But I believe we have far more to learn from Falwell’s (and our own) weaknesses and mistakes.
Jerry Falwell’s followers point out that he devoted his life to serving God. But being devoted isn’t the same thing as being discerning. I’ve learned the hard way — by failing people — that saying I’m loving doesn’t mean a thing if I’m not acting loving, too. Or, as the Bible puts it, “If I speak in the tongues of men and of angels, but have not love, I am only a resounding gong or a clanging cymbal” (1 Corinthians 1:13). Whatever his accomplishments, Jerry Falwell is also a man who blamed the terrorist attacks of 9/11 on the ACLU, feminists, homosexuals, and abortion rights supporters (The Washington Post, September 14, 2001); who founded a powerful movement whose leaders saw themselves as the self-appointed arbiters of a national morality; who saw AIDS as God’s punishment for homosexuals; who is widely credited (correctly or incorrectly) with the statement, “Christians, like slaves and soldiers, ask no questions.”
In fact, this may very well be an ideal time for people of all faiths, all manner of slaves, soldiers and peace workers alike, to ask the hard questions. Questions like, what kind of spiritual leaders — in every religion — do we want to follow? And, as mothers, do we hope our families will follow? What dangers are inherent in the marriage between faith and politics? Is saying that we love God — and thinking that we’re doing God’s work — enough? Are we willing to call a spade a spade, to name absurdity and intolerance for what they are — regardless of who is responsible, or what God he or she claims to speak for? Are we willing to exercise discernment and understanding — the same way that we would hope believers of other faiths on the other side of the globe would be discerning? Is posturing, blaming, judging, and name-calling really the best way to demonstrate God’s love? And if it isn’t, what is?
Like the Ayatollah Khomeni’s fatwa against Salman Rushdie for The Satanic Verses, Falwell’s campaign against Tinky Winky lost steam long ago. But a larger debate about the dangers of using the pulpit to unite and divide people of faith may just be heating up. If Falwell’s life can teach us something about what we expect and are willing to tolerate from our spiritual leaders — and about whether we will remain silent and complicit or speak up and use our own voices — he will be leaving a valuable legacy indeed. Not just for his supporters, but also for those who opposed him the most. The question is: Is this a lesson that we, as women and men, mothers and fathers, are willing to learn?