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Preacher built religious right into a political force

Times Staff Writer

The Rev. Jerry Falwell, the fundamentalist preacher who transformed American politics by rallying the religious right into an electoral force, died Tuesday of apparent heart failure shortly after collapsing in his office at Liberty University in Lynchburg, Va. He was 73.

Falwell had suffered several cardiac and respiratory problems in recent years. He was found unconscious in his office Tuesday morning and was pronounced dead about an hour later at Lynchburg General Hospital.

A genial man in person, with a heart for the quiet, humbling work of a small-town pastor, Falwell made his public name with blistering attacks against what he saw as the moral decay gnawing at American society: legalized abortion, homosexuality, pornography, godless liberalism.

He poured that outrage into creating a new model for Christian engagement with the world. The result was the Moral Majority, which Falwell founded in 1979 after consultations with theologians and political strategists.

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The group was credited with helping to elect Ronald Reagan president and a slate of Republicans to Congress in 1980. In the next two years, Falwell claimed to build a mailing list of about 7 million religious conservatives determined to express their faith at the ballot box.

Today, in an era when the religious right is an acknowledged force in American politics, the Moral Majority seems unremarkable.

In 1979, it was a startling vision.

First, Falwell asked fundamentalists and evangelicals to engage directly with the political world. For decades, they had been taught that politics was a dirty, unseemly business and they were better off standing apart from it all.

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Even more audacious, Falwell called for cooperation across theological lines. He wanted Baptists to work with Catholics and Mormons and Jews. That was a heretical proposition among fundamentalists; indeed, one leading preacher suggested that Falwell’s thinking had been corrupted by Satan.

“It was no small accomplishment for a fundamentalist preacher to come along and say, ‘We’re going to work with people whom we’ve always thought were wrong about everything,’ ” said Michael Cromartie, who directs the Evangelical Studies Project at the Ethics and Public Policy Center, a conservative think tank in Washington.

Even Falwell’s commitment to the Republican Party was suspect in some circles. To the extent that they had been involved in politics in the past, many evangelicals and fundamentalists had tended to vote Democratic, because the party in those days appealed to their demographic -- blue-collar, rural Southerners.

Yet Falwell persevered. He held “I Love America” rallies. He urged fellow pastors to register voters. Slowly, his message caught on.

“The term Moral Majority was itself quite a breakthrough,” said John C. Green, a senior fellow at the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life. “What he was trying to argue ... was that there was widespread agreement among Christians about certain moral issues, whatever their theological differences ... and that was quite dramatic.”

Green traces today’s active evangelical voting bloc -- a crucial base for the Republican Party -- directly to the Moral Majority.

“Certainly the level of involvement and [voter] turnout would not have occurred without Jerry Falwell,” he said.

At the time of his death, Falwell was working to revive the Moral Majority, which he disbanded in 1989 amid lackluster fundraising.

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To the last, he blended his life’s work of saving souls with political activism. Falwell recently preached a sermon on global warming, in which he dismissed the issue as “hocus-pocus,” a Satanic plot to distract Christians from the more important work of spreading the Gospel.

In his second-to-last sermon, on May 6, Falwell managed to work a joke linking Hillary Rodham Clinton to Osama bin Laden into an uplifting message about relying on faith in times of trouble.

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Resisted the pull of faith

Jerry Lamon Falwell was born Aug. 11, 1933, in Lynchburg, the son of a devoutly religious mother and a dismissively atheist father.

His father, Carey Falwell, sold bootleg liquor during Prohibition, ran a dance hall and operated a string of grocery stores and gas stations. An alcoholic, Carey Falwell died young -- but not before accepting Jesus Christ. The deathbed conversion made a deep impression on Jerry, then 15. For a time, he resisted the pull of faith. He had better ways to spend his time than in prayer.

Jerry and his twin brother, Gene, tore up Lynchburg with practical jokes. Falwell once boasted of getting an entire year’s worth of free meals at school by forging his lunch tickets. Still he managed to graduate at the top of his high school class. A star athlete who briefly dreamed of a pro baseball career, Falwell was the first in his family to go to college; he planned to become a mechanical engineer.

His life was forever changed, however, because of his Sunday morning sloth. As Falwell told the story, his mother, Helen, turned on fundamentalist preacher Charles E. Fuller’s “Old Fashioned Revival Hour” every Sunday when she went to church -- knowing that her boys would be too lazy to get out of bed and shut off the radio. Week after week, Falwell listened to the gospel. And one night, he walked into Park Avenue Baptist Church and accepted Jesus Christ as his savior.

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The next day, he bought his first Bible. Two months later, he had his heart set on the ministry.

Falwell finished his degree at Baptist Bible College in Springfield, Mo., while wooing his future wife, Macel Pate. (They recently celebrated their 49th anniversary.)

After graduation in 1956, at age 22, Falwell returned to Lynchburg and started Thomas Road Baptist Church in an old soda bottling plant. The first time he passed the collection plate, the young preacher brought in $135.

