Re-enchantment   /   Fall 2015   /    Essays

Across the Great Divides: Why America Needs a More Confident Pluralism

John Inazu

Observers of culture wars, past and present, would be hard-pressed to find two more fiercely antipodal figures than Jerry Falwell and Larry Flynt. Falwell (who died in 2007) was a Southern Baptist preacher and the founder of the Moral Majority, a conservative Christian political organization that rose to prominence in the 1980s. Flynt is the founder of Hustler magazine and a giant of the pornography industry. Falwell blamed the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks on “the pagans and the abortionists and the feminists and the gays and the lesbians, … the ACLU, People for the American Way—all of them who have tried to secularize America.” Flynt once called on God to afflict a conservative news anchor “with a brain aneurysm that will lead to his slow and painful death.”1

The two men did not think much of each other. During the 1970s, Falwell repeatedly condemned Flynt’s line of work. As Flynt said, “He called me every terrible name he could think of—names as bad, in my opinion, as any language used in my magazine.” Flynt eventually took offense. In 1983, he published a parody of Falwell using a then-famous advertisement for Campari liqueur. The advertisement relied on a double entendre that compared the “first time” a particular celebrity had tasted Campari to the celebrity’s first sexual experience. In Flynt’s spoof, Falwell described his “first time” as being with his mother, while they were “drunk off our God-fearing asses.” In the parody, Falwell explained that “Mom looked better than a Baptist whore with a $100 donation,” and claimed he decided to have sex with her because she had “showed all the other guys in town such a good time.” For good measure, Flynt threw in a line about Falwell’s preaching: “I always get sloshed before I go out to the pulpit. You don’t think I could lay down all that bullshit sober, do you?”2

Flynt’s spoof led to a famous Supreme Court decision that, among other things, upheld Flynt’s right to publish the parody.3 The litigation proved contentious throughout. During his deposition, Falwell’s lawyers asked Flynt if his objective in the spoof had been to destroy or harm Falwell’s reputation. Flynt, not one to mince words, replied: “To assassinate it.”4

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