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Jerry Falwell, Leading Religious Conservative, Dies at 73
« on: 2007-05-15 15:27:40 »
The New York Times
May 15, 2007
Jerry Falwell, Leading Religious Conservative, Dies at 73
By PETER APPLEBOME
Jerry Falwell, the fundamentalist preacher who founded the Moral Majority and helped bring the language and passions of religious conservatives into American politics, died today shortly after he was found unconscious in his office at Liberty University in Lynchburg, Va. He was 73 years old.
Mr. Falwell had a history of heart problems, and probably died of cardiac arrythmia, his physician, Dr. Carl Moore, said today. Mr. Falwell had no pulse when he was found, the doctor said, and efforts to revive him at the university and on the way to the hospital were unsuccessful.
Dr. Moore said Mr. Falwell was pronounced dead at 12:40 p.m. Eastern time.
The university’s executive vice president, Ronald Godwin, told a news conference this afternoon that he had had breakfast with Mr. Falwell at 8:30 a.m., and said the university mourns his loss.
“Dr. Falwell is a huge, huge leader here in this area and in the nation at large," Dr. Godwin said.
Mr. Falwell went from being a Baptist preacher in Lynchburg to carving out a powerful role in national electoral politics. He was at home in both the millennial world of fundamentalist Christianity and the earthly blood sport of the political arena. As much as anyone, he helped create the religious right as a political force, defined the issues that would energize it for decades and cemented its ties to the Republican Party.
He came to prominence first as a televangelist, through his “Old-Time Gospel Hour” programs, and then as the leader of the Moral Majority, an organization whose very name drew a vivid, divisive battle line in the sand of American politics.
After the organization disbanded in 1989, he remained a familiar and powerful figure, supporting George W. Bush when he ran for president, as he did his father George H. W. Bush and Ronald Reagan before him, mobilizing conservatives and finding his way into a thicket of controversies.
Mr. Falwell grew up in a household that he described as a battleground between the forces of God and the powers of Satan. In his public life he often had to walk a fine line between the certitudes of fundamentalist religion, in which the word of God was absolute and inviolate, and the ambiguities of mainstream politics, in which a message warmly received at his Thomas Road Baptist Church might not play as well on the NBC Nightly News.
As a result, he was a lightning rod for controversy and caricature. He apologized, for example, after televised remarks suggesting that the 9/11 terrorist attacks reflected God’s judgment on a nation spiritually weakened by the American Civil Liberties Union, providers of abortion and supporters of gay rights, and after he called Muhammad a terrorist. He was ridiculed for an article in his National Liberty Journal that suggested that Tinky Winky, a character in the “Teletubbies” children’s show, could be a hidden homosexual signal, because the character was purple, had a triangle on its head and carried a handbag.
But behind the controversies was a shrewd, savvy operator with an original vision for affecting political and moral change. He rallied religious conservatives to the political arena at a time when most fundamentalists and other conservative religious leaders were inclined to stay away, and helped pulled off what once seemed the impossible task of uniting religious conservatives from many faiths and doctrines over what they had in common, rather than focusing on the differences that kept them apart.
He had numerous failures as well as successes, and always remained a divisive figure, demonized on the left in much the way that Senator Edward M. Kennedy or Jane Fonda were on the right. But political experts agree he was an enormously influential figure.
“Behind the idea of the Moral Majority was this notion that there could be a coalition of these different religious groups that all agree on abortion and homosexuality and other issues even if they never agreed on how to read the Bible or the nature of God,” said John Green, director of the Ray C. Bliss Institute of Applied Politics at the University of Akron, who studies the religious conservative movement.
“That was a real innovation,” Mr. Green said. “And even if that’s an idea that did not completely originate with Falwell, it’s certainly an idea he developed and championed independently of others. It was a very important insight, and it’s had a huge influence on American politics.”
Jerry Lamon Falwell was born Aug. 11, 1933, in Lynchburg, Va. His ancestors there dated back to 1669, and his more immediate ones lived as if they were characters in the pageant of sin and redemption that formed his world view.
His paternal grandfather, Charles William Falwell, embittered by the death of his wife and a favorite nephew, was a vocal and decisive atheist who would not go to church, and who ridiculed those who did.
His father, Carey H. Falwell, was a flamboyant entrepreneur who opened his first grocery store when he was 22. Soon he was operating 17 service stations, many with little restaurants and stores attached. He built oil storage tanks, owned an oil company, and in 1927 founded American Bus Lines, which installed old battery-operated movie projectors to show Charlie Chaplin and Laurel and Hardy movies to riders.
