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Jerry Falwell: 1933 - 2007

Preacher built religious right into a political force

The fiery and divisive Moral Majority founder helped elect Reagan.

May 16, 2007|Stephanie Simon | Times Staff Writer

The Rev. Jerry Falwell, the fundamentalist preacher who transformed American politics by rallying the religious right into an electoral force, died Tuesday of apparent heart failure shortly after collapsing in his office at Liberty University in Lynchburg, Va. He was 73.

Falwell had suffered several cardiac and respiratory problems in recent years. He was found unconscious in his office Tuesday morning and was pronounced dead about an hour later at Lynchburg General Hospital.

A genial man in person, with a heart for the quiet, humbling work of a small-town pastor, Falwell made his public name with blistering attacks against what he saw as the moral decay gnawing at American society: legalized abortion, homosexuality, pornography, godless liberalism.

He poured that outrage into creating a new model for Christian engagement with the world. The result was the Moral Majority, which Falwell founded in 1979 after consultations with theologians and political strategists.

The group was credited with helping to elect Ronald Reagan president and a slate of Republicans to Congress in 1980. In the next two years, Falwell claimed to build a mailing list of about 7 million religious conservatives determined to express their faith at the ballot box.

Today, in an era when the religious right is an acknowledged force in American politics, the Moral Majority seems unremarkable.

In 1979, it was a startling vision.

First, Falwell asked fundamentalists and evangelicals to engage directly with the political world. For decades, they had been taught that politics was a dirty, unseemly business and they were better off standing apart from it all.

Even more audacious, Falwell called for cooperation across theological lines. He wanted Baptists to work with Catholics and Mormons and Jews. That was a heretical proposition among fundamentalists; indeed, one leading preacher suggested that Falwell's thinking had been corrupted by Satan.

"It was no small accomplishment for a fundamentalist preacher to come along and say, 'We're going to work with people whom we've always thought were wrong about everything,' " said Michael Cromartie, who directs the Evangelical Studies Project at the Ethics and Public Policy Center, a conservative think tank in Washington.

Even Falwell's commitment to the Republican Party was suspect in some circles. To the extent that they had been involved in politics in the past, many evangelicals and fundamentalists had tended to vote Democratic, because the party in those days appealed to their demographic -- blue-collar, rural Southerners.

Yet Falwell persevered. He held "I Love America" rallies. He urged fellow pastors to register voters. Slowly, his message caught on.

"The term Moral Majority was itself quite a breakthrough," said John C. Green, a senior fellow at the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life. "What he was trying to argue ... was that there was widespread agreement among Christians about certain moral issues, whatever their theological differences ... and that was quite dramatic."

Green traces today's active evangelical voting bloc -- a crucial base for the Republican Party -- directly to the Moral Majority.

"Certainly the level of involvement and [voter] turnout would not have occurred without Jerry Falwell," he said.

At the time of his death, Falwell was working to revive the Moral Majority, which he disbanded in 1989 amid lackluster fundraising.

To the last, he blended his life's work of saving souls with political activism. Falwell recently preached a sermon on global warming, in which he dismissed the issue as "hocus-pocus," a Satanic plot to distract Christians from the more important work of spreading the Gospel.

In his second-to-last sermon, on May 6, Falwell managed to work a joke linking Hillary Rodham Clinton to Osama bin Laden into an uplifting message about relying on faith in times of trouble.


Resisted the pull of faith

Jerry Lamon Falwell was born Aug. 11, 1933, in Lynchburg, the son of a devoutly religious mother and a dismissively atheist father.

His father, Carey Falwell, sold bootleg liquor during Prohibition, ran a dance hall and operated a string of grocery stores and gas stations. An alcoholic, Carey Falwell died young -- but not before accepting Jesus Christ. The deathbed conversion made a deep impression on Jerry, then 15. For a time, he resisted the pull of faith. He had better ways to spend his time than in prayer.

Jerry and his twin brother, Gene, tore up Lynchburg with practical jokes. Falwell once boasted of getting an entire year's worth of free meals at school by forging his lunch tickets. Still he managed to graduate at the top of his high school class. A star athlete who briefly dreamed of a pro baseball career, Falwell was the first in his family to go to college; he planned to become a mechanical engineer.

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