Lust in Action: Jerry Falwell and Larry Flynt 6

By 1983, Falwell had an empire of his own. He had, in fact, two empires, a ministry and a political organization. The core congregation of Falwell’s ministry was the church in Lynchburg, which had seventeen thousand members in 1983 (up from thirty-five when Falwell took it over, in 1956). But Falwell also had a television program, The Old Time Gospel Hour, which was carried weekly on 373 stations—more than any other televangelist of the time. By the early eighties, the program claimed to have twenty-five million viewers, and was bringing in a million dollars in contributions a week. Fund¬raising was, in fact, its main activity, so much so that, as Frances Fitzgerald reported, five of every seven dollars raised was spent just to keep the show going. When the Moral Majority was formed, it started its fundraising drive using the television program’s mailing list, and brought in $2.2 million in the first year. The ministry’s newsletter, the Journal Companion, was turned into the political organization’s newsletter, the Moral Majority Report, which was sent to 840,000 homes with a readership estimated at three million. More than three hundred radio stations broadcast Moral Majority commentary daily. In 1983, the organization claimed four million members, which is probably an exaggeration, but which indicates the scale on which Falwell conceived of himself and his influence at the time.

When the Campari ad appeared, in 1983, Falwell was quick to sue, but he was also quick to turn the ad to financial account. He sent out two mailings under the aegis of the Moral Majority to members and “major donors,” requesting funds to “defend his mother’s memory,” and a third letter to 750,000 viewers of The Old Time Gospel Hour. The mailing to the major donorsthere were 26,900 of them included copies of the ad, with eight offensive words blacked out. The letters raised more than $700,000 in thirty days. When Flynt learned of them, he countersued Falwell for copyright infringement for reproducing the ad without permission from Hustler. He lost this suit, but he made his point, which was, of course, that Falwell was so far indifferent to the reputation of his mother (who was, by the way, no longer alive) as to disseminate to thousands of people who had never seen it the parody that traduced her.

Who received these appeals? Falwell’s constituents, like the constituents of all the televangelists who flourished in the 1980s, were generally downscale. They were not well off, and they tended, in the words of an official of the National Council of Churches, which paid close attention to the phenomenon, ‘‘to be alienated from mainline America. They feel they are on the short end of things, that they haven’t gotten what others have.” The profile of Falwell’s audience, in other words, apart from the obvious difference, was remarkably parallel to the profile of Hustler’s audience—a circumstance beautifully illuminated by an event which took place while Flynt and Falwell were in the midst of their legal war over the Campari ad.

In 1986, Alan Sears, the executive director of the Meese Com¬mission, which had been set up at the direction of President Reagan to examine the issue of pornography, wrote a letter, on Justice Department stationery, to twenty-three companies accusing them of being “major players in the game of pornography.” The letter gave the companies three weeks to respond, with the implicit threat that they would somehow be exposed in the commission’s final report if they did not. Among these companies were 7-Eleven; Rite-Aid, the drugstore chain; and Kmart, which owned Waldenbooks. All were accused (Sears based his letter on testimony before the commission by another fundamentalist crusader, the Reverend Donald Wild mon) of retailing Playboy, Penthouse, and other sexually explicit magazines. The effect on the magazines was devastating. 7-Eleven convenience stores, which are not ordinarily the source of goods for upscale consumers, were in fact the major outlet for Penthouse, and they sold 20 percent of all copies of Playboy. The companies buck¬led—since, clearly, they were also patronized by many churchgoing, fundamentalist shoppers who regarded pornography as sinful, and who could be expected to be susceptible to calls for a boycott.

Although Penthouse and several other plaintiffs ultimately obtained a federal court ruling that Sears’s letter constituted unlawful prior restraint, “the damage,” as John Heidenry says, “had been done. The removal of Playboy and Penthouse from ten thousand stores across the country, including the mammoth 7-Eleven and Rite-Aid chains, sent the circulations of both magazines plummeting.’’ Hustler was one of the magazines affected. The incident, Heidenry also points out, was not an isolated incident of extremist pressure on mainstream taste. It reflected a shift in mainstream tolerance of pornography as well. In 1986, Time magazine reported that 63 percent of women and 47 percent of men now believed that pornography led men to commit rape.

But the demise of the culture of anything-goes sexuality coincided with the demise of the culture of televangelism, and by the end of 1987, when Hustler v. Falwell was finally argued before the Supreme Court, Falwell’s empire had become as marginalized as Flynt’s. The reason was the PTL scandal, which was, fittingly, played out in the twin worlds of religious broadcasting and adult magazines. The scandal began when Jim Bakker, the host, with his wife Tammy Faye, of the television program of the PTL (Praise the Lord) Club, was accused of having committed adultery by a church worker named Jessica Hahn, who claimed Bakker had deflowered her, and of having used several hundred thousand dollars of PTL money to purchase her silence. The ensuing inquiry into PTL’s financial affairs disclosed a massive bilking scheme, and in the up¬roar, Bakker asked Falwell to take custody of his ministry. Falwell agreed, and his magnanimity proved his undoing. Falwell’s con¬stituency was Baptist; Bakker’s was Pentecostal, and the suspicion quickly arose that Falwell was principally interested not in saving PTL but in dissolving it in the interests of folding its viewership— the program was said in 1987 to reach over twelve million homes into his Old Time Gospel Hour ministry. Falwell denied the charge, but it was repeated continually, and the light thrown by Bakker’s indictment and conviction on the whole practice of fund-raising through religious broadcasting (by 1987, The Old Time Gospel Hour was reported to be spending twenty-six minutes of every half-hour pleading for money), ended by crippling the national credibility of televangelists like Falwell.


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Hahn, meanwhile, went on to pose twice for Playboy, the second time following plastic surgery subsidized by Hugh Hefner himself. (Her claim to have been a virgin when Bakker slept with her has been pretty thoroughly discredited.) In 1988, a year after Hahn’s pictures appeared in Playboy, Penthouse revealed that another prominent televangelist, Jimmy Swaggart, had paid a prostitute to pose for him, in a hotel room, in provocative postures he told her he had seen in adult magazines. And a year after that, Penthouse published an interview with a protege of Bakker’s who claimed to have served as his “male prostitute.”

The sexually explicit magazine industry and the televangelist fund-raising industry were, in short, working opposite sides of the same street. They knew each other’s business better than anyone else in America did: they were fighting over the same socioeconomic constituency. So it is not surprising that when Falwell sued Flynt over the Campari ad, the lawyer he chose to represent him was Norman Roy Grutman, a man who had become famous as the principal attorney for Penthouse. Falwell knew Grutman well. He had met him back in 1981 when he was suing Penthouse for running an interview with him without his permission. Grutman had at¬tracted attention on that occasion by referring publicly to Falwell as “Foulwell,” but he won the case and got a new client in the bargain. Flynt has, understandably, a good deal of fun with this irony in An Unseemly Man, but the filmmakers, for some reason, never mention it. They may have felt it was the kind of detail that would spoil the simplicity of the legal drama they wished to present, but it is a detail that touches the heart of the cultural moment their movie is about.

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