“We thought we had conquered the world,” Falwell said on his website.

Half a century later, Falwell’s empire would be bringing in $200 million a year. His little country church grew to more than 24,000 members.

Falwell built his church much the way a politician would troll for votes: He walked the streets of Lynchburg, knocking on dozens of doors a day, asking folks to swing by his Sunday evening service. He took notes on their responses, followed up with phone calls and slowly built his congregation.

He helped his cause with some aggressive -- and, for the time, audacious -- self-promotion. Shortly after founding the church, he launched a daily radio broadcast. Then he began televising his sermons in a show called “The Old-Time Gospel Hour.” Still on the air today, it’s the longest continuously running religious broadcast on television.

During the 1950s and ‘60s, Falwell spoke out against the civil rights movement and the Supreme Court’s order to desegregate public schools in Brown vs. Board of Education. In his view, God insisted upon segregating the races, and he claimed to find proof of that in the Bible. (He later repudiated those remarks, apologizing and admitting he had been wrong.)

In general, Falwell largely hewed to the fundamentalist tradition of staying out of politics. As he explained in a 1964 sermon: “Preachers are not called to be politicians, but soul winners.”

His views began to change as he watched the sexual revolution unfold throughout the 1960s. Then in 1973, the Supreme Court legalized abortion in Roe vs. Wade. Falwell became convinced that pastors could no longer stand on the sidelines.

“In the late 1970s, he began making it respectable for Christian pastors to talk from the pulpit about the evils of abortion, simply because he did so on his television program and in his printed communications,” said James C. Dobson, chairman of the conservative Christian ministry Focus on the Family.

In 1979, political strategist Paul Weyrich came to Falwell’s office to brief him on the opportunities for turning moral indignation into an electoral force.

“I said, ‘Somewhere out there, there is something of a moral majority. These people are separated by political, geographical and religious differences, but if we could bring it together, we would have a powerful operation,’ ” Weyrich recalled.

Falwell stopped him mid-sentence and asked him to repeat the phrase “moral majority.” “That’s the name of the organization,” Falwell decided.

Before Falwell, the conservative movement lacked foot soldiers and battle-worthy divisions, Weyrich said. “It was Falwell who provided us with divisions, with resources and with people. He was just remarkable.”

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Bush ‘deeply saddened’

Other tributes to Falwell poured in Tuesday from politicians and clergy.

President Bush said he was “deeply saddened” by Falwell’s death, and praised him in particular for founding Liberty University, “where he taught young people to remain true to their convictions and rely upon God’s word.”

Several Republican presidential candidates expressed admiration for Falwell. Former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney called him “a man of deep personal faith and commitment to helping those around him.” Sen. Sam Brownback (R-Kan.) said America would mourn the loss of a “true spiritual leader.”

Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) -- who once scorned Falwell as an evil influence on the Republican Party -- praised him as “a man of distinguished accomplishment.”

Some analysts noted Falwell’s history of controversial remarks -- and stressed that he did not speak for all Christians.

“Some media pundits tended to think of Falwell as representative of American Christianity, but most church leaders, while claiming him as a brother in Christ, strongly differed with many of his outspoken views,” said the Rev. Robert Edgar, general secretary of the National Council of Churches.

Those outspoken views included Falwell’s early support for segregation. More recently, he declared that the Muslim prophet Muhammad was a terrorist. He claimed that the ACLU and “the pagans and the abortionists and the feminists and the gays and lesbians” brought on the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks by bringing down God’s wrath on America. He later repudiated that view.

Falwell referred to gays and lesbians as “deviants” and “sodomites” and called AIDS a sign of God’s wrath at homosexuality. More recently, he spoke out vigorously against same-sex marriage.

“Unfortunately, we will always remember him as a founder and leader of America’s anti-gay industry, someone who exacerbated the nation’s appalling response to the onslaught of the AIDS epidemic, someone who demonized and vilified us for political gain and someone who used religion to divide rather than unite our nation,” said Matt Foreman, executive director of the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force.

In his last two decades, Falwell focused most of his energies on Liberty University, the college he founded in 1971 to train generations of Christian leaders.

Falwell, who once said he would be happy if every public school in America shut down, was immensely proud of the Bible-centered education system he developed on the Liberty campus. His online biography boasts that “a preschool child can now enter the school system at age 3, and 20 or more years later leave the same campus with a Ph.D., without ever sitting in classroom where the teacher was not a committed follower of Jesus Christ.”

But Falwell wanted more than a toddler-to-adult education system; he wanted respect for Liberty. An avid sports fan known to “body surf” the crowds at home basketball games by letting students pass him from bleacher to bleacher, Falwell pushed for top-class athletic programs, championed a debate team that could go head to head with any secular university and created a law school, which will graduate its first class this weekend.

