BY DAVE LIEBER
DALLAS MORNING NEWS WATCHDOG COLUMNIST
Do you remember Jerry Falwell Sr.? He was a force!
In the late 1970s he launched the Moral Majority, a powerful religious movement that organized the political clout of Evangelicals and also worked to legally insert Christianity into public schools.
In 1981, I was in my second year as a professional newspaper reporter and Falwell was coming to town for a religious revival at the city civic center. I was assigned to the story. It was all a bit confusing, as I, a Jewish boy from New York City, was suddenly learning all I could about what would be my first authentic Christian revival.
But as I prepared for the event, the newspaper publisher, W.E. “Ned” Chilton, told me he wanted to see me before I went.
“What’s up, sir?” I asked.
“When you see Falwell, I want you to interview him and get his financial statement for your story.”
“His financial statement, sir?”
“Yes, I don’t want him leaving that arena without you getting answers on his fundraising.”
“What questions should I ask him sir?”
He reeled off a long list. What’s Falwell’s annual gross revenues? How many people are members of his group? What’s his annual salary, plus expenses? Who pays for his house? How much does he spend annually on TV for his broadcast ministry? What are his production costs? What is his average contribution? How much does he raise through his TV show? And how much does he donate to his missionary work?
So I’m supposed to get Falwell to sit down with me and give me answers, patiently, to this long list of questions so I can print them in the newspaper the next day? So I can please the publisher? So I can keep my job?
I didn’t know what to expect. I arrived at the civic center and found Falwell. I straight up told me what was going on. “I have a long list of questions for you from my publisher,” I explained.
He smiled, a big smile, a TV evangelist smile, and invited me to sit with him in a back row at the civic center. And then he did something that I’ve never seen a televangelist do since then (and I’ve tried to interview several.) He patiently answered each of my questions. No kidding.
Falwell’s annual gross revenues? $50 million, a $5 million increase over the previous year.
How many people are members of his group? 4.1 million Americans.
What’s his annual salary, plus expenses? $42,000 a year, plus free use of a 12-room house.
Who pays for his house? An Atlanta businessman.
How much does he spend annually on TV for his broadcast ministry? $12 million.
What are his TV production costs? $2 million.
What is his average contribution? $23.
How much does he raise through his TV show? $16 million.
And how much does he donate to his missionary work? $2 milion.
The headline was “Jerry Falwell’s ministries hit $50 million in annual revenues.” I got to keep my job.
Not Falwell. I’ll never forget that.[This story originally appeared in Dave Lieber's Watchdog Nation weekly newsletter. You can sign up for it here): https://dallasnews.activehosted.com/f/90