Unholy Ghost

Mel White fears his old friend Jerry Falwell more than God

Cunning as the serpent the Southern Baptists already believe him to be, the Reverend Mel White staged yesterday's protest of the Southern Baptist Convention as a confrontation with their leader, the Reverend Dr. James Merritt.

He asked Merritt to renounce the position of Southern Baptist Roy Moore, the Alabama chief justice who wrote that "the state must use confinement and even execution" to prevent people who are gay or lesbian from influencing children.

Merritt responded with silence.

Danny Hellman

So White, who'd expected this all along, held a June 11 vigil outside the America's Center.

A former evangelical Christian himself, White came out as homosexual in 1993. Six years later, he co-founded a Gandhi-inspired group called Soulforce, hoping to prod his former colleagues' conscience.

The result? A spiritual tug-of-war in which the official rope never budges.

"It's media-driven street theater," White admits wryly. He rests his hopes in the unofficial purpose: to reassure nonheterosexual Christians and alert the general public.

He's under no illusions about changing the leaders' minds.

He knows them far too well.

White knows the rigidity of these men, their fear of sin and failure, their need to impose their beliefs on others. He knows what most liberals refuse to admit: that Billy Graham, Pat Robertson, Jerry Falwell et al. are absolutely sincere.

He knows, because he spent years tracing the shape of their minds.

He was their ghost.

For the first half of his life, White did everything by the book. He married, had kids, earned a doctorate in religion, made films, taught at seminary. Along the way he ghostwrote autobiographies for Jerry Falwell; Pat Robertson and Jim Bakker.

"I know more about them than they do, because I had to make some of it up!" he jokes. Then he leans forward, urgent.

"Once you become a ghost, they will tell you things they tell nobody else. When you take off your shoes and have a beer with them in front of the fireplace..." he breaks off, shrugs. "You are their ghost. You are interested, and they are safe with you, they can laugh and cry and fuck around. These holy of holy people don't have a place where they can fuck around."

His first sense of their vulnerability came from Reverend Billy Graham.

"It was dark winter," recalls White. "We sat by the hotel pool, and Billy had his pea coat and a hat and scarf and sunglasses, he was all bundled up. Two women walked by and he grabbed my arm and whispered, 'Let's get out of here, they're going to recognize me.' I said, 'Billy, I can't even recognize you. Relax.' And he said, 'I don't know if you can understand this, but every time I'm in a room filled with people, I feel like they're reaching out to take handfuls of flesh off my bones. When I get through the room I feel like a skeleton walking.'"

Graham does not dispute the quote, but he emphasizes that White did not ghost-write for him. White edited and, with approval, added to Graham's writing.

Robertson, on the other hand, seemed impervious -- distant, always in a hurry, preoccupied with oil wells, media outlets and gold mining in Zaire.

Falwell was disconcertingly genial.

"He didn't take himself seriously at all," says White. "He put a three-foot baby alligator in his wife's bathtub. He once threw a cherry bomb into his own office, and when his staff came to the window he was leaning on his van laughing."

Falwell remembers the alligator, not the bomb, but admits it's likely. He says the one he likes best is "to call a pastor friend pretending to be an IRS agent coming in Monday to audit them. They never preach well that Sunday."

Falwell speaks warmly of Mel White, all the while condemning his "lifestyle."

White speaks warmly of Falwell, too -- and considers him "the most dangerous man in America.

"They are turning this into a science: how to scare people about gays," says White, his voice raw with anger. "They have the best demographic studies in the country; they know every ZIP code and which is most afraid of gays or Muslims. Pat Robertson says Muslims, unless they become Christian, don't belong in this nation. Jews, atheists, agnostics, pagans -- if they don't come forward (and accept Jesus), they aren't good people.

"Falwell treats his enemies with a great deal of regard," concedes White. "But he has a network satellite system that can put him on the air in five minutes on any network show, the minute they need a gadfly.

"The president of Simon & Schuster bought his autobiography for $1 million. And then they called me and said, 'Who the hell is Jerry Falwell?' That's how separate our liberal leadership is from the fundamentalist world."

After ghosting for Falwell, White sat through Ollie North's trial taking notes for his autobiography.

Then White came out as a homosexual.

The two men met each other's eyes, White remembering all the mock-gay jokes North used to make, the phone calls in a falsetto far more campy than anything White could muster.

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