Falwell Grounded

Oklahoma Gazette | November 23, 2005
Jerry Falwell cancelled a scheduled appearance at the Oklahoma Pastor’s Conference on Nov. 14, sparing the state's Southern Baptist congregations a potentially controversial situation.

Duke Westover, Falwell's executive assistant, said the cancellation was due to Falwell's Gulfstream jet being down for maintenance at his headquarters in Lynchburg, Va. "We were hoping it would be back up in time," Westover said. "We have a turboprop aircraft that we use as a backup, but we can't fly it very far west of the Mississippi because Rev. Falwell's doctor won't let him fly that long." Westover said the trip would have taken about six-and-a-half hours in the backup plane.

"We even priced a charter," Westover said, "but it was going to cost $17,000, so we called Pastor (Ray) Earley (Nov. 13) and apologized and explained that Rev. Falwell wouldn't be able to make it."

Earley, pastor of the First Baptist Church of Cartwright, was the president of this year's conference and was responsible for the choice of speakers.

The state's Baptists weren't all disappointed that Falwell cancelled. An internal e-mail at Henderson Hills Baptist Church (HHBC), the host site of the pastor's conference, indicated that at least one member of staff was relieved at the cancellation. Pastor Jeff Wilson, an elder and education pastor at HHBC, declined permission to reprint the e-mail but spoke on the record about its celebratory tone.

"That was 90 percent relief that we wouldn't have to take extra security measures for Rev. Falwell's appearance," Wilson said. "We didn't have to worry about protesters showing up, and we didn't have to expend extra income on security."

Wilson admitted that the other 10 percent had to do with Falwell's controversial reputation. "Not everyone likes Falwell," Wilson said. "Some controversy would have spilled over and we were concerned. We were hopeful Falwell's appearance wouldn't have an effect on our public image. We had nothing to do with the program, and we agreed to host the conference long before any speakers were picked."

Ray Sanders, the Baptist General Convention of Oklahoma's communications team leader and official spokesman, took issue with the way Oklahoma Gazette originally reported Falwell's scheduled appearance, and asked for a retraction.

In an official statement, Sanders wrote: "Please note that the November 9 issue of the Oklahoma Gazette misinformed readers when on the cover and on page 14 of the publication it states that Rev. Jerry Falwell was selected to speak at the Baptist General Convention of Oklahoma's 2005 Pastor's Conference. This misinformation was published despite the fact that it was emphasized with the Oklahoma Gazette that the pastor's conference (referred) to is organized by pastors not the Baptist General Convention of Oklahoma."

Sanders maintained that the BGCO is not responsible for the pastor's conference when it was pointed out that the BGCO's own advertising explicitly stated a connection. A sub-page on the BGCO Web site titled "Annual Meeting" listed the pastor's conference schedule and speakers. A banner advertisement on the main BGCO Web site was headed "Baptist General Convention of Oklahoma." Beneath the heading was a man praying, and beneath that were the words "Pastor's Conference 2005."

An Oct. 29 story in The Oklahoman religion section reported: "The Rev. Jerry Falwell will be one of the keynote speakers at the Baptist General Convention of Oklahoma's annual Pastor's Conference, set for 12:50 p.m. Nov. 14 at Henderson Hills Baptist Church." The Oklahoman's front-page teaser also stated: "The Rev. Jerry Falwell will speak at the Baptist General Convention of Oklahoma's annual Pastor's Conference."

This was the same verbiage to which Sanders objected in the Gazette, and it ran without a correction or retraction. Sanders said he was unaware of the story and would ask for a correction from The Oklahoman.

Meanwhile, the Nov. 9 Gazette featured a cartoon of Falwell dressed in a "Teletubbies"-style costume. The Gazette's corresponding news story mentioned how Falwell made the national spotlight in 1999 when he denounced Tinky Winky, the purple member of the "Teletubbies" children's TV series, as a role model for the gay lifestyle.

The BGCO has a line item in its budget for the pastor's conference. Sanders said the $3,000 line item was for advertising and promotion and should not be seen as support that implied control.

In his official response to queries about the money, Sanders wrote: "The BGCO leadership development budget contributes $3,000 to help with expenses for a pastor's conference as stipulated by officers of the pastor's conference. Traditionally the pastors who operate the pastor's conference have chosen to use this money for promoting the conference and providing honorariums, etc. The BGCO contribution is made without restriction. The BGCO contributes to the conference, it does not control it. The relationship is cooperative, yet independent."

When asked how speakers were paid at the conference, Sanders said to refer to the above statement.

The BGCO is a body elected and commissioned by Southern Baptist churches in Oklahoma to carry out the resolutions made by the churches each year. It is difficult to find any sort of separation between the churches and the agents commissioned to carry out the churches' business, inasmuch as the BGCO is acting at the behest of the churches.

Sanders explained it this way: "In essence, the BGCO is purely a cooperative body made up of messengers elected by Baptist churches whose purpose is to furnish a means by which the churches can work together in promoting the Gospel."

It is unclear why the BGCO is reluctant to take responsibility for a pastor's conference that is composed of BGCO pastors meeting in BGCO churches. In this case, it does allow the BGCO to absolve itself of responsibility for the appearance of Falwell at a BGCO event.

Oklahoma Gazette

In its inaugural issue of Oct. 15, 1979, Oklahoma Gazette, at that time an upstart, bimonthly publication with a mere 2,000 circulation, featured a page-one story about the Oklahoma City Council’s recent passage of an urban conservation district. Hardly sexy...
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