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Harnessed The Political Power of Evangelicals
"He had awakened the slumbering giant of evangelical politics and made it a force to be reckoned with," Reed said. "It has become the most critical and vibrant constituency in the American electorate, certainly on the Republican side."
Jerry Lamon Falwell was born Aug. 11, 1933, in Lynchburg, where he grew up in the rough, blue-collar neighborhood of Fairview Heights. His family was relatively affluent, thanks to his father, a Prohibition-era bootlegger who owned a bus line, gas stations, a nightclub, a restaurant and a motel. An alcoholic and an agnostic who hated preachers (until he converted to Christianity while on his deathbed), he died when Falwell was 15.
In high school, Falwell played football, edited the school newspaper and graduated as valedictorian. He was an 18-year-old student at Lynchburg College, the first in his family to go to college, when he became a Christian in 1952. He had dreamed about being a professional baseball player and had been seriously considering becoming a journalist, but he soon began to feel a call to the ministry.
After two years at Lynchburg College, he transferred to Baptist Bible College, a radically fundamentalist, unaccredited school in Springfield, Mo., where, he said, "God literally turned my life around." Working part time as a youth pastor at Kansas City Baptist Temple, he was invited to deliver the Sunday morning message on a day the regular minister was out of town. When 19 of his listeners responded to his sermon by giving their lives to Christ, he knew in his heart that preaching was his God-given work.
Falwell returned to his home town in 1956 and, at 22, founded Thomas Road Baptist Church in the former Donald Duck Cola building. In his autobiography, "Strength for the Journey" (1987), he explained how he built the congregation, starting with 35 charter members. He knocked on a hundred doors a day, on some days from 9 in the morning until 10 at night, knowing he might encounter "a sick child who needed prayer, a lonely and frightened widow who needed someone to talk to, an isolated alcoholic who wanted help . . ."
Today, Thomas Road has more than 22,000 members. It held its 50th anniversary celebration last year in a new building near Liberty University. Falwell also built Christian elementary schools, the Elam Home for alcohol and drug-dependent men and the Liberty Godparent Home for unwed mothers.
He was chancellor and president of Liberty University, an institution he founded in 1971 as Lynchburg Baptist College, later renamed Liberty Baptist College. The college opened with 154 students and four full-time faculty members. Today the university enrolls more than 10,000 students on a 4,400-acre campus.
Falwell intended Liberty to be for evangelical Christians what Brigham Young University is to Mormons and the University of Notre Dame to Catholics. He hoped to raise $100 million in endowment funds during his lifetime and expand the student body to 20,000.
As he began spending more time at the college, Falwell continued as senior pastor at Thomas Road Baptist Church but turned over daily administration of the church to his son Jonathan and 15 other ministers. His philosophy -- to change with the culture without abandoning core principles -- made the church successful, David Randlett, the church's senior associate pastor, told The Washington Post in 2005.
"Most older ministers can't do that, but Jerry Falwell is unique," Randlett said. "He knows the Bible doesn't change, but the delivery has to in order to speak the language of the public."
In 1999, he said at an evangelical conference that the antichrist was a male Jew alive in the world today. He later apologized for his remarks but not for holding the belief. That same year, he warned parents that Tinky Winky, a character on the children's TV show "Teletubbies," was a gay role model.
On "60 Minutes" in 2002, he labeled Muhammad a terrorist.
In 2004, after voters told pollsters that moral values were important to them in the presidential election, Falwell founded the Faith and Values Coalition, calling it the "21st-century resurrection of the Moral Majority." The organization's objectives included support for anti-abortion judges and a constitutional amendment banning same-sex marriage.
Survivors include his wife of 49 years, Macel Pate Falwell of Lynchburg; three children, Jerry Falwell Jr. and Jonathan Falwell, both of Lynchburg, and Jeannie Falwell Savas of Richmond; and eight grandchildren.
Staff writer Alan Cooperman contributed to this report.