The Falwell Faithful Consider His Political Legacy

The Rev. Jerry Falwell is remembered fondly on the campus of Liberty University, which he founded — but there is also some doubt that anyone could gain the fame and influence Falwell did. The political legacy of Falwell, who helped define political activism among evangelicals, is still being written.

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Funeral services will be held Tuesday for Reverend Jerry Falwell. He died yesterday at the age of 73. The service will be held in Lynchburg, Virginia, where Falwell based his religious empire and founded one of the nation's largest Evangelical colleges, Liberty University.

NPR's Adam Hochberg is in Lynchburg where Liberty students and faculty pledged today that Falwell's work will continue.

ADAM HOCHBERG: On the day after Jerry Falwell died in his Liberty University office, administrators memorialized him the way they felt he would want them to - by continuing business almost as usual. Students still are going to class and taking their finals, while seniors continue their preparations for Saturday's graduation.

For the past two days, remembrances at Liberty have been small and understated, like the prayer student Jeff Frasha(ph) led for a few classmates near a highway on the edge of campus.

Mr. JEFF FRASHA (Student, Liberty University): Thank you, Lord God, for the life of Dr. Jerry Falwell and thank you for this man of faith who led us all these years. He's really an awesome guy.

HOCHBERG: This prayer gathering organized through hastily distributed MySpace messages took place at what Liberty students call the spirit rock - a large boulder where they paint graffiti. Today, instead of the usual birthday wishes to friends or cheers for the college sports teams, the rock read, in loving memory of Dr. Jerry Falwell.

Brittany Martin(ph) was among the students who mourned his death.

Ms. BRITTANY MARTIN (Student, Liberty University): I just considered him my grandfather. We really loved Dr. Falwell. I think he did so much. He had such a good dream for this university and I'm really proud to be a part of it.

HOCHBERG: Martin and other people on campus are quick to pledge that Falwell's dream will continue. The preacher's sons likely will take over the university and Falwell's church, while Liberty senior Danielle Dill(ph) is confident the late preacher's legacy will live on through students and alumni.

Ms. DANIELLE DILL (Student, Liberty University): Well, we were taught to be champions of Christ. And Liberty has produced so many missionaries and so many pastors and someone will step up. Or you might have to use a hundred people to fill Dr. Falwell's position, but God will still get his message out.

HOCHBERG: Most of today's Liberty students are too young to remember Falwell at the height of his fame and political power. In the 1980s, when his Moral Majority claimed six million members, when U.S. news and world report named him one of the 25 most influential Americans and when he delivered the benediction after Ronald Reagan was nominated at the 1984 Republican convention.

Reverend JERRY FALWELL (Founder, Liberty University; Founder, The Thomas Road Baptist Church): It is a great honor to ask our Lord's blessing upon a man that many of us believe indeed to be our greatest president since Lincoln.

HOCHBERG: In the '80s, Falwell helped define the role evangelical activists could play in the national political process. Combining his fundamentalist faith, his conservative views and his flair for television, Falwell helped mold Evangelicals into a vital voting block and helped push the Republican Party to the right.

Jim Guth teaches religion and politics at Furman University.

Professor JIM GUTH (Religion and Political Science, Furman University): Evangelicals, traditionally - all the way through the late 1970s - had been much less active in political matters and in part, as a result of his efforts, that's changed. It has changed in almost every Evangelical Protestant denomination or group that you can think of.

HOCHBERG: But Guth says while Falwell served as a model for a generation of national religious leaders, it's unlikely any single person will again have the fame and influence Falwell did.

Prof. GUTH: Falwell received a lot of attention because he was the first. But I think in religious communities, generally, you have much more diversity internally within movements. You won't see anybody who - even by the outside media has referred to as the central figure in any major religious community.

HOCHBERG: Even Falwell's own influence waned in the last decade and a half. Televangelists as a whole began to lose credibility after a series of scandals. And some of Falwell's more controversial statements left him shunned even by some allies.

Still, Professor Guth says Falwell's political legacy lives on. He notes that one candidate at last night's Republican presidential debate compared the event to a Baptist Tent Revival meeting - a reference to how strongly the GOP hopefuls tried to embrace the kinds of issues that Falwell held dear.

Adam Hochberg, NPR News, Lynchburg, Virginia.

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