For now, at least, the Rev. Jerry Falwell has exorcised the Demon Dialer.
But an angry self-styled computer commando, as a protest against TV evangelists, vows to keep right on bedeviling the $100 million fund-raising machine of the Moral Majority (or the Liberty Federation, as Falwell recently announced his group will be called) with his $200 Atari home computer.
"I'll give you a demonstration," says Edward Johnson, 46, a bespectacled computer consultant, pecking away at a keyboard in his one-bedroom walk-up apartment here.
That activates his modem's auto-dialer. Bleep, bleep, bleep goes the video-arcade echo on his speaker phone as his Atari rings up Falwell's world headquarters in Lynchburg, Va.
"Old Time Gospel Hour," says an operator. "Can I help you?"
Johnson grins. His computer is programmed to tie up the line for 30 seconds, then it hangs up and dials again, as it has every 30 seconds, 24 hours a day, seven days a week, for the last eight months. "Here we go again," he says. And the computer dials 1-800-446-5000.
"Old Time Gospel Hour," says the operator. "Help you?" Click.
"You can tell by their tone of voice they're not too happy," he says.
Indeed, Falwell officials estimate their first high-tech protester cost them close to $1 million in lost pledges on a blessed WATS line, which fields some one million calls a year, before Southern Bell detectives ordered Johnson to hang up on Dec. 20 or face criminal charges -- using the telephone to harass is a federal felony. The besieged switchboard raises at least half of Falwell's $100 million budget, used to support a TV ministry, missionary work, Bible study, an antiabortion crusade and the like.
"He has robbed the poor and needy of many thousands of dollars," said Falwell in a press release that warned others who would do "injury to the cause of Christ by similar illegal acts."
But Johnson accuses TV evangelists of persuading elderly viewers to part with money they can ill afford to spend, buying religious trinkets and false hope while the on-the-air preachers use their tax-free status to subsidize and promote often incendiary views.
"They're making millions because there aren't any laws to protect the gullible from such a powerful medium," says Johnson, who says he nearly lost his family farm to TV evangelist Jimmy Swaggart.
After one rip-roaring TV sermon, he says, his 68-year-old mother, Mary Johnson of Sylvester, was ready to sign over the family's 150 acres in south Georgia. A virtual shut-in, she lives alone on land his father, who died 12 years ago, once planted with soybeans, peanuts and corn. But Johnson stepped in and, along with an older brother, Raymond, talked her out of it.
"She once bought two Singer sewing machines from different salesmen in the same week," he sighs.
Johnson's lone crusade began one Sunday morning, April 7, when, he remembers, Jimmy Swaggart on a local affiliate accused gays of "spreading AIDS like flies" at bathhouses.
A political activist and card-carrying member of the American Civil Liberties Union, Johnson got angry. "He was implying that you should treat those people like flies," he says. He considered it unfair and inflammatory. And, of course, he'd almost lost the farm.
He wrote the Federal Communications Commission to complain. He tapped a second computer to mount a letter-writing campaign to congressmen and senators. And he dispatched copies of those letters to Falwell, who had his name. But it would take Falwell eight months to unearth Atari Central.
He targeted Falwell because he's the "most politically active" TV evangelist, and his mother had sent him hundreds of dollars. "If we get Falwell, Swaggart will fall of his own weight," says Johnson, who is single and lives alone.
Weaned on old-time religion growing up in Worth County, Ga., he joined the Air Force out of high school, worked for a large computer firm as an engineer, then settled into consulting.
He has nothing against religion, he says, comparing his beliefs more to "Spinoza and Einstein" than to fundamentalist TV preachers.
But what better way to protest than slow down their collection plate, he argues. So he began dialing 1-800 . . .
"Old Time Gospel Hour," said the operator. "Hello? Tap the phone if you can hear me, honey. We'll pray for you."
"At first," laughs Johnson, "they thought I was deaf."
For a time, he tried debating the operators to keep them busy. "But it was always, 'God bless you,' or 'God loves you.' They were so sweet, I kind of felt sorry for them. They were programmed to be nice."
So it was back to the computer. "A computer is totally impersonal," he says. "It can't feel sorry for you. It's relentless. It shows no mercy."
Toward the end, operators were answering the dead lines: "Edward Johnson, is that you?" They stopped asking if the caller was deaf.
"My computer kept the pressure on," he says. "It had a great demoralizing effect."
On Nov. 15, Falwell officials reported trouble on the line. "They came to us with a simple technical problem," recalls Wayne Jackson, an AT&T spokesman. "They were getting hangups and lines jammed."
Technicians ruled out a glitch and put on a tracer. It was tough going. Johnson's Atari was programmed to dial and hang up fast, to avoid leaving fingerprints. But AT&T got its man.
On Dec. 17 "we figured out it was coming from 404 area code," says Jackson, and officials in Atlanta were alerted. Three days later, Southern Bell security took over and Johnson was identified as the high priest of the first church of Atari protest.
"It's amazing," says Richard Miles, a company spokesman. "As big as Atlanta is, within 30 minutes, we had tracked him down." The phone company gave him a choice: stop harassing Falwell or lose his telephone. He pulled his own plug.
Will Falwell take the Demon Dialer to court? "Our attorneys are considering the options," says Duane Ward, his PR director.
Before his computer sniping, Johnson protested such local issues as a road for Jimmy Carter's presidential library that cut through his neighborhood -- until demonstrators stopped it. From his window, he gazes at idled earthmovers for inspiration, their cabs spray painted, "Long Live the Trees!"
Suddenly Johnson, who once lived a life of quiet resignation, is, however briefly, a media star. A cashier at the 7-Eleven recognized him from a photo in the paper. He gets praised or harangued on the street by people who saw him on TV. He attributes his inspiration to "rage."
He says it's not over yet. "I'm encouraging all hackers to reach out and touch Jerry Falwell," he says. "If he's the Moral Majority, this is a good way of taking a vote." CAPTION: Picture 1, The Rev. Jerry Falwell; Picture 2, Edward Johnson with his $200 computer. AP