Born Jerry Lamon Falwell, August 11, 1933, in Lynchburg, VA; died of cardiac arrhythmia, May 15, 2007, in Lynchburg, VA. Religious leader and politi- cal activist. Heralded as the leader who mobilized the religious right into politics, Jerry Falwell was as often seen as a divisive and polarizing figure as he was an inspired hero. Whether critically acclaimed or denounced, Falwell’s accomplishments in the religious arena—from the growth of his church and his television programs, to the founding of Liberty University—and within the political world are undeniable.
Falwell came into political prominence when he founded the activist group Moral Majority, an organization that is often credited with getting Ronald Reagan and many conservative senators and congressmen elected in 1980. Falwell encouraged pastors to preach about politics from their pulpits and encouraged their parishioners to vote, a concept nearly unheard of at the time for groups that were focused on saving souls rather than becoming involved in earthly conflicts. “In 1979, it was a startling vision,” wrote Stephanie Simon in the Lost Angeles Times.
Falwell’s religious training began young, when his mother would wake up Falwell and his twin brother on Sunday mornings by blaring the “Old Fashioned Revival Hour” on the radio. But despite his mother’s faith, Falwell did not consider himself religious. His father, Carey, a bootlegger and an entrepreneur, dis-dained religion. An alcoholic, Carey Falwell died of liver disease when he was only 55, and his son was 15 years old. On his deathbed, Carey Falwell converted, a moment that had tremendous significance for his son. At 18 years old, Falwell experienced his own quiet moment of conversion; he affirmed his change of faith in public at the Park Avenue Baptist Church. The next day, he bought his first Bible, a concordance, and a Bible dictionary; two months later, he knew he wanted to follow the path of the ministry.
Falwell attended Lynchburg College for mechanical engineering, but he transferred to Baptist Bible College after his second year. After graduating, he started his own church in Lynchburg with only $1,000 and a congregation of 35 people. He knocked on doors, visiting 100 homes a day, and began a daily half-hour radio broadcast. In six months, his program was on cable television, and by the end of his first year, his congregation had grown to 864.
During this part of his career, Falwell held the same ideal as most other fundamentalist churches: the political realm was to be distrusted, and preachers should focus on the important business of faith. He was particularly critical of the preachers who joined the Civil Rights Movement, as he himself felt there was evidence to support segregation in the Bible. (He later rescinded that belief.) He busied himself supporting education, founding Liberty Baptist College (later Liberty University) in 1971. In 1973, when the Supreme Court legalized abortion, Falwell felt that Americans with traditional values needed to take up arms. The first thing needed was an organization.
Political strategist Paul Weyrich and Falwell had a conversation in 1979 that set the ball rolling. “I said ‘Somewhere out there, there is something of a moral majority,‘” Weyrich recounted in the Los Angeles Times. The phrase caught Falwell’s imagination, and the Moral Majority was born. The group’s intentions—banding together groups with similar moral stances—met severe criticism from fundamentalist leaders at the time, who called Falwell’s work a corruption of the devil. “It was no small accomplishment for a fundamentalist preacher to come along and say, ‘We’re going to work with people whom we’ve always thought were wrong about everything,’” scholar Michael Cromartie of the think tank Ethics and Public Policy Center said in the Los Angeles Times.
Despite criticism, the movement gained momentum. “He had awakened the slumbering giant of evan-gelical politics and made it a force to be reckoned with,” Ralph Reed Jr., the former executive director of the Christian Coalition, was quoted as saying in the Washington Post by staff writer Joe Holley. The 1980 national elections reflected the nearly seven million conservative voters on Falwell’s mailing lists. Political scientist Matthew Wilson told the Chicago Tribune, “Jerry Falwell, more than anyone else, was responsible for galvanizing and spearheading the most important mass political movement of the last 30 years. His Moral Majority really catapulted the Republican Party to power.”
In 1987, Falwell left Moral Majority to focus on the success of Liberty University. He told interviewers for the Chicago Tribune “The dream was a Christian institution of education providing preschool, kindergarten, elementary, high school, liberal arts university, graduate schools, seminary, law school, engineering school, [and] medical school.” The 2007 graduating class was 2,106 students, including 50 graduates from the first graduating law school class. Falwell served as chancellor and president of the university and attended nearly every sports event the school hosted.
Falwell continued to stay actively involved in politics, infamously accusing civil rights organizations, feminists, and secularists of being part of the cause of the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks. He later stated that he considered the prophet Muhammad to be a terrorist. Falwell was often asked by Republican leaders to tone down his statements and he later apologized for inflammatory phrasing, but Fal-well thrived on controversy. Mel White, Falwell’s former speechwriter who quit his job when he openly acknowledged that he was gay, was quoted by Holley at Washington Post as saying, “He once told me that if he didn’t have people protesting him, he’d have to hire them. He felt it was publicity for the kingdom of God.” New York Times contributor Peter Applebbome wrote, “Behind the controversies was a shrewd, savvy operator with an original vision for effecting political and moral change.” Those visions are what Falwell’s supporters often remember. “Everything was bigger than life to Fal-well,” retired pastor Dr. Jerry Vines told People magazine reporter, Sandra Sobieraj Westfall. “He didn’t have little visions; he had big visions.”
At the announcement of Falwell’s death of cardiac arrhythmia on May 15, 2007, both Falwell’s supporters and his critics took the opportunity to remember his life and honor his passing. “Falwell manipulated a powerful pulpit in exchange for access to political power and promotion of a narrow range of moral concerns . But there is no denying his impact on American political life,” Rev. