The reason for their pilgrimage here is somewhat obscure, but senatorial candidates Andrew P. Miller and John W. Warner encouraged a budding tradition in Virginia politics when they attended services yesterday at the Rev. Jerry Falwell's Thomas Road Baptist Church.
Falwell, who marshals a congregation of 16,000, will not endorse a candidate before the Nov. 7 election, and neither candidate was allowed to address the 3,500 worshippers crowded into the church at the 11 a.m. service.
The service, including the introductions of Democrat Miller, Republican Warner, and their wives, will be broadcast on more than 300 television stations around the country - but not until a week after the election.
"I guess it's become part of the process" said one local Democratic leader, "coming here to visit the guru . . ."
The only hint of competition between the two candidates came at the end of the service, before the final prayer. Falwell said from the pulpit that he had been told Miller had to leave for another engagement. He asked Warner if he, too, would like to leave."No, we'll stay for prayers," said Warner, who was seated next to his wife, Elizabeth Taylor.
Falwell then asked Miller if he wanted to leave. "No, we'll stay," Miller replied.
Although some local Democrats attach signifacance to the fact that Fawlell's cousin, Calvin, is a Miller supporter and was seated in the congregation between Miller and Lt. Gov. Charles S. Robb, this may not be the subtle "nod" his supporters think it is.
"I think either man would be a fine choice," Falwell said in an interview after church, "they aren't that far apart on the issues. Of course I have my own preference, but I'm not going to say what it is. I've found that if you endorse a candidate you get all the other man's supporters mad at you.
"Also, if the man you endorse gets elected and then does a bad job, people blame you."
Last fall, Falwell gave a subtle endorsement to Gov. John N. Dalton in his race against Democrat Henry E. Howell when Falwell appeared at a campaign event in Amherst where Elizabeth Taylor Warner was the featured attraction. "I didn't allow them to take any photographs or advertise it," Falwell said. "But my supporters knew . . . a race against a Howell is a different situation."
So both candidates simply sat through the 70-minute service, being seen and being baked under the built-in television lights. They all sang "Amazing Grace," and listened to the featured singers, who hold microphones, nightclub style, to deliver their renditions of religious songs.
Falwell preached on "Spiritual Fatigue."
Falwell is a fundamentalist, independent Baptist who started out in Lynchburg 21 years ago. His first services were held in an old Donald Duck Bottling Company building.
Now, 44, Falwell claims that one quarter of Lynchburg's population belongs to his church. Just how many of them vote is unknown, but in recent years Falwell has become a figure on the political scene - at least partly because of the size of his "Christian empire" as one of his press releases called it.
It takes $1 million a week to run all his various enterprises, he said, from the bus ministry that carries people to church to the 3,000-student Liberty Baptist College, for which he recently raised over $7 million in 10 days. According to the press release, the church employs 600 people, and pumps over $100 million a year into Lynchburg's economy.
While declining to endorse candidates, Falwell will speak out on what he considers to be "moral" issues. Last year he testified before the state General Assembly against the Equal Rights Amendment and he is mounting his own $50,000 campaign against the Nov. 7 referendum that could legalize parimutuel betting at raceways tracks.
He is against abortion, poronography and homosexuality, and created a stir in the 1976 presidential campaign in Virginia when he attacked Jimmy Carter for being interviewed by Playboy magazine.