Jerry Falwell, founder of the Moral Majority, dies at 73

WASHINGTON—Whether you admire the Rev. Jerry Falwell or revile him, his role in American history will reverberate long past his death Tuesday at the age of 73.

Falwell's influence extended far beyond his Thomas Road Baptist Church in Lynchburg, Va., which he founded in 1956. He was among the first socially conservative ministers to recognize the potential political power of his fellow believers and to harness that power.

That led to an alliance with the Republican Party that had profound consequences for American public life over the past quarter-century.

Falwell was found unconscious Tuesday morning in his office at Liberty University and was taken to a nearby hospital, where he couldn't be revived. He had a history of heart troubles.

"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. 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."

As late as 1965, Falwell himself had preached that ministers should stay out of the civil rights movement.

"Preachers are not called to be politicians but to be soul winners," he said then. "Nowhere are we commissioned to reform the externals. The gospel does not clean up the outside but rather regenerates the inside."

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

By then, conservative Christians "were ready to heed the call of a leader who could articulate their concerns and inspire them to do something about the changes in America that they disliked," Holmes said, citing the national legalization of abortion, increased divorce rates and a seeming coarsening of popular culture.

In 1976, Falwell said "the idea that religion and politics don't mix was invented by the devil to keep Christians from running their own country."

Already well-known nationally because of his early embrace of television to broadcast his sermons via the "Old Time Gospel Hour," 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."

Their power within the party—and the divisions it brought—came into sharp relief in 2005 with the Terri Schiavo saga, when Congress and President Bush responded to pressure from Christian conservatives with extraordinary legislation designed to save the life of a woman who doctors said had been in a persistent vegetative state for 15 years. The intervention troubled many moderate Republicans.

"You could never imagine that happening in 1980," said John Green, a political scientist at the University of Akron who specializes in religion and politics. "That's now possible because of the political innovations Falwell introduced."

The evangelical migration to the Republican Party is a major reason that Democrats have had difficulty competing in rural and Southern states. That Democrats now are trying to speak the language of the faithful is evidence of the success that Falwell and others had in making politics as much about cultural issues as economic ones, Lugo said.

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 Falwell founded in Lynchburg in 1971. The school requires its students to attend chapel three times a week and boasts on its Web site that it provides "academic excellence in a Christ-centered environment."

Liberty opened with 154 students and four professors. Classes were held in a church building. Today, Liberty has 7,700 full-time students on a 4,400-acre campus. There are 36 undergraduate programs, and its law school opened in 2004. The school boasts 17 Division I NCAA athletic programs, and in 2005 its women's basketball team reached the Sweet 16, with Falwell beaming from the stands during the Lady Flames' tournament run.

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

He focused mainly on fundraising and preaching, never on grassroots organizing or developing policy ideas. So 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.

"It's a very different game," Lugo said. "His relative importance declined. He might say that's a sign of his success, that others are carrying the burden. ... They're beyond tokenism. They're at the table."

Falwell's penchant for controversy also lessened his influence over time.

For the secular left—and for many middle-of-the-road voters—he was a virtual caricature of all they found troubling about religious conservatives.

Falwell once criticized the children's show "The Teletubbies" because he thought one of the four colorful, nonhuman characters—Tinky Winky, the purple one with the red bag—might be gay. He routinely, cruelly vilified gay people.

"AIDS is the wrath of God upon homosexuals," he said on one occasion. "AIDS is not just God's punishment for homosexuals; it is God's punishment for the society that tolerates homosexuals," he also said.

He helped market "The Clinton Chronicles," a video accusing President Clinton of drug-running and murder. After the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, Falwell said, "I really believe that the pagans and the abortionists and the feminists and the gays and the lesbians ... all of them who have tried to secularize America, I point the finger in their face and say, `You helped this happen.'"

"He was a real innovator," Green said. "But he wasn't as polished or diplomatic as others. There's something charming about that, but it sets some real limits."

Still, Falwell's influence endured.

Arizona Republican Sen. John McCain denounced Falwell and other conservative religious leaders as "agents of intolerance" after McCain's failed 2000 presidential campaign.

Last year, as he eyed another presidential run, McCain began to make peace with the conservative Christian wing of the party.

Among his efforts: a private meeting with Falwell. And a commencement address at Liberty University.

Tuesday, McCain issued a statement mourning Falwell as "a man of distinguished accomplishment who devoted his life to serving his faith and country."

The commencement speaker at Liberty this year, on Saturday, is former House Speaker Newt Gingrich, who's considering a bid for the presidency.

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