Power from the pulpit

Published May 16, 2007

LYNCHBURG, Va. - Whether you admire the Rev. Jerry Falwell or revile him, his role in American history will reverberate long past his death Tuesday (May 15, 2007) at the age of 73.

The Rev. Falwell, a Southern Baptist preacher who founded the Moral Majority, was among the first socially conservative ministers to recognize the potential political power of his fellow believers and to harness that power.

The bond bore prodigious fruit for the Republican Party during the past 25 years and had profound consequences for American public life.

The Rev. Falwell, whose influence extended far beyond his Thomas Road Baptist Church in Lynchburg, Va., was found unconscious Tuesday morning in his office at Liberty University and was taken to a nearby hospital, where he could not be revived. He had a history of heart trouble.

A large man whose preacherly voice and cocksure confidence could drive his detractors into paroxysms of rage, he had a penchant for provocative comments. Perhaps his most provocative came on Sept. 13, 2001, when he appeared on The 700 Club, the Rev. Pat Robertson's TV show, and blamed pagans, abortionists, feminists, gays, the ACLU and others for the Sept. 11 attacks.

With his outspoken pronouncements on matters moral, political and religious, the Rev. Falwell became not only one of the most polarizing figures in America but also one of the most powerful. He built one of the nation's first megachurches, founded a cable television network and a growing Bible-based university, and was considered the voice of the religious right in the early 1980s.

In 1983, U.S. News & World Report named him one of the 25 most influential people in America.

"Jerry Falwell was a pivotal figure in the political awakening and mobilization of American evangelicals, " said Luis Lugo, director of the Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life. "He was a major catalyst in pushing cultural issues to the forefront of American politics."

It was no easy feat. The Rev. Falwell emerged from a faith tradition that long had eschewed political activism.

"From the failure of Prohibition on, many people who belonged to the conservative evangelical tradition withdrew from trying to reshape society, " said David Holmes, a professor of religious studies at the College of William and Mary. "Some of them just kind of gave up."

But, deeply unsettled by the social and sexual upheaval of the late '60s and '70s, the Rev. Falwell began meeting with other conservative leaders, seeking ways to counter what he regarded as a decline in the country's moral values.

Already well-known nationally because of his early embrace of television to broadcast his sermons via the Old Time Gospel Hour, the Rev. Falwell founded the Moral Majority in 1979. The organization grew to more than 6-million members and, through direct mail, campaign-style rallies and fundraising, successfully encouraged evangelicals to become more politically active.

Disappointed in the Carter presidency, evangelicals embraced the candidacy of Ronald Reagan in 1980 and never looked back.

"It led to a major religious political realignment in the last 25, 30 years, " Lugo said. "Evangelicals became a mainstay of conservative politics and are now a core part of the GOP constituency."

The evangelical migration to the Republican Party is a major reason that Democrats have had difficulty competing in rural and Southern states.

Florida gave the Rev. Falwell an issue that helped incubate the Moral Majority in the late 1970s, when Dade County passed a human rights ordinance that banned discrimination based religion, race and - for the first time in a major U.S. city - sexual preference.

Singer Anita Bryant, who represented the Florida citrus industry in ad campaigns, launched a vigorous counterattack, citing Biblical admonitions against homosexuality.

The Rev. Falwell jetted down from Lynchburg to join in Bryant's rallies, at one point telling the crowd, "Gay folks (would) just as soon kill you as look at you."

Miami voters repealed the ordinance, then turned it down a second time.

"He saw this as an opportunity to switch the debate, " says Bob Kunst, a Miami gay rights activist and longtime Falwell opponent. "The Republicans were struggling with Watergate and Vietnam and he switched the debate to gays and sex."

The Rev. Falwell also helped evangelicals find alternatives to secular cultural institutions, even as he urged them to confront secular society.

That was manifested most in Liberty University, which the Rev. Falwell founded in Lynchburg in 1971. Florida provided the university with its main benefactor. Palm Beach insurance tycoon and one-time Tampa Bay Lightning owner Art Williams visited the campus in 1985 and began underwriting construction projects, including the football stadium that bears his name.

"Jerry's a great American. He's not scared to stand up and say what he believes, " Williams said when the gift became public. "It was a miracle that we could be of help."

For all his successes, in recent years the Rev. Falwell was eclipsed as a leader in the religious right movement.

He focused mainly on fundraising and preaching, never on grass roots organizing or developing policy ideas. As the Republican Party embraced religious conservatives as part of its base, other groups and leaders emerged to ensure that that base could win elections and govern effectively. The Moral Majority disbanded in 1989.

"He started our movement, and it is good that he is with God now, " said Orlando attorney John Stemberger, president of the Florida Family Policy Council.

Although the Christian conservative movement has no single leader of the Rev. Falwell's repute, Stemberger said, "There's a changing of the guard. There's a lot of bright, young leadership on the national level."

Information from Newsweek, the Palm Beach Post, the Washington Post and McClatchy Newspapers was used in this report.

Time line

Aug. 11, 1933: Born, along with a twin brother, Gene, to Carey and Helen Falwell in Lynchburg, Va.

1956: Starts Thomas Road Baptist Church; quickly moves into radio broadcasting, then into television with the Old Time Gospel Hour.

1971: Opens Lynchburg Baptist College, later Liberty University.

1979: Founds the Moral Majority, which changed the political conversation in the country, encouraged Christian conservatives to become politically active and was instrumental in the 1980 election of President Ronald Reagan.

1984: Sues Hustler magazine, charging he was libeled by an obscene parody. U.S. Supreme Court overturns $200, 000 damages verdict for emotional distress in 1988. "No sleaze merchant like Larry Flynt (pictured at right) should be able to use the First Amendment as an excuse for maliciously and dishonestly attacking public figures, " he said after the decision.

1987: Leaves Moral Majority. "I shudder to think where the country would be right now if the religious right had not evolved, " he says on stepping down. He takes over the Rev. Jim Bakker's scandal-rocked PTL ministry for several months.

1989: The Moral Majority disbands.

1990s: Grapples with dropoff in contributions and viewers stemming from 1980s televangelism scandals. After a 1999 article in Falwell's National Liberty Journal characterizes a Teletubbies character as gay, he says, "As a Christian I feel that role modeling the gay lifestyle is damaging to the moral lives of children."

2001: Suggests after the Sept. 11 attacks that feminists, gays and the ACLU are partly to blame. "All of them who have tried to secularize America, I point the finger in their face and say, 'You helped this happen.' " He later apologizes.


"Jerry has been a tower of strength on many of the moral issues which have confronted our nation."

Evangelist Pat Robertson

"My mother always told me that no matter how much you dislike a person, when you meet them face to face you will find characteristics about them that you like. Jerry Falwell was a perfect example of that."

Hustler magazine founder Larry Flynt

"Unfortunately, we will always remember him as a founder and leader of America's anti-gay industry ... someone who demonized and vilified us for political gain."

Matt Foreman, executive director of the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force

"Jerry lived a life of faith and called upon men and women of all backgrounds to believe in God and serve their communities."

President Bush