Tuesday, May 15, 2007

Jerry Falwell, Evangelist, Moral Majority Founder, Dies at 73

By Heather Burke

May 15 (Bloomberg) -- Reverend Jerry Falwell, the Baptist minister who used television to bring his message to millions and then founded the Moral Majority to help politically mobilize the religious right, has died, according to the Associated Press. He was 73.

He was hospitalized today in Lynchburg, Virginia, after being found unconscious at his office.

Falwell started the Moral Majority in 1979 to organize Christians to be politically active. The group registered millions to vote and advocated for social and moral issues, including overturning the Supreme Court decision that legalized abortion. The Moral Majority, which disbanded in 1989, was partly responsible for the 1980 election of Republican President Ronald Reagan, said Randall Balmer, a professor of American religious history at Barnard College in New York.

``Religious-right evangelicals today are an important constituency in the Republican Party, much as unions once provided the backbone for the Democratic Party,'' Balmer said in an interview.

From 1925 until the mid-1970s, evangelicals largely avoided politics, Balmer said. Falwell, who had criticized Christian activism during the 1960s civil rights movement and the Vietnam War, decided a decade later -- when abortion and family values issues had become more prominent -- that evangelicals should become more politically engaged, he said.

`Radical Extremist Groups'

Democrats ``began to embrace all the radical extremist groups in the country -- the feminists, the homosexuals, abortionists, the left-wingers, you name it,'' Falwell said in 1996. ``At some point in time, Christians that take their faith seriously could find very little reason to give support to Democrats.''

After graduating from Baptist Bible College in Springfield, Missouri, Falwell in 1956 founded a church in Lynchburg that grew into one of the biggest congregations in the U.S. It has created a network of organizations, ranging from a theological seminary to a home for unwed mothers.

He was chancellor of Liberty University, a Baptist college that has almost 8,000 full-time students, fields sports and debate teams and has a law school dedicated to training Christian lawyers to fight what Falwell viewed as an increasingly secular America.

Last year, U.S. Senator John McCain used a graduation address at the university to defend the war in Iraq. Former U.S. House Speaker Newt Gingrich was scheduled to give the May 19 commencement address.

Controversy and Blame

Falwell frequently made controversial comments on social and religious issues, from homosexuality to abortion, and was criticized by liberal and civil liberties groups.

``Once you reach the place where your words are respected, then what you say does have impact,'' Falwell said in a 2000 interview with the Richmond Times-Dispatch newspaper. ``Occasionally, I'm accused of saying things that I didn't say. But usually, I'm guilty and by intent, I say what I believe. If it isn't controversial, it isn't worth talking about.''

Falwell was widely criticized after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks for suggesting that God allowed them to take place because of the work of civil liberties groups, abortion- rights supporters and other groups. He was quoted on the Christian television program ``The 700 Club'' as saying, according to Cable News Network:

``I really believe that the pagans, and the abortionists, and the feminists, and the gays and the lesbians who are actively trying to make that an alternative lifestyle, the ACLU, People for an American Way, all of them who have tried to secularize America, I point the finger in their face and say `you helped this happen.'''

Apology

Falwell later apologized for his comments. He told CNN that he didn't mean to blame those groups and only the hijackers and terrorists were responsible for the attacks.

``I don't believe that the understanding of Jerry Falwell about the history of America and of the American Constitution is remotely accurate,'' Reverend Barry Lynn, executive director of Americans United for Separation of Church and State and a vocal Falwell critic, said in a 2004 Los Angeles Times article. ``It is designed to turn America into his view of a Christian nation.''

Jerry Falwell was born on Aug. 11, 1933, in Lynchburg. He and his fraternal twin brother Gene were the youngest of Carey and Helen Falwell's five children, one of whom died young. Falwell said in an interview posted on his Web site that his father died when the minister was 15 and ``I remember him making a profession of faith in Christ only days before his death.''

Park Avenue Baptist Church

Falwell attended Lynchburg College from 1950 to 1952. He said he was ``converted to Jesus Christ'' at Park Avenue Baptist Church in Lynchburg on Jan. 20, 1952. Falwell then transferred to Baptist Bible College in 1952 to study ministry.

He was ordained in 1956 and that same year founded the Thomas Road Baptist Church with 35 members. Today, the church is one of the largest in the U.S., with about 22,000 members, according to its Web site.

Falwell began televising his sermons in 1968, reaching millions of viewers during the mid-1970s with ``The Old Time Gospel Hour.'' He visited dozens of countries, from Haiti to the former Soviet Union, on missionary and charitable trips.

He became involved in politics in the 1970s, fearing that the U.S. was losing traditional moral values. The next year, Falwell, with the help of Baptist activists, founded the Moral Majority to advocate for political candidates that supported its conservative Christian beliefs.

Religious Right

The group, which took in $11 million at its heyday, quickly gained attention by attracting the ire of liberals -- and support from conservative Christians. About 80 percent of the 45 million U.S. evangelical Christians voted for Reagan and George H.W. Bush in the 1984 and 1988 presidential elections.

``You can't be elected today without the religious right,'' Falwell said in a 1989 Washington Times article.

By the mid-1980s, evangelical Christianity received a bad name as television preachers such as Jim Bakker went to jail for fraud. Falwell became chairman of PTL, Bakker's ministry, in March 1987. He resigned months later as PTL's deficit ran to $70 million and debt mounted at his own organization.

Falwell resigned as Moral Majority president in 1987 and dissolved the organization in 1989 in order to devote more time to his expanding church, university and other ministries.

Moral Majority Resurrected

In November 2004, he announced the creation of the Faith and Values Coalition, a ``21st century resurrection of the Moral Majority.'' This new group supported President George W. Bush and worked to elect anti-abortion conservative justices to the Supreme Court.

Falwell founded Lynchburg Christian Academy in 1967, a day school which now enrolls more than 1,000 children through high school. In 1971, Falwell started Lynchburg Baptist College with 154 students and four full-time faculty members.

The school later was renamed Liberty University.

Falwell sued Larry Flynt's Hustler sex magazine for $45 million on claims of libel, invasion and intentional infliction of emotional distress after a 1983 parody in the publication. It featured a mock Campari liquor ad in which Falwell, in a fictitious interview, said he had sex with his mother in an outhouse while drunk.

Falwell vs. Flynt

A jury rejected the libel and invasion of privacy claims, saying the lampoon couldn't reasonably be understood to describe real events. It ruled that Falwell should receive $200,000 in damages for the emotional distress claim and the decision was upheld on appeal.

Flynt appealed the decision to the Supreme Court. The high court ruled in Flynt's favor in 1988, stating that public figures such as Falwell can't receive emotional distress damages because of a parody.

In February 1999, an article in Falwell's National Liberty Journal suggested that Tinky Winky, a character on the children's show ``Teletubbies'' on public television, was a symbol for homosexuality. It cited Tinky Winky's purple color, triangle symbol on his head and handbag.

Falwell was a frequent lecturer and wrote several books, including ``The Fundamentalist Phenomenon'' (1981) and ``New American Family'' (1992), as well as his autobiography.

He married Macel Pate in 1958.

``When I set out to be a pastor in 1956, I really envisioned a church of 500 in a small town,'' Falwell said in 2000. ``The Lord has blessed me far beyond anything I ever thought. I'm humbled that God could use someone like me as he has.''

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