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Falwell Blazed Trail in American Politics, Religious Right

May 15, 2007 at 6:40 PM EST
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JIM LEHRER: Finally tonight, the influences of Jerry Falwell. Jeffrey Brown has our look, beginning with some background.

REV. JERRY FALWELL, Founder, Moral Majority: Everyone standing, heads bowed in prayer.

JEFFREY BROWN: Jerry Falwell transformed his fundamentalist Christian ideals into a driving political force. An influential televangelist, Falwell founded the Moral Majority in 1979 and soon boasted membership of more than 6 million.

He also claimed to have registered millions more, mostly conservatives, to vote and help put Ronald Reagan into the White House. In 1983, U.S. News and World Report called him one of the 25 most influential Americans.

In December 1989, the NewsHour’s Robert MacNeil asked Falwell how he would characterize the decade just ended.

REV. JERRY FALWELL: I would say the 1980s, most importantly, there’s been a witnessing of the bankruptcy of the liberal philosophy and the anti-moral and amoral philosophies that were so prevalent in the 1960s and ’70s, the rebellion of young people, which brought about the drug epidemic in so many to break down the family.

Particularly during this decade, the spiritual rebirth. I’m an evangelical, and I’ve watched the evangelical church here and around the world preaching Christ, the death, burial, resurrection of the savior, receiving more receptivity everywhere, and that growth.

And, finally, as I’ve watched the Berlin Wall come down, the cry for freedom in China, and the eastern bloc nations, I rejoice, because I see the bankruptcy of Marxist-Leninism, socialism in this world.

JEFFREY BROWN: Falwell established his first church, Thomas Road Baptist, in Lynchburg, Virginia, in 1956. What began with 35 members has since topped 24,000.

In 1971, Falwell helped create what is now Liberty University in Lynchburg, an evangelical Christian liberal arts college. Republican candidates still make Liberty an important stop on the campaign trail. Former Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich is scheduled to speak at Liberty’s commencement this weekend.

REV. JERRY FALWELL: The myth of global warming…

JEFFREY BROWN: Falwell espoused views that were often controversial and angered many. He was a vocal opponent of homosexuality and gay marriage.

REV. JERRY FALWELL: Clearly, in every civilized culture since recorded history, marriage is always between a man and a woman. And the fact that we’re trying to change it is very serious, because the family is the foundational institution in our culture.

JEFFREY BROWN: In 1999, Falwell suggested that the PBS children’s series “Teletubbies” had a gay character.

One of his most inflammatory remarks came after the 9/11 attacks, which he blamed on certain segments of American society.

REV. JERRY FALWELL: 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 the American Way, all of them who tried to secularize America, I point the finger in their face and say, “You helped this happen.”

JEFFREY BROWN: Falwell later apologized.

Jerry Falwell was hospitalized twice for serious health problems in 2005, including heart trouble. He collapsed this morning in his office at Liberty University. He was 73 years old.

Using faith to impact culture

Tony Perkins
President, Family Research Council
He unashamedly preached the gospel of Jesus Christ, led many people to a saving knowledge of Jesus. But then he challenged Christians to take their faith and use it to impact the culture, to be what Jesus said was salt and light.

JEFFREY BROWN: And we look at Jerry Falwell's influence in the worlds of politics and religion with Tony Perkins, president of the Family Research Council, a conservative political advocacy group. Mr. Perkins is a graduate of Liberty University.

And Tony Campolo, who's a professor emeritus at Eastern University and founder of the Evangelical Association for the Promotion of Education, an organization that develops school programs around the world.

Tony Perkins, starting with you, how do you assess the importance and influence of Jerry Falwell?

TONY PERKINS, Family Research Council: Well, I first met him 20 years ago, as a student at Liberty University on a Wednesday night prayer service. And my background, I had come out of the Marine Corps, had been a police officer, and was pursuing a business degree. And through my experience at Liberty University and my relationship with Dr. Falwell, that took a change. I ended up running for office, held public office, and now I'm at Family Research Council.

I think his legacy really is two-fold. One, he unashamedly preached the gospel of Jesus Christ, led many people to a saving knowledge of Jesus. But then he challenged Christians to take their faith and use it to impact the culture, to be what Jesus said was salt and light.

And he led the way. And he was a pioneer. And I guess to some who didn't like what he had to stand for, the bad news is there are a lot of settlers coming in behind this pioneer. He's raised up many, many young people to follow in his footsteps.

JEFFREY BROWN: Tony Campolo, how do you assess his influence? And what was the key to the political strength?

TONY CAMPOLO, Eastern University: Well, his television programming impacted this nation from coast to coast. It was through television that he was able to mobilize Americans in the evangelical tradition to become Republicans.

Up until Jerry Falwell, it was kind of an even split between Democrats and Republicans. He changed the political landscape. Historians will write about him and say, because of Jerry Falwell, Ronald Reagan became president.

