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Televangelist, Christian Leader Jerry Falwell Dies

Evangelist Jerry Falwell, a prominent and controversial  leader of the U.S. Christian right, died Tuesday. He founded the Moral Majority in 1979, which brought millions of born-again Christians into the center of political activism.
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Evangelist Jerry Falwell, a prominent and controversial leader of the U.S. Christian right, died Tuesday. He founded the Moral Majority in 1979, which brought millions of born-again Christians into the center of political activism.

The Rev. Jerry Falwell, a pioneer among televangelists who later became a leading voice in the national debate over Christian values, has died at the age of 73.

Falwell was discovered without a pulse Tuesday in his office at Liberty University in Lynchburg, Va. He was pronounced dead at a hospital an hour later. Dr. Carl Moore, Falwell's physician, said he had a heart condition and presumably died of a heart rhythm abnormality, according to Associated Press reports.

A fundamentalist preacher, Falwell burst onto the national scene in 1979, when he launched an organization he presumptuously called the Moral Majority. Critics liked to say that it was neither. What is undisputed is that the Moral Majority became the vehicle that carried millions of born-again Christians out of their separatist tendencies and into the center of political activism.

They did it by bringing politics to the pulpit, getting churches to hand out voter guides, and creating get-out-the-vote drives that would become the envy of many a politician. The religious right was born — and Falwell became its chief spokesman. The goal was to overturn the Supreme Court's ban on school prayer and reverse the nation's direction on feminism, abortion and gay rights.

"I believe that homosexuality is moral perversion," Falwell told NPR in 1996. "I think it is a violation of the laws of nature, as well as the laws of God. I do not think that that gives me permission to be unkind or ungracious to a person who may be living a homosexual lifestyle."

In some ways, Falwell was an unlikely religious leader. He was born Aug. 11, 1933, and grew up in Lynchburg, the son of a one-time bootlegger who hated preachers. His grandfather was a staunch atheist.

But Falwell heard the call while listening to a radio preacher. He built a church from scratch — Thomas Road Baptist — in Lynchburg. It grew to a mega-church of well over 20,000 members. He started a Christian school, then a college and most recently a law school, raising much of the money from his television ministry. Critics said he spent more time asking for contributions than ministering to viewers.

Falwell followers saw him as a capable defender of decency and of godly values, but he often had detractors gnashing their teeth. He once told a gathering of ministers that the anti-Christ is a Jewish male who is alive in the world today.

Two days after the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, during an appearance on Pat Robertson's television show, Falwell claimed that the attack was God's judgment on America's immorality.

"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 try to secularize America — I point the finger in their face and say, 'You helped this happen.'"

Later, Falwell apologized, saying his remarks were insensitive and that he never meant to blame anyone except the terrorists.

Barry Lynn, leader of Americans United for Separation of Church and State, has been one of Falwell's harshest critics over the years. Lynn says Falwell was wrong about everything, but he does give Falwell credit for standing up for his beliefs.

"He was the key point-man in the creation of the modern-day religious right. And for a lot of Americans, he will be forever the face of the religious right," Lynn said.

In the late 1980s, the Moral Majority disbanded and Falwell went back to saving souls. Other groups took over the political legwork. In terms of legislation and constitutional amendments, the Moral Majority failed. But it did force politicians to address questions many would rather have avoided.

And Falwell's legacy of spurring religious conservatives into political action has hardly abated. One example: Christian protesters and their allies in Congress forcing the nation's attention on Terri Schiavo.

Falwell added his voice to that debate, referring to the Schiavo case as part of America's "death syndrome." It started, he said, with the "legalization of abortion — now euthanasia."

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

David Molpus