The Evangelist and His Empire

By Megan Rosenfeld
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, April 27, 1979

"Are we ready, Mr. Cameraman?" asked the Rev. Jerry Falwell, as though addressing the horizon. Behind him were arrayed the I Love America Singers, dressed in red, white and blue, and a row of American flags. Below him, fanning out from the Capitol steps, were thousands of rain-drenched Christians.

"We're ready, Dr Falwell," said the voices of Mr. Cameraman from somewhere in the electric cosmos.

It was time for the show to begin.

Jerry Falwell is the 45-year-old fundamentalist preacher and entreprenuer who rallied thousands of his supporters at the Capitol yesterday, most of them students at Christians schools, as well as a number of conservative senators and representatives whom he called "our royalty."

They were there to inveigh against pornography, abortion, homosexuality, sex education, the lack of prayer in public schools, and the waning influence of Christian morality in American life. All of it was being taped for a one-hour prime-time television broadcast, for which Falwell will buy over 10 hours of air time monthly over the next six months.

The first scene the viewers will see is the singers stepping smartly in time up and down the steps, smiling and singing "I Love America" to the upbeat, pre-recorded and fully orchestrated music.

"Free to worship as we please. . . that's why I love America," they sang. "Amer-ri-ca, Amer-ri-ca" - one hand goes out, "The land I live" - the other hand out. Step up, step down, arms outstretched for the big finish. "Amer-ri-caaaa."

Jerry Falwell is from Lynchburg, a quiet town in southwestern Virginia where people take their religion quite seriously. He once wanted to be a professional baseball player, for the St. Louis Cardinals or the Yankees, but God has other plans.

"After two days in [training] camp, Jerry rejected the call of the St. Louis Cardinals and accepted the call of God," reads one of the numerous slick pamphlets produced by the church's public-relation department.

In true Horatio Alger style, Falwell rose from a nobody in a town of 60,000 to become a big successful evangelist, one of the prime exponents of what has been dubbed the "Electric Church," and a familiar name to millions of peoplewho watch church services on television.

Falwell has the smooth-flowing speech of a car salesman, a mellow voice that glides effortlessly from one emotional issue to the next. He hooks his fingers into the vest over his crowds with the air of a benevolent father.

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© 1979 The Washington Post Company