Later, he turned to bootlegging liquor and myriad other enterprises. His best-known business was the Merry Garden Dance Hall and Dining Room, high on a Virginia hilltop, that became the center of Virginia’s swing society. He, too, was dismissive of religion.
On the other hand, Mr. Falwell’s mother, the former Helen Beasley, was deeply religious. Every Sunday when he awoke, Mr. Falwell recalled, Charles Fuller’s “Old Fashioned Revival Hour” was ringing out from the radio, and his mother’s faith never flagged.
“It was my mother who planted the seeds of faith in me from the moment I was born.” Mr. Falwell said in his autobiography, “Strength for the Journey.”
What he saw in his own family, he said, was the battle between God and the Enemy, the malignant force just as real and just as determined to produce evil as God is to create good. It was the Enemy who destroyed his father and grandfather, he said, and God whose grace ennobled his mother.
In his telling, Mr. Falwell chose God on Jan. 20, 1952 — not an experience of blinding lights and heavenly voices, but one that came when “God came quietly into Mom’s kitchen” and answered her prayers.
He declared his acceptance of Christ at the Park Avenue Baptist Church in Lynchburg that evening — and first saw the woman who would become his wife, the church pianist Macel Pate. She survives him, as do the couple’s three children, Jerry, Jonathan and Jeannie.
The next day he purchased a Bible, a Bible dictionary and James Strong’s Exhaustive Concordance of the Bible. Two months later, he decided he wanted to become a minister and spread the word.
He transferred from Lynchburg College, where he had hoped to study mechanical engineering, to Baptist Bible College in Springfield, Mo. When he returned hime, he decided to start his own church, an experience that melded his mother’s faith with his father’s entrepreneurial instincts. He founded the Thomas Road Baptist Church with $1,000 and an initial congregation of 35 adults and their families, using an abandoned factory.
But Mr. Falwell began building his church in 1956 much as he would build a political movement. Carrying a yellow legal pad and a Bible, he set out to visit 100 homes a day, knocking on doors to seek new members.
Soon after the church opened, he began a half-hour daily radio broadcast. Six months later, he broadcast his first televised version of the “Old-Time Gospel Hour.”
Mr. Falwell was struck by how effective the radio and television broadcasts were in drawing new members. “Television made me a kind of instant celebrity,” he wrote. “People were fascinated that they could see and hear me preach that same night in person. On the church’s first anniversary in 1957, 864 people showed up to worship, and he felt he was on his way.
The church grew steadily, morphing into a social service dynamo with a home for alcoholics, a burgeoning Christian Academy, summer camps, worldwide missions like a precursor of the mega-churches to come. And when the “Old-Time Gospel Hour” began broadcasting nationally from the sanctuary in 1971, he gained a national audience at a time when televised evangelism was exploding.
There were reversals as well, including a lawsuit in July 1973 by the federal Securities and Exchange Commission, accusing the church of “fraud and deceit” and “gross insolvency” in the selling of $6.6 million worth of bonds for church expansion and services. The charges were dropped a month later after a United States District Court found that the case did not involve intentional wrongdoing.
And as the cultural passions and transformations of the 1960s and 1970s swept the nation, Mr. Falwell, like many religious leaders, was struggling with what role to play. Pondering widespread civil rights activism by ministers, Mr. Falwell was unimpressed.
“Preachers are not called to be politicians, but soul winners” he said in a sermon entitled “Ministers and Marchers” in March 1964. “If as much effort could be put into winning people to Jesus across the land as is being exerted in the present civil rights movement, America would be turned upside down for God.”
His position reflected both his opposition, at the time, to the civil rights movement, and a long history of fundamentalists believing that their role was to cater to the soul, not to the transitory tides of politics.
But Mr. Falwell said that Roe v. Wade, the 1973 United States Supreme Court decision legalizing abortion, produced an enormous change in him. Soon he began preaching often against the court ruling and calling for Christians to become involved in political action.
In 1977, he supported the singer Anita Bryant’s efforts to repeal a Dade County, Fla., ordinance granting equal rights to gay men and lesbians. The next year, he played a similar role in California.
He urged churches to register voters, and urged religious conservatives to campaign for candidates who supported their positions. He organized “I Love America” rallies blending patriotism and conservative values, and the students at Liberty University, which he founded, produced their own upbeat presentations around the country
As Mr. Falwell told it, at a meeting of conservatives in his office in 1979, Paul Weyrich, a political strategist, said to him: “Jerry, there is in America a moral majority that agrees about the basic issues. But they aren’t organized.”
