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The Evangelist and His Empire
Cleaning Up America With Jerry Falwell and His Electric Church

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.

We won't take it anymore, his message says, we plain folks with old-fashioned values like beliefs in the family. All those other people - the ones who aren't like us, he implies - are trying to take away everything we hold dear, from the flag to Christian schools' tax exempt status.

He has tapped a rich vein of insecurity and unhappiness among many of those Americans who have turned to fundamentalist schools alone are reportedly opening at the rate of three a day.They have created what the Wall Street. Journal estimates is a $2 billion-a-year religious industry, and Jerry Falwell is one of the more successful promoters of the idea that answers to all of life's problems are to be found in the Bible and in giving your life to Jesus.

He travels (about 200,000 miles a year, he says) in a small rented plane with armed bodyguards, and usually wears a three-piece suit. Esquire magazine called him the "next Billy Graham," noting in a recent article (which Falwell's staff distributes to reporters) that he has "charmed and worked and prayed his way to the head of a multimillion-dollar ministry."

About 4,000 people attend each of the four Sunday services in Lynchburg's cavernous Thomas Road Baptist Church. Many of them are bused in by the church's transportation department. Each week one service is taped and aired on 325 television stations and more than 300 radio stations. And each week, viewers send about $1 million to the church, school and college coffers that operated under the Falwell umbrella. He started the church in 1956, in a former Donald Duck bottling company.

"They used to call us the Donald Duck Baptist Church," he said a few years ago. "Now we reach more people than Lawrence Walk."

In 1965, Falwell said in a sermon entitled "Ministers and Marches," that "nowhere are we commissioned to reform the externals; we are not told to wage war against bootleggers, liquor stores, gamblers, murderers prostitutes, racketeers, prejucdiced persons or institutions, or any other existing evil as such."

But yesterday he sounded a different call. The church has been "assaulted and attacked," he said, and it's time to "clean up America," Call his toll-free number and ask for a free "Jesus First" pin, he offered, and wear it proudly. Fight the "pornography, obscenity, vulgarity, profanity that under the guise of sex education and 'values clarification' that literally pervades the literature" children read in public school. The boys and girls in his schools and other Christian schools dress as ladies and gentlemen, he said: "You don't need a medical exam to tell them apart."

"I was referring in that [1965] sermon to that kind of violence-activist involvement that provokes violence that I don't think helps anybody," he said yesterday in an interview. "I probably have changed on the [issue of ] power and the responsiblity of the local church to bring pressure to bear involving moral and social change.

Falwell's detractors-who jokingly call him "Falswell"-are troubled by apparent inconsistencies in his rhetoric.

In that 1965 sermon, for example, which was generally addressed to the then-volatile topic of desegregation, Falwell asked why the government didn't do something about alcoholics, adding, "There are almost as many alcoholics as Negroes."

Falwell denies that he is racist, and says that the church has been open to blacks since its founding.

Sources in Lynchburg disagree, nothing that while tha church and its schools may be integrated nominally now, the church was the scene of at least one sit-in in the early '60s.

"I've heard him in person say his church is for whites only," said the area minister who asked to remain anonymous for fear of losing his job. "That was a few years ago. Now he says different. A friend of mine who wanted to enroll his child in the Christian school called and asked, 'What about blacks' and was told the cost takes care of 'em.'"

The Lynchburg papers treat Falwell nicely and the business community embraces him warmly-the crowds that come to his church and schools bring $100 million a year into the local economy, according to Falwell.

In 1973 the Securities and Exchange Commission charged the church with "fraud and deceit" and "gross insolvency" for selling $6.6 million in bonds to raise money to expand its enterprises. In a compromise settlement, the SEC agreed to erase the words "fraus and deceit" from the complaint if Falwell paid back the money and allowed his financial operations to be watched by a committee of five prominent Lynchburg burghers. The committee was disbanded last year.

"The Securities and Exchange Commission seldom loses a case; but prayer, the power of God, and the unyielding spirit and determination of God's man prevailed," reads the church's official Founder's Day booklet. "The S.E.C. LOST. The church was cleared of all charges and Jerry Falwell walked away from the court more confident than ever that God is still on the throne and that he still hears and answers the prayers of his people."

He lists "Charlie's Angels" among the programs that no decent person would watch. Many of the gleaming young women who make up half of Liberty Baptist College's I Love America Singers wear their hair in Farrah Fawcett-Majors fluffs. "A hairdo has nothing to do with a person's moral values," he answers. The singers look television-perfect, and are cheerful and experienced performers.

The public schools are a consistent target of Falwell's invective, yet students from his college student-teach in Lynchburg's schools to qualify for their teaching certificates. "I've never attacked the public schoos," he says, "Just their philosophy of humanism. In Lynchburg we have a wonderful relationship with the public schools."

One Lynchburg minister who has observed the church over a period of years says that Falwell's personality is a major part of the enterprise. "His name is on everything. He totally dominates the church."

When at home, Falwell lives with his wife, Marcel, and three children in an $80,600 house recently deeded to Falwell from his television program, the Old Time Gospel Hour. His salary is $38,000 a year.

Each year he takes a month off for vacation with his family; last fall the Falwells took a trip to Israel with Anita Bryant and her family. He talks with Bryant at least once a week.

"I'll never retire," he said, "I want to drop dead at 100,"

Falwell is very interested in sports, and notes that the Liberty Baptist College baseball team won a championship last year, as did its wrestling team. The basketball team, he vows, will one day rival Oral Roberts University's.

In Lynchburg, few people will criticize Falwell publicly, although privately his critics fear a simplistic theology that wants to "turn this into a Christian nation" as Falwell said at yesterday's rally.

There is little public comment "partly beacause of the tradition that anyone who is sincere is good," said one Lynchburg resident. "It's a good old southern tradition. And they like his fighting the gays and all that."

So Falwell, who once was quoted as saying the country should return to a "McCarthy era," and that all Communists should be registered and "we should stamp it on their foreheads and send them back to Russia" is courted by many in polictics and business, particulaly in Virginia.

Yesterday both Virginia senators, Harry F. Byrd and John W. Warner showed up to sit on the Capitol steps with Falwell and other conservative legislators, including Jesse Helms (R.N.C.), Gordon Humphrey (R.N.H.) and Rep. Bob Dornan (R-Ca).

Falwell intends to have a major impact on American thinking by using the media to carry his message. He plans to have four prime-time specials this year, he said. They will be similar to the one filmed yesterday; and for the second time in two years he is placing ads in major magazines and newspapers, asking people to send him their opinions on issues such as pornongraphy, homosexuality and abortion.

The ad is in the form of a ballot containing the following questions to be answered yes or no:

"Do you approve of pornographic and obscene classroom textbooks being used under the guise of sex education?

"Do you approve of the present laws legalizing ABORTION-ON-DEMAND?

"Do you approve of the grow trend towards SEX and VIOLENCE replacing family-oriented programs on television?"

He cites the return of more than a million of these ballots last year-with 95.8 percent of the respondents answering "No" on each question-as evidence that the prevailing view in America is on the side of "righteousness." He denies that the wording of the questions might have biased the results of the balloting.

"We are very much trying to create emotional involvement in these issues," he said, agreeing that the wording was loaded. "We want everybody to either be totally for it or totally against it, publicly identified . . .

"And the one thing we're going to do this year that we didn't do last year, we are going to single out those people in government who are against what consider to be the Bible, moralist position, and we're going to inform the public in every area.

"This year we're trying to effect change."

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© 1979 The Washington Post Company