In 1979, the Rev. Jerry Falwell wrote a book he would rather you not know about today.
The tome, America Can Be Saved!, is a 162-page paperback published by Sword of the Lord Publishers in Murfreesboro, Tenn. Its cover price at the time was a modest $2.95.
Falwell had high hopes for the book. In the introduction, the Lynchburg, Va.-based televangelist noted that 11 "revival messages" are included in the volume. Pointing out that the sermons had originally appeared in Sword of the Lord magazine, Falwell wrote, "I wanted them to be published in book form by the Sword because this paper, under the dynamic leadership of Dr. John R. Rice, has done more to promote revival and holy living in America during the last 40 years than any other single organization."
Falwell went on to write about his close relationship with Rice and Sword of the Lord.
"Dr. Rice and I have been friends for years," he wrote. "He preaches in my pulpit, and I preach in his conferences. I count it a privilege for him to publish my sermons. Of all the messages I have preached, Dr. Rice picked these, and if anyone knows a revival sermon, it is Dr. Rice."
But something went wrong. The book flopped; Falwell and Sword of the Lord had a falling out. America Can Be Saved! sank into obscurity.
It didn't disappear entirely. Over the years, Falwell critics frequently resurrected one particularly inflammatory quote. On page 52, in a chapter titled "Seven Things Corrupting America," Falwell wrote, "One day, I hope in the next ten years, I trust that we will have more Christian day schools than there are public schools. I hope I live to see the day when, as in the early days of our country, we won't have any public schools. The churches will have taken them over again and Christians will be running them. What a happy day that will be!"
Falwell has never hesitated to criticize public education, but as he became a national figure he seemed to realize that calling for a Christian takeover of all education was extreme. He began laboring to distance himself from that quote. In fact, he has tried to deny that he ever said it.
On April 7, 1998, I appeared with Falwell on Fox News Channel to debate the role of religion in public schools. I had come prepared and confronted Falwell with the passage from America Can Be Saved!. Falwell employed a rather surprising defense: He denied he was responsible for the book!
"That book was discredited years ago," Falwell said. "It was printed by someone without our permission. We did not print that book. Someone like you did that.... I had nothing to do with it. I had no voice in it."
These claims clashed sharply with what Falwell wrote in the book's introduction. To get to the truth of the matter, I called Sword of the Lord Publishers in Tennessee. The business manager pulled the file on the book and confirmed that it was produced with Falwell's full cooperation. Sword of the Lord's records showed that 15,213 copies of America Can Be Saved! were printed in April of 1979. The manager also expressed surprise that Falwell was now trying to deny his involvement.
Two months later, Falwell changed his story. Confronted with the quote by AU Director of Communications Joe Conn on CBS Radio's "Gil Gross Show," Falwell said, "That book was written 25 years ago by Sword of the Lord Publishers.... And they, allegedly, from hearing one of my sermons, published my sermons. We had no editing, no proofing whatsoever."
Americans United pointed out that the new explanation didn't wash either. It conflicts sharply with what Falwell wrote in 1979 in the book's introduction. In 1979 Falwell specifically stated that he wanted the sermons produced by Sword of the Lord and that the book's chapters were merely sermons he had earlier published in the organization's newspaper. Years later, he expected people to believe that Sword of the Lord issued them without his permission in some type of guerrilla publishing operation.
Unfortunately, Americans United did not have an intact copy of the book in its library, just photocopies of a few pages. In my 2000 book Close Encounters with the Religious Right, I mentioned that I was on the lookout for a copy and promised to give a lifetime membership in Americans United to the first person to send me one.
It took a few years, but someone finally has. Nicholas A. Yutko, a comic book retailer and rare book collector from Bethlehem, Pa., contacted me recently and said he had found a copy of America Can Be Saved!.
Yutko, an Americans United member for more than 10 years, found the book on eBay, the popular online auction site. He paid $2.99 for it and was the only bidder.
In an e-mail message, Yutko explained that he has found many rarer books over the years and considered tracking down the Falwell tome a personal challenge.
"For the past several years, I've been doing searches of eBay at least once a week," Yutko said. "Further, I was regularly searching other online book sources. Plus, every time I went to a used book sale or a used book shop I always searched the religious books for this elusive ahem gem."
Yutko had another reason for wanting to find the book: He and I are longtime friends. We met when we attended the same university in western Pennsylvania in the early 1980s and these days keep in touch regularly through e-mail.
I spent a weekend poring over the book and could understand why Falwell wanted so desperately to keep it under wraps. It's a true cornucopia of Religious Right crackpottery. In addition to calling for the abolition of public education, Falwell makes a number of other extreme statements. He insists that the United States was founded to be a Christian nation, says Watergate was "blown out of proportion by a very liberal press," asserts that communists lead African Americans to commit crimes and says that anyone who dares to protest publicly against "true Americanism" should be deported to a communist country.
Speaking of his politics, Falwell says bluntly, "If you would like to know where I am politically, I am to the right of wherever you are. I thought Goldwater was too liberal!"
Extreme and mean-spirited views surface throughout the book. Falwell's attitude toward the poor and unemployed is a good example especially in light of Jesus' frequent concern for the less fortunate. Falwell assumes that everyone without a job is lazy and unwilling to work. He calls people on state assistance "that lazy, trifling bunch lined up in unemployment offices who would not work in a pieshop [sic] eating the holes out of donuts."
It's worth keeping in mind that these nasty passages appeared in a book that was published in 1979 a time, like today, when many people were unemployed through no fault of their own. The sluggish economy of the late '70s threw millions of Americans out of work. Many could not find jobs even though they were eager to do so. (The unemployment rate in 1979 was about 6 percent, just a little lower than it is now.)
Falwell had no sympathy.
"My edict for them is, Let them starve," he wrote. Later, he compared the jobless to dogs, telling an anecdote about a friend who once gave him two Irish setters that were used to eating only expensive cuts of meat. When Falwell gave them regular dog food, the dogs at first turned up their noses but soon began to eat it, realizing there would be nothing else.
Comments Falwell, "And if we let these bums get hungry enough, they will find a job and they will go to work and become productive citizens."
"This book is Jerry Falwell raw," said the Rev. Barry W. Lynn, executive director of Americans United. "All of the bigotry and intolerance are here in an embryonic form. After reading just a few chapters in this unpleasant and disturbing book, I could see why Falwell wanted to keep it hidden."
In mid July, Yutko visited the Americans United offices to officially present the book to me. His lifetime membership in Americans United was also activated at that time.
"It was exciting for me to find this book after searching for so many years," Yutko said, "and I'm just happy that I could do something helpful for an organization in which I believe so strongly."