Laura Tierney wore a Jesus First pin on her collar and agony on her face. While Ronald Reagan moved through a cheering congregation, Tierney was trying to move a 220-pound Baptist preacher off her foot.
"I love him, too," said the Knoxville, Tenn., woman to the foot-stomper on her right. "but I'm not willing to die for a better look at him."
Tierney was among an adoring crowd of religious broadcasters, Republican party regulars and Liberty Baptist College students who climbed the Rev. Jerry Falwell's Liberty Mountain here yesterday to hear the GOP presidential nominee preach politics in the spiritual headquarters of the television evangelist's multimillion-dollar enterprises.
For Reagan, it was a potentially risky appearance at a religious broadcasters' convention that has provoked national controversy. For Falwell, a local boy who started his first church in 1956 in a former Donald Duck Bottling Co. plant, the event represented the latest controversial effort of fundamentalist Christians to mix their religion with political activism.
The success enjoyed by Falwell and his Moral Majority political group in persuading Reagan to make a pilgrimage to this city in southwest Virginia, however, was not applauded yesterday by everyone in town.
Down in the valley, at the local Democratic headquarters in a converted fast food restaurant, volunteer Fran Jackson sat over a box of Carter for President buttons and bemoaned Falwell's apparent political coup. "The Rev. Falwell already has much more influence than any one person should have over this town," said Jackson.
Falwell's national prominence as a lender of the politically active Christian Right may be unquestioned, but here in Lynchburg his political influence is debatable. Democrats, who control a 4-to-3 majority on the city council, contend that the political power of his 17,000-member Thomas Road Baptist Church in this city of 65,000 is less than the size of his congregation would indicate.
"I don't feel intimidated by him," said Teedy Thornhill, the Democratic vice mayor of Lynchburg. Thornhill, who is black, said that Falwell's movement is regarded by Lynchburg blacks as "anti-democratic, anti-poor and until recently and anti-black."
But Thornhill does concede that the expansion of Falwell's congregation and activities in Lynchburg has scared many of the city's traditional power brokers. The growth of Falwell's following has come, say some residents, at the expense of others.
"There are ministers here, especially Baptist ministers, who are losing substantial numbers in their congregations to Falwell," says one Lynchburg Protestant minister, who asks to be unnamed. "For some of them, Falwell's success could be their damnation."
The Democrats are opposed to Falwell because they claim his political activism seems to aid exclusively Republican candidates. "Republicans I'm used to fighting. I can handle them," said a Democratic party official here. "But it's hard to attack Falwell's politics without getting mixed up in religion."
Falwell denies he or his Moral Majority movement are interested in political parties. The only interest they have, says Falwell, is in backing Bible-based policies, which he defines to include opposition to the Equal Rights Amendment, the SALT II accords, the Panama Canal Treaty.
"Moral Majority is not a political party," said Falwell Wednesday at the opening of a three-day conference for religious broadcasters, the event that drew Reagan and Virginia Gov. John N. Dalton and a host of Virginia Republicans to Lynchburg today. "We have no desire to control the country," Falwell said. "We wouldn't know what to do with it if we controlled it."
Republicans in Virginia publicly praise Falwell for the support he has promised indirectly to Reagan by announcing he will vote for Reagan. But privately some Republicans express fears that Falwell's followers, a group they call "Falwellians," are interested in taking party control from old-line regulars.
Before a press conference for Reagan today, a spokesman for Falwell again stressed in an interview that the movement was sensitive to local fears of political domination. "Dr. Falwell understands their apprehension. We just need time to prive ourselves," said the spokesman.
But this week events up on Liberty Mountain have done little to quieten their fears.
The largest flap occurred Wednesday when Falwell echoed a remark by a Southern Baptist Convention official, the Rev. Bailey Smith, who angered Jewish groups when he said "God does not hear the prayers of a Jew" before a Dallas meeting of Christian Right fundamentalists in August.
Smith is the president of the Southern Baptist Convention, the largest Protestant denomination in this country. Falwell, when questioned about the remark, said he supported it with modifications.
"I believe God . . . does not hear the prayers of unredeemed Gentiles or Jews," said Falwell, who defined a redeemed person as one who "trusts in God through his faith in Jesus Christ."
Within two hours, Falwell was condemned for his statement by Virginia's Anti-Defamation League.
Within the last two weeks, Falwell and his movement have also been criticized by both Patricia Harris, the secretary of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, and White House religion liasion Robert Maddox. Both likened the fundamentalist political-religious movement to the fanatical religious movements in Iran.
Likening his critics to "termites," Falwell said attacks on himself and his organizations were to be expected. "If you preach the Gospel, you are going to invite every kind of . . . attack there is," he said.
Controversy is nothing new to the minister, whose television program, The Old Time Gospel Hour, appears on 325 television stations and brings about $1 million a week to the church here. Falwell himself likes to note that his father was once a bootlegger and he once tangled with the Securities and Exchange Commission over bonds issued by his church.
Falwell says his new message will be undiluted by criticisms of his religious empire. One of his commandments to his fellow ministers remains to "get them saved, baptised and registered."