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Commentary: Planet Jerry Falwell

By Cyra McFadden - United Press International

SAN FRANCISCO, July 9 (UPI) -- According to a recent newspaper story, a person will soon be able to spend his whole life in the Rev. Jerry Falwell's planned Christian community in Lynchburg, Va. Think of it as eternity right here on earth.

"You'll never have to leave this place," Falwell told a reporter whom he gave a tour of the building site. "You can come in at age 2, in our early learning center ... age 5, into our kindergarten, age 6-18 in our elementary and high school. Then on to Liberty University for four years."

While the schools are still in the blueprint stage, you can already send your kids to Camp Hydaway summer camp, where they can gather around the fire and sing those good old gospel favorites "Jerry Loves Me, This I Know" and "What a Friend We Have in Jerry." And if the thought of that much piety drives you to drink, as it would me, you can sign yourself into Falwell's Elim Home for Alcohol and Drug-Addicted Men.

True, as a woman I'm technically ineligible. But as Gertrude Stein remarked, a sinner is a sinner is a sinner is a sinner.

They'd have to let me in, especially since I'm too old for the high school, the college and the Godparent Home for Unwed Mothers. Falwell insists that his community won't be exclusionary.

"We have no intentions of building a 'compound' -- no wall is going to go up. If a non-Christian family applied, they would be accepted."

Uh-huh, and the neighbors would be right there on the doorstep with suitably Biblical welcoming gifts, poisonous serpents and plagues of locusts. As for homosexual couples who might apply, the Reverend opined, "That wouldn't work. They wouldn't be comfortable here -- all these Christians would be witnessing to them."

The story recounts that he said this with a chuckle. I'll bet that he also said it with a grits-eating grin. Somehow I don't think Liberty Village, as the community is called, is worried about an influx of The Village People.

Falwell's grand vision is still in the planning stage because Virginia's constitution prohibits churches from owning more than 15 acres within a city and holding a corporate charter, restrictions that have forced the Reverend to keep his Thomas Road Baptist Church legally separate from his ministry's various corporate entities. He is challenging this limitation in federal court.

Already under construction, meanwhile, is a retirement village with condos selling for $100,000 to $300,000, plus markets and other facilities, including a chapel with an associate pastor from Falwell's church. All that seems to be missing is a McFalwell's and a funeral parlor, because in the absence of one, "You'll never have to leave this place" isn't strictly true.

And if there's one thing Falwell wants, it's a tightly controlled environment where no views but his of how people should live and worship -- or not worship -- can penetrate. In particular he wants to keep his foot on the neck of those freethinking enemies of Truth, intellectuals.

For as he puts it, "It's the nature of academia to go left when you take your hands off the wheel." Consequently, if his legal maneuvers succeed the Reverend wants to tie Liberty University, along with all the community's other facilities, into his church.

I suppose that Liberty Village doesn't differ in many respects from other communities established by affinity groups, such as golfers who cluster around a course or diplomats whose residences line a few well-guarded blocks. However, these don't incorporate the idea of cradle to the grave oversight, nor is their reason for existing a particular set of beliefs.

That's the part of the Falwell enterprise that reprises the plots of horror movies. From the age of 2, in a form of mind control, you're indoctrinated into a religion that you haven't chosen.

People with different beliefs, including those left-turners that Falwell fears, exist only outside your cocoon. You never have to meet a Muslim, a Jew, a Buddhist or a liberal, one of those creatures of the Devil in man's form.

(We also come in woman's form, incidentally. Some of us have "widow's peaks" because that's where the horns used to go.)

Calling such a place "Liberty Village" is the ultimate oxymoron, so call it what it really is, 'Planet Falwell.' Then get out your checkbook.

Thanks to the recent Supreme Court ruling on vouchers, non-Christians like me get to subsidize religious instruction that teaches there's only one true God, just like the religious schools in Saudi Arabia. You know, the ones that make such a helpful contribution to peace in the Middle East.

If it weren't for the climate in Lynchburg in the summer and an aversion to deep fried food -- don't bother defending Southern cooking to me, my mother was from Arkansas -- I'd be tempted to test Falwell's claim that you don't have to be a Christian to live in Liberty Village.

I'd sleep late on Sunday mornings. I'd ask the movie theater to show "Invasion of the Body Snatchers." I'd play hip-hop music on my car radio and drive with the windows open, not very loudly or very long, though, because I can't stand it.

When my well-meaning neighbors urged me to attend the Thomas Road Baptist Church, I'd explain that I'm a Buddhist. I'm not, but I've used this ploy before when it seemed the political correct thing to do.

It avoids a lot of argument. What usually happens is that the proselytizer does a double take, smiles gamely and chokes out, "That's nice."

In fact the residents of Liberty Village may be a good deal more tolerant and less threatened by diversity than their shepherd, who, in an effort to leave behind a permanent legacy, wants to herd his flock into a bubble and keep them there for their whole lives, or as he put it, "from birth to antiquity."

Falwell is engaged in empire building because he wants to be sure that his ministry continues after he dies. "As long as I'm living, it makes no difference. But there will be another pastor one day."

His is a bid for permanence in a changing world and for immortality in one that awards it to few. In no time at all, his earthly glory may prove as fleeting as that of Aimee Semple McPherson.

Don't know who she is? I've made my point.

He might as well pack it in right now, because even invisible walls can't hold people in. Out of curiosity or just plain cussedness, we always tear them down.

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