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People & Ideas: Jerry Falwell

Jerry Falwell

Jerry Falwell was a fundamentalist preacher who co-founded the Moral Majority and reacquainted disaffected religious conservatives with politics during the 1970s and 1980s. In his autobiography, he summed up his life view: "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 heart 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."

Born in Lynchburg, Va., in 1933, Falwell experienced spiritual rebirth and was baptized at age 18. By 22 he had established the Thomas Road Baptist Church in his hometown. His first congregation consisted of 35 people who met in a building that had once housed the Donald Duck Bottling Company. He soon began to broadcast his weekly sermons as The Old-Time Gospel Hour.

Like many of his fellow fundamentalists, Falwell had firmly believed that politics and religion didn't mix. Following the Scopes trial, fundamentalists had retreated from active participation in public life. In his famous 1964 sermon, "Ministers and Marches," Falwell declared, "Preachers are not called to be politicians, but soul winners...." His remarks were widely interpreted as a rebuke to the political activism of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.

Influenced by Francis Schaeffer and dismayed by the 1973 Supreme Court ruling in Roe v. Wade, Falwell changed his mind. He began to speak out against the ruling and urge Christians to end their self-imposed exile and enter the political arena.

He staged "I Love America" rallies, a potent mix of religion and patriotism that attacked what he believed were evils threatening to bring down the country: the Equal Rights Amendment, homosexuality, pornography and women's liberation. He called for a religious revival:

What has gone wrong? What has happened to this great republic? We have forsaken the God of our fathers. The prophet Isaiah said that our sins separate us from God. ... Our country needs healing. Will you be one of a consecrated few who will bear the burden for revival and pray, "O, God, save our nation. O, God, give us a revival." The destiny of our nation awaits your answer.

In 1979 Falwell was recruited by several conservative and Republican operatives to co-found an organization known as the Moral Majority. He later wrote: "I was convinced that there was a moral majority out there among those 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."

Leading up to the 1980 presidential election, Falwell himself barnstormed the country in his private jet, giving speeches, appearing at conferences, delivering sermons and overseeing a sprawling media empire. The Moral Majority was widely credited with delivering the White House to Ronald Reagan.

Falwell with President Reagan

But Falwell's outspoken and flamboyant rhetoric inflamed detractors and eroded his credibility, and he never became popular with the majority. By 1981, polls showed that 41 percent of the country viewed him unfavorably, with only 16 percent viewing him favorably. In 1987 a poll found that 61 percent of Americans held Falwell in "not very high regard."

In 1989 Falwell disbanded the Moral Majority, announcing, "Our mission is accomplished." He remained a controversial figure. In the aftermath of 9/11 he suggested that the terrorist attacks were God's punishment for America's sinful behavior, including support for abortion and gay rights. He later retracted his remarks.

Jerry Falwell died in September 2007 at age 73.

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Published October 11, 2010

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