Jerry Falwell 9/11 Remarks: A Former Liberty University Student Reflects

On Monday night's episode of "The Daily Show," Jon Stewart took a satirical look at "The Day We Forgot the Lessons of the Day We Swore We Had Sworn We Would Always Remember." To introduce this piece, he led with footage of Jerry Falwell's infamous remarks about the Sept. 11 attacks:

"I really believe that the pagans, and the abortionists, and the feminists, and the gays and the lesbians who are actively trying to make that an alternative lifestyle, the ACLU, People for the American Way -- all of them who have tried to secularize America -- I point the finger in their face and say 'you helped this happen.'"

Seeing this footage all of these years later harkens me back to a dark time -- not just for our country, but personally.

You see, I had a somewhat unique relationship to this man and these remarks: I was a student at his Liberty University when these remarks were made. (I have written about this experience both in my latest book and on my blog.) So while the rest of the world was (rightly so) heaping vicious invective his way for such insensitive and baseless comments, I was cloistered in a community that was doing the exact opposite.

I remember how each of my classes in those ensuing weeks began with a classmate or professor suggesting we begin the session by praying for Dr. Falwell, citing that he was "under attack" from "the secularists" and "the secular media" for his comments. (Side note: The word "secular" was -- and is -- bandied about quite frequently in these circles, though I'm fairly certain the majority of us using it didn't really know what it meant).

Yes, it is not an exaggeration to say that there were thousands of students and hundreds of professors rallying behind Dr. Falwell in a show of support for his hateful rhetoric. I can scarcely remember a single student -- and I am absolutely positive it was never voiced by a professor, whether he or she felt it or not -- saying that Dr. Falwell had been wrong in his statements.

In fact, I remember how, being a communications major, I was at the time enrolled in classes with several members of the Liberty debate team (who were at the time ranked tops in the country), and how in one of those classes -- a class taught by Bret O'Donnell, the current speech writer and debate coach for Congresswoman and leading Tea Party presidential candidate Michele Bachmann -- one of the debate team members asked us to pray because there was a sudden influx of universities participating in the impending Liberty-hosted debate tournament. I distinctly remember this student saying that these universities were signing up just so they could skewer Dr. Falwell at the opening night's Q&A session, and that, consequently, Dr. Falwell was in dire need of prayer that his words on that night would be clear and effective.

All the while, I, a 20-year-old at the time, had a lurking suspicion that what Dr. Falwell had said was hateful and wrong. However, I wasn't yet equipped, I wasn't yet independent-thinking enough, to see beyond the rhetoric to which I was being daily exposed. I had been so indoctrinated with the mentality that we Christians had an exclusive hold on truth -- that anyone who lived a lifestyle contrary to, or held an ideology inconsistent with, ours was not simply wrong, but was evil personified.

Today, while I remain an evangelical Christian, I now see through this miasma of misunderstanding to see such a mentality for the insidious lie that it is.

I now look back to that time and that mentality and realize that, while evil most certainly exists, it takes on its greatest form when we so cavalierly ascribe it to those we perceive as different from us.

In order for our world to move forward and find the peace it seeks, it is imperative that we as people of faith -- and by that I mean people of every faith -- be willing to understand and embrace the idea that, while it is inherent in the very definition of faith to believe ours to be right, all faiths are equally convinced of this same thing.

Therefore, when we begin framing the narrative of good vs. evil around the premise that God is on our side and seeks to do harm to everyone else, we are ultimately pitting God against himself. This is perhaps best shown in Aaron Sorkin's "Charlie Wilson's War" when, in response to Julia Roberts saying, "We need God on our side," Tom Hanks whispers, "Yes, but sooner or later God's going to be on both sides."

And if God is on both sides, then simple logic suggests that evil has to be on both sides, too.

With this in mind, on the 10 year anniversary of Jerry Falwell's remarks, I reflect on my 20-year-old self and on the many like me who, no matter faith or ideology, have ever, out of ignorance, fear and/or justification, ascribed the blanket term "evil" to anyone who thinks or lives differently. Because it is this evil, this branding of The Other as villainous, that enables hatred and prevents peace from pervading the earth.