washingtonpost.com
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.

"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.

"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.

© 2007 The Washington Post Company