The Rev. Falwell's Conservative Legacy

The Rev. Jerry Falwell, who rose from a small town to the national stage, left a major impact on conservative politics. Republican candidates are paying homage to the Baptist preacher who became a potent political force.

RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

The Republican candidates have been honoring the Reverend Jerry Falwell. He's, of course, the Baptist preacher who organized conservatives into a potent political force. Jerry Falwell died yesterday in Lynchburg, Virginia.

Joining us to talk about him and his impact is NPR's religion correspondent Barbara Bradley Hagerty. Good Morning.

BARBARA BRADLEY HAGERTY: Good morning.

MONTAGNE: Here's what we heard from a few of the Republican presidential hopefuls on Jerry Falwell. Senator John McCain called him a man of distinguished accomplishment. Rudy Giuliani said he wasn't afraid to speak his mind. Former Arkansas Governor Mike Huckabee called him a great influence for America and for Christ. How would you describe his impact on American political life, generally?

HAGERTY: Renee, it was enormous. In the 1970's, Falwell hatched the idea that there was this huge, unorganized group of people who could be mobilized, people who were, you know, really worried about what they saw as the deterioration of American society. So, in 1979, he created the Moral Majority, and that's an organization to bring conservative values back into politics.

And I have to tell you, Renee, Falwell's group was really radical in two ways. One, it was radical on a personal level. Jerry Falwell came from a fundamentalist Christian tradition that claimed it was illegitimate, and even actually sinful, for a Christian to get his hands dirty in politics. And second, Falwell welcomed everyone into this Moral Majority - evangelicals, mainline Protestants, Catholics, Jews, even, I understand, a few atheists -anyone who held the same values. And those values boiled down to opposition to abortion, to gay rights, permissiveness in society, family breakdown, things like that. So it was a very, very large umbrella.

MONTAGNE: And the Moral Majority had a huge impact on the 1980 race between Jimmy Carter and Ronald Reagan.

HAGERTY: Yeah, he did. And that was a huge wake up call, too. Millions of people came out and campaigned for conservative candidates. And the Moral Majority was really credited with playing a huge role in Ronald Reagan's victory and for putting dozens of Republican congressional candidates over the top. So suddenly, this religious right was a juggernaut and politicians took notice.

Now, Falwell dismantled the Moral Majority in 1989. He said he had accomplished what he wanted to and he was tired of being a lighting rod. But it served as a model for subsequent groups like the Christian Coalition with Pat Robertson and later Ralph Reed, and other groups today like the Family Research Council. So Falwell really started it all.

MONTAGNE: You know, Jerry Falwell may have gotten tired of being a lighting rod, but the fact was he said some pretty controversial things and often enough on television.

HAGERTY: Yes. He called Muhammad a terrorist, for example. He once announced that the Antichrist is a Jewish man who's possibly alive today. And, of course, the one that got him into so much trouble was a few days after the 9/11 terrorist attacks.

Reverend JERRY FALWELL (Thomas Road Baptist Church): I really believe that the pagans and the abortionists and the feminists and the gays and the lesbians were 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.

HAGERTY: Now, Renee, he later apologized for that comment.

MONTAGNE: Jerry Falwell was a high-profile figure right up until he died. But how influential was he in these past few years?

HAGERTY: Well, I would say that his influence really peaked in the 1980s with the Moral Majority. And then, in the 1990s, his often-controversial comments made him something of an embarrassment and I think his influence began to wane. We're really seeing that now. More and more of the rank and file evangelicals I talked to tell me they are frustrated with politics and embarrassed by this kind of aggressive and often critical rhetoric of leaders like Falwell and Pat Robertson. And they're shifting away from that and these religious political groups have lost some of their powers. So really, Renee, in a way, Jerry Falwell's death signals a very literal changing of the guard.

MONTAGNE: Barbara, thanks very much.

HAGERTY: You're welcome.

MONTAGNE: NPR's Barbara Bradley Hagerty. And you can read about the Reverend Jerry Falwell's rise from a hometown preacher to a powerful national figure at npr.org.

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