Fundamentalist leader Jerry Falwell announced Tuesday that he is resigning as president of Moral Majority and Liberty Federation, thus continuing a pullback from politics he had begun before getting sidetracked this year by the PTL scandal.
“There is no need now for Jerry Falwell to walk point and be the lightning rod,” he said, referring to the controversial organization that led the 1979-1980 rise of the politically oriented Religious Right. “Sometimes you get tired of being the lightning rod.”
Falwell named businessman Jerry Nims, the chief executive officer for Falwell’s ministries, as his successor at the two lobbying organizations.
“I am now rededicating my life to the preaching of the gospel,” Falwell told a news conference in Washington, D.C.. He added, however, that he would not stop “crying out” against what he sees as moral evils. And, he said, he will continue his support of Vice President George Bush’s quest for the Republican presidential nomination.
Although his large church, television network and Liberty University--all in Lynchburg, Va.--appear to be doing well financially, Falwell has indicated that day-to-day political activities lessen opportunities to expand his ministries.
Falwell, 54, has said repeatedly that by early next century he wants his 7,500-student Liberty University to be a 50,000-student fundamentalist equivalent to the Catholic-run Notre Dame University and the Mormon-run Brigham Young University. “Jerry wants to leave this as his legacy,” said University of Virginia sociologist Jeffrey Hadden, who has chronicled the fortunes of television evangelists.
Falwell launched the Moral Majority in 1979 amid a nationwide resurgence of the conservative Christian involvement in political issues. The Moral Majority took major credit--disputed by others--for electing Ronald Reagan to the presidency in 1980 through voter registration drives and campaigns decrying abortion, pornography and the absence of prayer in public schools.
But Falwell and the Moral Majority also became synonymous in critics’ minds with anything odious deriving from fundamentalist preachers or the Religious Right.
The Baptist minister announced in January, 1986, that he was folding Moral Majority into a broader lobbying organization, Liberty Federation--a move widely interpreted as designed to lower the organization’s visibility. Then, late last year, Falwell said he was going to reduce his travel in support of political candidates and issues.
Falwell spent seven months this year trying to reorganize the PTL evangelistic network and resort park after its charismatic founder-president Jim Bakker resigned over a sex-and-payoff scandal. But Bakker later claimed he never intended to turn PTL over to Falwell permanently and Bakker supporters, already unhappy with Falwell’s fundamentalism, opposed Falwell’s financial proposals to pay off PTL debts. On Oct. 8, Falwell resigned as PTL board chairman when a federal bankruptcy judge permitted competing financial plans to be submitted from Bakker backers.
Falwell’s reputation among fellow independent Baptists suffered somewhat but the “good guy” effort at PTL may have softened the public view of Falwell, analysts have said.
He has told his 20,000-member Thomas Road Baptist Church that his ministry has received more attention because of the public attention to the PTL events. His ministries reached highest-ever revenues of $91 million in the year ending last June 30.
His new autobiography, for which he began a publicity tour Tuesday, also hints at another role for Falwell. He tells in “Strength for the Journey” of a clergyman who told him early in 1986 that besides being a pastor and teacher, “God needs you to also be a Christian statesman.”
Sociologist Hadden said he believes that one of Falwell’s goals in taking on PTL was to be seen as a “religious statesman"--a status now enjoyed in much of Protestantism by evangelist Billy Graham.
Hadden also said that Falwell should be taken at his word about wanting to devote more time to ministry. “He’s trying to get back to some normal pattern in his life. He had been persuaded by his colleagues and his own experience that he was spread too thin.”
Spokesmen for People For the American Way, the principal lobbying opponent of the Moral Majority, were skeptical Tuesday about the significance of Falwell’s step back. The Rev. John Buchanan, board chairman, declared that “politics is in Jerry Falwell’s blood” and that Falwell was active in lobbying for Supreme Court nominee Judge Robert H. Bork before the U.S. Senate rejected the Administration’s first choice.