He also trained his sons to follow in his footsteps. His son Jerry Jr. is vice chancellor at Liberty University. Jonathan Falwell has taken over as executive pastor of Thomas Road Baptist Church. His daughter, Jeannie Falwell Savas, is a surgeon in Virginia. In addition to his wife and children, Falwell is survived by several grandchildren.

Liberty serves more than 21,000 students from every state and 80 nations and is a frequent campaign stop for Republican candidates. As chancellor, Falwell prayed with the student body every week, and attended every home football game and most baseball and basketball games.

“He wanted to heckle the referees sometimes, but he restrained himself,” said Mathew Staver, dean of Liberty’s law school and a close friend.

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Political bombast

Though he focused much of his energy on Liberty, Falwell remained a political lightning rod.

He met frequently with President George H.W. Bush and impressed Doug Wead, the administration’s religious liaison, as “very respectful and low-key and humble ... a surprising contrast to his more flamboyant public persona.” While other religious leaders would hand Wead lists of requests, Falwell never requested a favor, Wead said.

“He would sometimes ask, ‘How can we help you?’ ”

The answer, often, was a polite: Keep quiet.

Although Falwell tried to moderate his public image with stage-managed events such as the public embrace of a gay activist, he could still pop off blistering remarks, and the left often held him up as a symbol of right-wing intolerance. In one notable episode, he opined that the anti-Christ was probably alive -- and taking the form of a Jew.

“At GOP convention time, we had full-field plans to keep him busy and off the air, where his negatives sometimes hurt us,” Wead said.

In 1983, at the height of his political power, Falwell sued Larry C. Flynt, publisher of the adult magazine Hustler, for running a parody that claimed Falwell was an incestuous drunk. A jury rejected Falwell’s claims of libel and invasion of privacy because he was a public figure but awarded him $200,000 for emotional distress. The Supreme Court later overturned the award.

Falwell’s bombast sometimes made him seem almost a caricature of a fire-and-brimstone preacher.

In 1999, he drew widespread ridicule when his newspaper warned parents that Tinky Winky, a character on the toddler TV show “Teletubbies,” was gay. (The evidence: He was purple, he had a triangle-shaped antenna on his head, and he liked to carry a red purse.)

For all the public controversy, Falwell’s close associates said he was immensely likeable personally. A burly, jowly, blue-eyed bear of a man, Falwell was known for taking time to visit ailing members of his congregation in the hospital. He prayed with his friends and his political antagonists. He submitted himself to heckling crowds in a quest to engage with his opponents. He could rattle the pews with his thunder, but he could also listen.

“In a crowded room, he would never look beyond you to see who else he could meet that might be more important,” Staver said. “He was unwaveringly focused and never rushed.”

Mel White, who was the ghostwriter on Falwell’s autobiography, later came out as gay and repudiated the preacher for a stridency that made him, as White put it, “the face of homophobia in America.” Yet White said he appreciated Falwell as “a really wonderful pastor, a good father and husband. He was fun to be with. He was quite a guy.”

Falwell’s funeral is scheduled for 2 p.m. Monday at Thomas Road Baptist Church.

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stephanie.simon@latimes.com

Times staff writers Rebecca Trounson and Faye Fiore contributed to this report.

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(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX)

Voices

‘Jerry has been a tower of strength on many of the moral issues which have confronted our nation.’

PAT ROBERTSON

Evangelist

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‘We disagreed often and deeply on the application of religious teachings and traditions to the public sphere; too often he used faith to create divisions within our society. Yet his commitment to encouraging Americans to express their faith was genuine.’

ERIC YOFFIE

A leading reform rabbi

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‘Though he and I debated much and disagreed often, we shared a very cordial and warm friendship.... Though we were as politically opposite as two people could be, I truly respected his commitment to his beliefs and our mutual belief in our lord and savior Jesus Christ.’

THE REV. AL SHARPTON

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‘Jerry Falwell was instrumental in galvanizing millions of American evangelicals into an intolerant, sectarian and authoritarian political movement. Gays, women, secularists, civil libertarians and other groups who did not fit into his plan to construct “One Nation Under God” were stigmatized and attacked.’

ELLEN JOHNSON

President of American Atheists

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‘He was a great leader, a person totally sustained by his faith but able to work with many people from many different backgrounds without imposing rigidity on anyone else.’

NEWT GINGRICH

Former speaker of the House

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‘Jerry Falwell was a close personal friend for many years. We did not always agree on everything, but I knew him to be a man of God. His accomplishments went beyond most clergy of his generation.’

THE REV. BILLY GRAHAM

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‘My mother always told me that no matter how much you dislike a person, when you meet them face to face you will find characteristics about them that you like. Jerry Falwell was a perfect example of that. I hated everything he stood for, but after meeting him in person, years after the trial, Jerry Falwell and I became good friends.... I always appreciated his sincerity, even though I knew what he was selling and he knew what I was selling.’

LARRY C. FLYNT

Hustler magazine founder

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Source: Times wire services


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