Evangelist Jerry Falwell, a prominent and controversial leader of the U.S. Christian right, died Tuesday. He founded the Moral Majority in 1979, which brought millions of born-again Christians into the center of political activism.
Jeff Fusco/Getty Images
Jeff Fusco/Getty Images
The Television Minister
Watch video clips of Falwell preaching on his TV program.
The Rev. Jerry Falwell on the 'Old Time Gospel Hour' in 1967.
Courtesy Liberty University
The Rev. Jerry Falwell, a pioneer among televangelists who later became a leading voice in the national debate over Christian values, has died at the age of 73.
Falwell was discovered without a pulse Tuesday in his office at Liberty University in Lynchburg, Va. He was pronounced dead at a hospital an hour later. Dr. Carl Moore, Falwell's physician, said he had a heart condition and presumably died of a heart rhythm abnormality, according to Associated Press reports.
A fundamentalist preacher, Falwell burst onto the national scene in 1979, when he launched an organization he presumptuously called the Moral Majority. Critics liked to say that it was neither. What is undisputed is that the Moral Majority became the vehicle that carried millions of born-again Christians out of their separatist tendencies and into the center of political activism.
They did it by bringing politics to the pulpit, getting churches to hand out voter guides, and creating get-out-the-vote drives that would become the envy of many a politician. The religious right was born — and Falwell became its chief spokesman. The goal was to overturn the Supreme Court's ban on school prayer and reverse the nation's direction on feminism, abortion and gay rights.
"I believe that homosexuality is moral perversion," Falwell told NPR in 1996. "I think it is a violation of the laws of nature, as well as the laws of God. I do not think that that gives me permission to be unkind or ungracious to a person who may be living a homosexual lifestyle."
In some ways, Falwell was an unlikely religious leader. He was born Aug. 11, 1933, and grew up in Lynchburg, the son of a one-time bootlegger who hated preachers. His grandfather was a staunch atheist.
But Falwell heard the call while listening to a radio preacher. He built a church from scratch — Thomas Road Baptist — in Lynchburg. It grew to a mega-church of well over 20,000 members. He started a Christian school, then a college and most recently a law school, raising much of the money from his television ministry. Critics said he spent more time asking for contributions than ministering to viewers.
Falwell followers saw him as a capable defender of decency and of godly values, but he often had detractors gnashing their teeth. He once told a gathering of ministers that the anti-Christ is a Jewish male who is alive in the world today.
Two days after the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, during an appearance on Pat Robertson's television show, Falwell claimed that the attack was God's judgment on America's immorality.
"I really believe that the pagans and the abortionists and the feminists and the gays and the lesbians, who are actively trying to make that an alternative lifestyle, the ACLU, People for the American Way — all of them who try to secularize America — I point the finger in their face and say, 'You helped this happen.'"
Later, Falwell apologized, saying his remarks were insensitive and that he never meant to blame anyone except the terrorists.
Barry Lynn, leader of Americans United for Separation of Church and State, has been one of Falwell's harshest critics over the years. Lynn says Falwell was wrong about everything, but he does give Falwell credit for standing up for his beliefs.
"He was the key point-man in the creation of the modern-day religious right. And for a lot of Americans, he will be forever the face of the religious right," Lynn said.
In the late 1980s, the Moral Majority disbanded and Falwell went back to saving souls. Other groups took over the political legwork. In terms of legislation and constitutional amendments, the Moral Majority failed. But it did force politicians to address questions many would rather have avoided.
And Falwell's legacy of spurring religious conservatives into political action has hardly abated. One example: Christian protesters and their allies in Congress forcing the nation's attention on Terri Schiavo.
Falwell added his voice to that debate, referring to the Schiavo case as part of America's "death syndrome." It started, he said, with the "legalization of abortion — now euthanasia."
Believing church and state to be inseparable, the Rev. Jerry Falwell has had an undeniable influence in modern politics, and much of his life has seen him embroiled in controversy.
Aug. 11, 1933: Jerry Lamon Falwell is born in Lynchburg, Va.
June 1956: Shortly after graduating from Baptist Bible College in Springfield, Mo., Falwell becomes pastor of the new Thomas Road Baptist Church of Lynchburg, Va.
April 12, 1958: Falwell marries Macel Pate.
1967: Falwell creates the Lynchburg Christian Academy, a fully accredited Christian day school offering K-12 education.
1971: Falwell founds Liberty University.
1972: The SEC files charges of "fraud and deceit" against Falwell's church for the issuance of $6.5 million in uninsured bonds. The organization wins its case in 1973, but Liberty University files for bankruptcy and reorganizes, losing millions in church investors money.
June 1979: Falwell organizes the Moral Majority, a political lobbyist group tasked with bringing Christianity to the forefront of the Republican Party platform. The group considers itself the force that elected Ronald Reagan to the presidency.
1981: Penthouse publishes a Falwell interview given to freelance reporters and Falwell files a $10 million lawsuit against the magazine, stating that the interview was sold without his consent. The case is dismissed.
1983: Falwell sues Hustler for featuring a parody of him in an advertisement. Although the jury denied compensation for his claims of libel and invasion of privacy, they awarded him damages for "emotional distress." Hustler founder Larry Flynt appealed the decision, and in 1988 the Supreme Court ruled unanimously in favor of the magazine.
1987: Televangelist Jim Bakker passes control of his PTL Ministry to Falwell after a series of financial and adultery scandals, most notably Bakkers conviction for fraud that sends him to prison for five years. Within months, PTL files for bankruptcy. Falwell and the PTL board of directors resign.
1989: Having helped the Republican Party win three presidential elections, Falwell officially disbands the Moral Majority, saying, Our mission is accomplished.
1995: Falwell begins publishing the National Liberty Journal.
Sept. 2001: Falwell comes under fire after he blames gays, abortionists, the ACLU, and other groups for the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks. He publicly apologizes for his remarks.
2003: Alabama Supreme Court Chief Justice Roy Moore loses his seat on the bench for refusing to remove a monument to the Ten Commandments from the courthouse grounds. Falwell defends Moore's actions, comparing him to Martin Luther King Jr.
2004: Falwell founds the Moral Majority Coalition, a "21st century resurrection of the Moral Majority" and pledges to lead the organization for a minimum of four years.
2006: Relations between Falwell and Sen. John McCain (R-AZ) warm after McCain speaks at Liberty University. During a campaign speech for the 2000 presidential election urging the country to return to social moderation, McCain referred to Falwell (and others) as "agents of intolerance."