Myself, I have many similarities with Jerry Falwell when it came to our beliefs about Jesus and preaching to the gospel. And he has impacted millions of people with the good news about Jesus.

My problems, of course, is that I often found myself seriously at odds with his political agenda. I think he did not pay enough attention to some of the social justice issues that we needed to pay attention to, dealing with racism, dealing with sexism. I felt that he -- I think that he humiliated a lot of gay and lesbian people.

But beyond all of that, when we debated on television, when we debated on radio, he always seemed to know what he was talking about. He always came on with great effectiveness. And the religious right, of which I'm not a part, has lost its most vocal and effective leader.

Knowing how to get out his message

Tony Compolo
Eastern University
When he made statements, which a lot of people thought were harsh, he was really articulating what huge numbers of Americans really feel and think. And that's what made him such a lightning rod.

JEFFREY BROWN: Well, Mr. Perkins, the divisiveness, the statements that gave offense, do you think that Jerry Falwell was trying to be provocative? Did he mean what he say and then apologize because of the outcry? What led to that?

TONY PERKINS: Well, that was just that one statement. I think Dr. Falwell, number one, I think was mischaracterized and portrayed in the media. He was portrayed as mean-spirited, a hard-hearted individual.

If you took just a five-minute walk with him across the sprawling campus at Liberty University, you would see not someone who looked like an Elmer Gantry, but you would see a grandfather figure that was giving students bear hugs. I was the frequent recipient of those bear hugs. He was loved on campus.

And Dr. Falwell was the opposite of how he was seen by many people. He was not mean-spirited at all. Even his adversaries, he was kind to them. And I bet Tony would say that, even in their conversations off the camera or along the side, he was always nice to those that he opposed.

But he knew how to work television. He knew how to get headlines. A couple of those events recently were at events that I hosted. I asked him to come to. And he knew how to get a headline.

He would make a statement, usually in jest, knowing that a reporter somewhere would pick it up and run with it. Obviously, taken out of context, it looks horrible, but he got a headline. And he knew how to get his message across. Sometimes that was a double-edged sword, but most of the times he was very effective at doing it.

JEFFREY BROWN: Well, Mr. Campolo, you were an adversary many times on many issues. What is your answer to what Dr. Falwell was trying to do? Was he trying to be purposely provocative? Or was he saying exactly what he meant?

TONY CAMPOLO: Not only did he say what he meant, but I think that was his genius. When he made statements, which a lot of people thought were harsh, he was really articulating what huge numbers of Americans really feel and think. And that's what made him such a lightning rod.

And when we look at Jerry Falwell and listen to his words, we who do not agree with him realize that we're not just dealing with Jerry Falwell. We're dealing with a whole array of people who follow him and think as he does.

He's a leader because he speaks with clarity and with forcefulness on things that Americans believe in, not all Americans, obviously, not all evangelicals. There are a host of us who call ourselves red-letter Christians who go with the teachings of scripture.

Therefore, we would stand against him on the war issue. We would stand against him on the environmentalist issue. We would stand against him on militarism and on sexism. We stand against him on a lot of issues, but what Tony Perkins said was absolutely right.

My wife, who, unlike myself, is a strong advocate for gay marriage, once had a meeting with him. And she said, "I came away feeling that this man was a gentleman, and he spoke with kindness and with civility." And, off camera, he was as gracious a man as you could possibly imagine. And I have found him to be the same.

We differed politically, not theologically very much, but politically. And we will stand in awe of his impact in history. Of course, his greatest impact is not his politics. His greatest legacy is going to be Liberty University, where thousands of people will be raised up to support the things that he believed in.

Legacy on the campaign trail

TONY PERKINS: Absolutely.

JEFFREY BROWN: All right. Let me ask you, Mr. Perkins, finally, we are, of course, in another presidential political season, entering it here. To what degree does his legacy, is his legacy still with us on the campaign trail?

TONY PERKINS: I think it's still there. Tony hit the nail on the head. Liberty University, now this year reaching some 20,000 students, actually has a member of Congress now, a graduate of Liberty University, and then thousands -- or hundreds, rather -- of elected officials across the country graduates of Liberty University active in the political structure.

Newt Gingrich is scheduled to be the commencement speaker this weekend at graduation. Last year, John McCain was the commencement speaker. The political figures still are going to want to come to Liberty University, to Liberty Mountain, and touch the Falwell legacy, because he's left not only sons that are going to carry on the ministry of the church and of the university, but he's left many spiritual sons and daughters that he has mentored and discipled over the last 30-plus years that Liberty University has been there.

JEFFREY BROWN: All right, Tony Perkins and Tony Campolo, thank you both very much.

TONY CAMPOLO: Good to be with you.

TONY PERKINS: You're welcome.