Unholy Ghost

Mel White fears his old friend Jerry Falwell more than God

Jun 12, 2002 at 4:00 am
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.

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.

Those were the closet days, when he breathed nothing but stale rules and camphor fumes. So he laughed obligingly at the jokes, deepening his voice to sound macho, and clenching his teeth.

He tried to clench them during the electroshock treatments, too. And the pyschotherapy, and the aversion techniques that jolted him every time he had a sexual thought. He prayed non-stop. He fasted. He requested an exorcism.

His demons stayed put, and eventually became his friends.

It was the lies he had to burn away.

And when he did, he couldn't stop thinking about gay and lesbian teenagers who committed suicide; gay and lesbian adults who lived cut off from a God they'd been told despised them.

He called up his old clients and tried to explain:

"What you're doing is truly killing us."

His words hit rock and bounced, and after three years of this, he gave up.

Lynn Cochran, the Alabama activist who started Queer Nation's campaign against the Cracker Barrel restaurant chain for their unfriendliness toward homosexuals, wrote him immediately. Now working for Coretta Scott King, Cochran had become a master strategist of nonviolent protest.

Quitting, he told White, was an act of violence.

Normally slow to take offense, White bristled. How could giving up be an act of violence?

"Well," drawled Cochran, "what do you understand about nonviolence?"

"It means you don't kill 'em," retorted White.

Cochran sighed and started talking.

After he finished, White spent a solid year reading every word Gandhi had written, just as Martin Luther King Jr. had.

Then he started Soulforce.

Two years ago, White met Arun Gandhi in India.

And made a fool of himself.

"I just assumed that he and his wife would be open to gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgendered issues," blurts White. "Here I was, happy, gay, out gay. I didn't dream that he didn't particularly like gay people; that he was terrified of them."

Delighted when Arun agreed to speak at a Soulforce gathering, White introduced him, sat down to listen, and heard Arun say:

"I was molested by a gay man in a park in Delhi when I was 16. How ironic that the next time I would meet a gay man, 50 years later, was when Mel came up to me on the train to Delhi and said, 'I'm gay, and I'm so excited about applying your grandfather's principles to this issue.'"

White sat in the front row, eyes forced wide, the air stinging because he'd forgotten to blink.

But by the time Arun finished, everyone was on their feet, clapping.

Since then he's realized that the man who molested him was a pedophile, not "a gay man," and he's become an activist for the civil rights of nonheterosexuals.

"The first time the grandson of the Mahatma was arrested," White says proudly, "was for a gay-lesbian issue."

Arun now does nonviolence training for Soulforce, as does Reverend Jim Lawson, an African-American minister who trained protesters for Martin Luther King Jr.

When White asked Lawson if he'd switch to a different civil-rights battle, Lawson said:

"Absolutely. You guys have it far worse than we did."

White looked up, startled at the departure from political correctness. Civil-rights activists learn early not to compare different groups' sufferings. But Lawson, an African-American heterosexual, kept going.

"We had our churches," he said quietly, "and our families.

"You have neither."