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The Preacher and the Activist

How did Jerry Falwell come to publish his autobiography with the help of a gay ghostwriter?

That question leads to a story, or rather two of them, because each man has his own version. Each tale is crafted by a born storyteller, even if their narratives are so different that they cannot both be entirely true.

They do agree on some things. Mel White worked as a ghostwriter for decades, and often wielded his typewriter for famous evangelical ministers. "My agent was Swifty Lazar," he explains, naming a legendary 20th century talent agent who was linked to film stars like Humphrey Bogart and Lauren Bacall.

Lazar also worked with the matinee idols of evangelism, and "farmed me out to Billy Graham, and to Pat Robertson, and to Jerry Falwell … and who knows who else." Not many people in the entertainment world seemed to understand the newly famous preachers, but "I did understand what they were talking about because of my evangelical background." White had graduated from a seminary with a doctorate in religion.

White says he wrote every word of Falwell's 1987 autobiography. Falwell says only that "I hired him as an editor."

They agree that they spent a lot of time together. "He traveled with me for several months," says the minister, who crisscrosses the country by private jet. "He'd meet me somewhere, hop on board, and we'd talk, and talk and talk. Great writer."

During all that time, White harbored a secret. "For 27 years, I struggled against my sexual orientation by taking electric shock and aversive therapy, and at the same time trying to get my kids through college." Like the ministers that he served, White believed homosexuality was a sin.

Finally, White says, he revealed the truth -- first to his family, then to his friends, and finally by writing an autobiography of his own in 1994. Along the way, he arranged a long meeting with Jerry Falwell, and tried to persuade him, without success, to change his condemnation of homosexuals.

"He abandoned his wife and children," Falwell says, a charge White denies; White says he remains close to his family, even though he left them to move in with a male partner.

It was then that White decided to put himself back into Falwell's orbit. White and his partner moved from the gay-friendly town of Laguna Beach, Calif., to Falwell's home city, Lynchburg, Va., saying it would be easier to be a gay rights activist if he had Falwell nearby to be active against.

And he founded a gay rights group called Soulforce.

And in 1999, he says, he began organizing a protest against Falwell, contacting activists across the nation. In order to head off the protest, White says, the minister agreed to meet with about 200 gay rights activists at a weekend conference. They also attended services in Falwell's church.

Both men agree the meeting happened. What happened next is another matter of debate.

Falwell says that some of the activists were so moved by contact with the church that they "abandoned the lifestyle," and that seven of the 200 now regularly attend Falwell's church.

White says this is a flat-out lie, although he says that he and his partner do attend Falwell's church. His partner doesn't like the services; White does. "I'm an evangelical, and I love big choirs and big orchestras and gospel quartets and soloists that beat the music to death." And if Falwell attacks gay rights, they stand in silent protest.

Copyright 2022 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Steve Inskeep is a host of NPR's Morning Edition, as well as NPR's morning news podcast Up First.
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