To Mr. Falwell, that suggested a movement of people, not just evangelical or fundamentalist Christians, but other Protestants and Catholics and Jews, even atheists, with a similar agenda on abortion, gay rights, patriotism and moral values. “I was convinced,” he wrote, “that there was a ‘moral majority’ out there among these more than 200 million Americans sufficient in number to turn back the flood tide of moral permissiveness, family breakdown and general capitulation to evil and to foreign policies such as Marxism-Leninism.”
The movement, he said, had a simple agenda — pro-life, pro-traditional family, pro-moral, and pro-American — precisely the kind of broad agenda to unite conservatives of different faiths and backgrounds.
His agenda also included fervent support for Israel, though his relations with Jews were often rocky. In one episode in 1999, he apologized for saying that the Antichrist was probably alive and, if so, he would be in the form of a male Jew.
The goal of the Moral Majority, he said, was “Get them saved, baptized and registered.” He held up a Bible at political rallies, telling followers: “If a man stands by this book, vote for him. If he doesn’t, don’t.”
Within three years of the Moral Majority’s founding, he boasted of a $10 million budget, 100,000 trained clergymen and several million volunteers.
In the 1980 election, the Moral Majority was credited with playing a role in Mr. Reagan’s election as president, and with affecting the outcome in dozens of Congressional races. The election reflected the potential influence of religious conservatives in politics, which both electrified religious conservatives and alarmed many others, who feared a movement of religious zealots voting en masse for the preachers’ designated candidates.
For example, A. Bartlett Giamatti, president of Yale University in 1981, accused the Moral Majority and other conservative groups of a “radical assault” on the nation’s political values.
“A self-proclaimed Moral Majority and its satellite of client groups, cunning in the use of a native blend of old intimidation and new technology, threaten the values” of the nation, Mr. Giamatti told 1,267 entering freshmen of the Yaleclass of 1985. He called the organization “angry at change, rigid in the application of chauvinistic slogans, absolutistic in morality.”
Defenders of the mix of religion and politics, not all of them conservatives, have said that it is a form of bigotry to argue that religious conservatives should not participate in politics.
But Mr. Falwell’s status as a lightning rod did not wane, even after he disbanded the Moral Majority in 1989.
While running for the Republican presidential nomination against George W. Bush in 2000, Senator John McCain of Arizona characterized Mr. Falwell and the evangelist Pat Robertson as “forces of evil” and called them “agents of intolerance.” But Mr. McCain soon apologized and the remarks were seen as enormously damaging to his candidacy, alienating the Republican Party’s base.
Still, for all the controversy, Mr. Falwell has often seemed an unconvincing villain, his manner patient and affable, his sermons having none of the air of white-hot Pentecostal menace of contemporaries like Jimmy Swaggart, for instance. He shared podiums with Senator Kennedy, appeared at hostile college campuses, and in 1984 spent an evening before a crowd full of hecklers at Town Hall in New York, probably not changing many minds but sometimes convincing skeptics of his good will.
Many experts say his role as a direct participant in politics may have peaked with the Moral Majority. And others, including Ralph Reed and Karl Rove, were even more successful in taking Mr. Falwell’s ideas and translating them into lasting political power and influence.
But he has never entirely left the public eye, whether in his role of trying to rescue the foundering PTL ministry of Jim Bakker in the late 1980s, or pursuing a libel suit against Larry Flynt, the publisher of Hustler magazine, all the way to the Supreme Court, or describing President Bill Clinton as an “ungodly liar.”
It could be argued that he has affected electoral politics more than mainstream culture. The Moral Majority, for instance, began a campaign to “clean up” television programs in the 1980s, an initiative that was not the its greatest success. After Mr. Clinton was acquitted by the Senate in his impeachment trial, Mr. Weyrich wrote to his supporters to say that maybe there wasn’t a “moral majority” after all.
For all Mr. Falwell’s impact on the national stage, though, his home always remained Lynchburg, and his church the one he founded in 1956.
Mr. Falwell’s positions on some issues evolved over time. He surprised some critics by becoming more tolerant on gay issues in later years. But at his core, he remained through his career precisely what he was at the beginning — a preacher and moralist, a believer in the Bible’s literal truth, with firm beliefs on religious, and social issues rooted in his reading of Scripture that never really changed.
So there was no distinction at all between his view of the political and the spiritual when he wrote in his autobiography: “We are born into a war zone where the forces of God do battle with the forces of evil. Sometimes we get trapped, pinned down in the crossfire. And in the heat of that noisy distracting battle, two voices call out for us to follow. Satan wants to lead us into death. God wants to lead us into life eternal.”
Copyright 2007 The New York Times Company
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