While some religious leaders in the Philadelphia area saw a good side of the Rev. Jerry Falwell, others said he was too divisive and not representative of Christianity.
"Some people in my community said he was racist, and maybe he was," the Rev. Herb Lusk, pastor of Greater Exodus Baptist Church in North Philadelphia, said yesterday. "But when I met him he was the kindest and most affectionate, caring person I've ever met."
Mr. Falwell spoke last year at Lusk's church.
"The guy always fought for what he believed to be right," Lusk said.
While some pastors criticized him for mixing faith with politics, Lusk said, Mr. Falwell "was in the avant-garde of political change; he brought the [conservative] Christian community into the political process."
Lusk also said he believed that Mr. Falwell's Liberty University "has given many African Americans access to a college education that they might not otherwise have had."
Nancy Duff, an associate professor of Christian ethics at Princeton Theological Seminary, had a very different view. She described Mr. Falwell yesterday as "an incredibly mean-spirited person" who "mixed his prejudices and political beliefs with his religious beliefs for his own self-aggrandizement."
"The media had the right to give him attention, at least while he had a large following," Duff said, "but it was wrong to hold him up as the voice of Christianity. Lots of us held different views from his. He was 'God loves you' or 'God hates you,' but that's not consistent with the Gospel."
The Rev. Bob Edgar, general secretary of the National Council of Churches and a former U.S. representative from Delaware County, called Mr. Falwell "the lightning rod of the radical religious right."
Edgar, a national spokesman for center-left Protestantism, said in a phone interview that Mr. Falwell's sometimes blunt language and harsh views "helped strengthen mainline Christianity" by "forcing us to examine our views and test our convictions," Edgar said in a phone interview.
"Some people, especially abroad, felt he was the representative of American Christianity, but he did not represent the total scope of Christianity," said Edgar, who recently published Middle Church: Reclaiming the Moral Values of the Faithful Majority From the Religious Right.