Jerry Falwell, 1933-2007

Harnessed The Political Power of Evangelicals

By Joe Holley
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, May 16, 2007

Jerry Falwell, 73, a Southern Baptist preacher who as founder and president of the Moral Majority presided over a marriage of Christian beliefs and conservative political values -- a bond that bore prodigious fruit for the Republican Party during the past quarter-century -- died May 15 of congestive heart failure after he was found unconscious in his office at Liberty University in Lynchburg, Va.

According to a school spokesman, he was taken to Lynchburg General Hospital, where CPR efforts were unsuccessful.

With his outspoken pronouncements on matters moral, political and religious, Falwell became not only one of the most powerful religio-political figures in the United States but also one of the most polarizing. He built one of the nation's first megachurches, founded a cable television network and a growing Bible-based university and was considered the voice of the religious right in the early 1980s.

Although his political influence and public profile had diminished in recent years as he devoted more time to Liberty University, his positions on a number of core issues have become canonical for the mainstream of the modern Republican Party. Liberty also has become a stop on the campaign trail for Republican presidential candidates, including Arizona Sen. John McCain.

Last May, six years after labeling Falwell one of the political "agents of intolerance," McCain delivered the commencement address at the university. Falwell told The Washington Post that he believed a resolution of their past differences helped McCain politically, noting the political power of the 80 million evangelicals in the United States.

Michael Cromartie, an expert on evangelicals at the Washington-based Ethics and Public Policy Center, reflected on Falwell's lasting influence. "For all his critics, he was the most instrumental person in getting a heretofore apolitical group to become politically engaged," Cromartie said. "And that's no small accomplishment."

Falwell, a large man whose preacherly voice and cocksure confidence could drive his detractors into paroxysms of rage, had a penchant for combative comments. Perhaps his most provocative came Sept. 13, 2001, when he appeared on "The 700 Club," the Rev. Pat Robertson's TV show, and blamed pagans, abortionists, feminists, gays, the ACLU and others for Sept. 11, 2001.

"I point the finger in their face and say, 'You helped this happen,' " he said.

Although Falwell later apologized on CNN and told Geraldo Rivera his choice of words was the result of fatigue, he was a master media provocateur, said Mel White, Falwell's former speechwriter.

"He was a media genius, but part of that was in exaggerating, hyperbole and outrageousness," White said. "He told me once that if he didn't have people protesting him, he'd have to hire them. He felt it was publicity for the kingdom of God."

White, who left Falwell's employ when he announced in 1994 that he was gay, continued to attend Falwell's church and to live with his partner across the street from it. He and Falwell remained friends.

Traditionally, Southern Baptists and most other evangelical Christian groups were reluctant to get involved in "things of this world," including politics; they had their eyes on higher things, primarily saving souls. When Falwell founded the Moral Majority in 1978, fellow fundamentalist Bob Jones called the organization "the work of Satan," because it was making common cause with Catholics, Mormons and Jews in an ecumenical-political alliance. "Many people forget that Falwell had critics to his right," Cromartie said.

CONTINUED     1           >

© 2007 The Washington Post Company