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Harnessed The Political Power of Evangelicals

"He came to understand that if people of faith were not engaged in the larger culture, eventually the culture would move in a direction so hostile to its values it would be difficult to live in that culture," said Ralph Reed Jr., former executive director of the Christian Coalition. "If the culture becomes polluted, then ultimately the church and the faith community suffer."

The fledging political activists, including Falwell and Robertson, quickly mastered the new media available to them, primarily cable television, and built huge audiences of people hungry for traditional values and increasingly agitated by what they saw as the moral decline of the United States. Falwell, who started out doing local radio and television in Lynchburg, became president of a media empire.

In an interview with the Lynchburg News and Advance available on the Jerry Falwell Ministries Web site, Falwell said that "America began losing her soul only a generation ago." He decried prayer expelled from public schools, legalized abortion, a high divorce rate, teen pregnancy, a drug epidemic, the gay and lesbian lifestyle, school violence and pornography. "America is in serious jeopardy of self-destructing," he said.

Liberals, leftists and activist judges were primarily to blame, Falwell proclaimed over the years. A fusion of politics and conservative Christian beliefs became the antidote.

Falwell founded the Moral Majority with the express purpose of organizing a Christian-right electorate, registering voters, raising money for candidates and exerting political leverage at the state and national levels. The organization first applied that leverage in Ronald Reagan's election to the presidency in 1980.

After enduring eight years in the Bill Clinton wilderness, the Christian right became euphoric during the first term of George W. Bush's administration, as political adviser Karl Rove assiduously courted Falwell and other leaders.

"Moral Majority by necessity became the lightning rod of the conservative movement," Falwell told the New York Times in 1987. "It was first. It was extremely successful in 1980. And that brought down a firestorm from all who disagreed."

In 1983, just as the "firestorm" began to rage, Larry Flynt's sex magazine Hustler carried a parody of a Campari ad that featured a fake interview with Falwell in which he admits to incest with his mother. Falwell sued, alleging invasion of privacy, libel and intentional infliction of emotional distress. A jury rejected the invasion of privacy and libel claims but ruled in favor of Falwell on the emotional distress claim. Flynt appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court and won.

In 1987, Falwell took over the scandal-plagued PTL (Praise the Lord) ministry of its disgraced founder, Jim Bakker. PTL gave Falwell access to a nationwide cable television network that reached 13.5 million homes. Unable to salvage the Bakker empire, with its deficit of $70 million, he resigned a few months later.

During the 1980s, Falwell preached three times a week at the Thomas Road Baptist Church in Lynchburg, hosted "The Old Time Gospel Hour" on TV stations across the country, taped a half-hour of Bible study for daily broadcasts on several hundred radio stations and a five-minute news commentary carried on radio stations three times a day, and covered up to 5,000 miles a week by jet for appearances at rallies and meetings.

"I am not a Republican! I am not a Democrat! I am a noisy Baptist!" he told crowds of supporters.

Falwell dissolved the Moral Majority in 1989, saying the organization had accomplished what he had set out to accomplish.

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