It represented a tipping point in our culture.
In January of 1997 on the Larry King Live show, Larry Flynt and Jerry Falwell met on live television in what would be an historic interview regarding the movie, “The People vs Larry Flynt”, which was a play on the real life drama between the legal battle of Mr. Falwell and Mr. Flynt, a lawsuit levied by Mr. Falwell in response to a parody piece published by Hustler Magazine in November of 1983 depicting Mr. Falwell as an incestuous drunk.
Flynt would go on to win at the Supreme Court.
In an 8-0 decision the Court ruled in favor of Hustler Magazine, stating that the parody ad published in the magazine was protected speech since Falwell was a public figure and the parody could not have been considered believable. It was a landmark case which has effectually protected public figures from collecting damages for the tort of intentional infliction of emotional distress (IIED). The Hustler case also defined lines of liberty and freedom of speech, it set a precedent in our country and gave citizens, particularly comedians and satirist the protection to do what they do, which is make fun of public figures, politics and policy.
The timing of the televised debate could not have been at a more strategic time. In 1997 the internet was in its early stages and we were on the cusp of the ubiquitous .com era of the late 1990’s. Technology would bring information into every household at a rate never seen before in history. A Gutenberg Press like moment which radically changed the way the world communicated. With it came a flood of communication, information transfer and yes, smut.
You could argue that Larry Flynt won not only at the Supreme Court level but in the arena of culture as well, that his legal victory was indicative of a future America, one that would embrace a more Libertarian view of liberty in opposition to the Christian worldview espoused by the Religious Right. Or, that the Supreme Court got it right and the Constitution was upheld, free speech was protected supporting the rights of the people.
Regardless of perspective one thing is for certain, more than 20 years after the televised debate the trajectory of America has proven Flynt to be on the right side of American history. There has been larger adoption of hedonistic living by secular, mainstream culture then that of the agenda of the Moral Majority.
It wasn’t a complete loss for Falwell, however, but this victory happened outside the political and legal system.
In 2007, after the passing of Mr. Falwell, Larry Flynt guest wrote a piece for the LA Times about his friendship with Jerry Falwell. Yes, I said friendship. The greatest take away from the exchange all those years was not the pious remarks from the fundamentalist preacher nor the intentional insults from Mr. Flynt meant to trap the Type A into a gun fight. It was what happened after the television cameras were turned off and the fanfare went away. It is what Jerry Falwell did behind the scenes that had the greatest impact on Flynt’s life.
Jerry reached out to Larry.
Here is an excerpt from Larry Flynt’s LA Times piece:
“Soon after that episode, I was in my office in Beverly Hills, and out of nowhere my secretary buzzes me, saying, “Jerry Falwell is here to see you.” I was shocked, but I said, “Send him in.” We talked for two hours, with the latest issues of Hustler neatly stacked on my desk in front of him. He suggested that we go around the country debating, and I agreed. We went to colleges, debating moral issues and 1st Amendment issues what’s “proper,” what’s not and why.
In the years that followed and up until his death, he’d come to see me every time he was in California. We’d have interesting philosophical conversations. We’d exchange personal Christmas cards. He’d show me pictures of his grandchildren. I was with him in Florida once when he complained about his health and his weight, so I suggested that he go on a diet that had worked for me. I faxed a copy to his wife when I got back home.
The truth is, the reverend and I had a lot in common. He was from Virginia, and I was from Kentucky. His father had been a bootlegger, and I had been one too in my 20s before I went into the Navy. We steered our conversations away from politics, but religion was within bounds. He wanted to save me and was determined to get me out of “the business.”
My mother always told me that no matter how repugnant you find a person, when you meet them face to face you will always find something about them to like. The more I got to know Falwell, the more I began to see that his public portrayals were caricatures of himself. There was a dichotomy between the real Falwell and the one he showed the public.
He was definitely selling brimstone religion and would do anything to add another member to his mailing list. But in the end, I knew what he was selling, and he knew what I was selling, and we found a way to communicate.
I always kicked his ass about his crazy ideas and the things he said. Every time I’d call him, I’d get put right through, and he’d let me berate him about his views. When he was getting blasted for his ridiculous homophobic comments after he wrote his “Tinky Winky” article cautioning parents that the purple Teletubby character was in fact gay, I called him in Florida and yelled at him to “leave the Tinky Winkies alone.”
When he referred to Ellen Degeneres in print as Ellen “Degenerate,” I called him and said, “What are you doing? You don’t need to poison the whole lake with your venom.” I could hear him mumbling out of the side of his mouth, “These lesbians just drive me crazy.” I’m sure I never changed his mind about anything, just as he never changed mine.
I’ll never admire him for his views or his opinions. To this day, I’m not sure if his television embrace was meant to mend fences, to show himself to the public as a generous and forgiving preacher or merely to make me uneasy, but the ultimate result was one I never expected and was just as shocking a turn to me as was winning that famous Supreme Court case: We became friends.” (Source)
At the end of the day it wasn’t the agenda, legal battles, interviews or debates that stuck with Larry Flynt and made a difference, it was when Jerry Falwell stepped down from his pulpit and reached out on a personal level. It was the greatest impact Falwell made in Flynt’s life. I can’t help but see Christ in the latter.
There is tremendous application to our day.
Whether it is racial division or the conflict of political and social views, the nation and even the Church are splintered into warring factions. The culture war is raging all the more, the nation is divided, morality is losing ground, and the Christian voice is white noise amongst a host of others.
The point here is not to draw our attention to the problem but to ask the question, how are we responding?
Are we trying to stand down culture in a legal battle, through Presidential power or political agenda, and will we have a different outcome than our predecessors? Or, are we repeating tactics which have proven to only create severe social backlash, damage to the image of Christ, the witness of the Church and the future influence of Christianity in our culture?
Is this 1987 all over again?
When President Trump took to the mic last fall and spoke of “Making America Great Again” he was referring to this era. A time period where men his age were in their prime, closing deals and growing their empires. A time period of conservative renaissance in America, where the Reagan administration along with Falwell’s Moral Majority would be what the 1985 Times Magazine cover called the “Thunder on the Right”. But truth be told this era of supposed greatness did little, if anything, to change the moral direction of our country and we find ourselves at another tipping point.
The greatness of America’s past is relative to a person’s perspective. While many have warm memories of America’s past to some it is pain. A history of good-ole-boy system oppression, where those who are loyal, or even family, to corrupt leadership are given preferential treatment. Where fascism, that is radical authoritarian nationalism, talks down certain nationalities, religions and races. Much of which is being seen through eerily similar actions and rhetoric from the very seat of power in our nation.
There has never been a greater need for leadership that rises above partisanship.
In a country as diverse as America, which allows for freedom of expression, speech, and religion, it will take the Church to rise above the social noise in order to speak into it and lead with credibility. If not, we will simply find ourselves as one of many in the fray.
The peacemakers of today will be the leaders of tomorrow.
The conflict our nation and world faces today will not go away tomorrow, it will only increase. Since the volume will simply be turned up, and the battle will intensify, we must see that the strategy to victory is through peace. That peace is the position of power when conflict rages around you.
The lowly fight is a zero sum game and victory is found in leading people out of the fray, not joining them in it.
The greatest impact we may make on America as Christians may not be the legislation we get pushed through but the disciples that come behind us. We may find out, as the late Jerry Falwell did, that the greatest impact we will make in this world is reaching out to the sinner, loving our neighbors and even our social adversaries. After all, that is what Christ did for us.
When America’s time is over, our lineage and legacy of disciples will continue on.