May 25, 2007

Jerry Falwell Dies

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Jerry Falwell, Architect of Religious Right, 
Dies at 73
                                                                                                                                             [MAIN STORY]
By DAVID MARK and ADELLE M. BANKS                                          ©2007 Religion News Service
capJerry Falwell, the conservative preacher whose television ministry helped fuel the rise of the religious right, died on May 15 after being found unresponsive in his office at Liberty University in Lynchburg, Va. He was 73.
Ron Godwin, an executive vice president at the university, said Falwell was transported to Lynchburg General Hospital and pronounced dead at 12:40 p.m. "He has had a history of heart problems," Godwin said in a news conference.
Dr. Carl Moore, a cardiovascular specialist, said Falwell was found "unconscious without a heartbeat" about 11:30 a.m. Efforts to resuscitate him in his office, in an ambulance and at the hospital were unsuccessful.
Moore said Falwell had a cardiac arrhythmia -- an irregularity in the heart's rhythm -- that occurs "without warning and cannot be predicted." 
Evangelist Billy Graham, in a statement, called Falwell "a close personal friend for many years. We did not always agree on everything, but I knew him to be a man of God.
Moral Majority
For many, Falwell represented the public face of evangelical
Protestantism, particularly its involvement in politics. Falwell founded the Moral Majority in 1979 to lobby politicians to "reverse the politicization of immorality in our society," he said at the time. By then, Falwell had already been a radio and television preacher for 20 years. He rode a politically conservative wave and used his television ministry as a platform to advance conservative causes including voluntary prayer in public schools, opposition to abortion, and military strength.
2007 1515 falwell"When most people think of the Christian right, they think of the Moral Majority," said John Green, a senior fellow at the Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life. The Moral Majority was "an opportunity to bring a lot of Southern conservatives into the Republican Party," Green said.
For decades before Falwell, evangelicals had largely withdrawn from politics. That began to change in the late 1970s, in part because of Falwell's activism. "Falwell manipulated a powerful pulpit in exchange for access to political power and promotion of a narrow range of moral concerns," said the Rev. Barry Lynn of Americans United for Separation of Church and State, who frequently sparred with Falwell.
Falwell initially supported Democratic President Jimmy Carter because of the Georgian's public embrace of his "born again" Christianity. But Falwell eventually became critical of Carter after what Falwell called the president's move toward liberal policies.
Falwell's cause was emboldened by the 1980 election of Ronald Reagan, but suffered some setbacks with the televangelism scandals involving Jim Bakker, Jimmy Swaggart and others. When Bakker resigned in 1987 under a cloud of financial troubles, he turned his PTL media empire over to Falwell, with whom he had had a simmering rivalry for years. Falwell quickly turned on the Pentecostal Bakker, accusing him of paying blackmail to a mistress, Jessica Hahn, and having "homosexual problems dating back to 1956."
In her 1996 autobiography, Bakker's ex-wife, Tammy Faye Messner, accused Falwell of a "history of telling incredible lies." She wrote, "Jerry Falwell's steamroller flattened our lives and everything else in sight, but nobody had the courage to stop his plunder of PTL." 

In 1989, Falwell dissolved the Moral Majority, saying the group had
accomplished the job it set out to do. Not long afterward, its prominent place in politics was assumed by Pat Robertson's Christian Coalition, which dominated Republican politics throughout the 1990s.
Falwell also made headlines when he sued publisher Larry Flynt for a 1983 parody liquor ad promoted by Flynt. Falwell was awarded $200,000 in emotional damages for the ad--which had him committing incest. But the case was eventually struck down by the U.S. Supreme Court.
A Heart Burning for Christ
Falwell and his twin brother, Gene, were born Aug. 11, 1933, the
youngest of five children. Their father, Carey, was a successful businessman who battled alcoholism; Falwell described their mother, Helen, as a gentle "woman of great faith."
It was to his native Lynchburg, Va., that Falwell traced his religious conviction, starting with a 1952 conversion experience midway through his sophomore year at Lynchburg College. The event led him to transfer to the Baptist Bible College in Springfield, Mo., and a professional life in the pulpit. "I wanted to study the Bible and prepare myself for whatever God wanted me to do," Falwell was to say later. "My heart was burning to serve Christ. I knew nothing would ever be the same again."
After graduation, Falwell founded a Baptist church in Lynchburg, with a congregation of 35 adults in 1956. Over the years, Thomas Road Baptist Church grew to a membership of 24,000, with an expansive campus that housed a day school and missionary work to serve impoverished countries.
2007 1515 falwell"It really had the feeling of the old-time religion," said the Pew Forum's Green. "In a lot of ways, Falwell was on the cutting edge of church building."
A half-hour daily radio broadcast, "The Old-Time Gospel Hour," launched when Falwell's church was only a week old, grew into a television show that went national in 1971 and soon reached an audience estimated in the millions.
Falwell became known for his fundamentalist Christian teachings and dabbling in conservative politics. "The entire Bible, from Genesis to Revelation, is the inerrant Word of God, and totally accurate in all respects," Falwell once said.
After maintaining a near-constant public presence throughout the 1970s and 1980s, Falwell in 1990 withdrew from the political sphere to concentrate on his preaching and his work as chancellor at Liberty University, a respected institution he had founded in 1971.
Falwell's return to private life was short-lived. He again became politically active, railing against Bill Clinton's election as president in 1992 and distributed a video that accused Clinton of a number of crimes, including an insinuation of murder. Falwell was also an outspoken advocate for Clinton's impeachment in 1998.
Long an independent pastor, Falwell became affiliated with the Southern Baptist Convention in 1996.
Harsh Words
Just days after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks on New York and Washington, Falwell was roundly criticized for saying God had allowed the tragedy because of America's liberal drift. "I really believe that the pagans, and the abortionists, and the feminists, and the gays and the lesbians ... the ACLU, People for the American Way -- all of them who have tried to secularize America -- I point the finger in their face and say, `You helped this happen,'" Falwell said on Robertson's 700 Club program. Falwell later apologized, saying his remarks were "uncalled for at the time." A poll taken not long after his apology showed 73 percent of Americans "totally disagreed" with his remarks.
Barely one year later, Falwell angered Muslims by calling the Prophet Muhammad "a terrorist," a remark that set off deadly riots in India and prompted a death threat from an Iranian cleric. Falwell apologized again, saying he "intended no disrespect to any sincere, law-abiding Muslim."
After conservatives turned out in force to re-elect President George W. Bush in 2004, Falwell launched the Moral Majority Coalition to "finish what I started 25 years ago," with the goal of sending 40 million evangelicals to the polls in 2008.
Falwell is survived by his wife of 49 years, Macel Pate, and three children, Jerry, Jeannie and Jonathan.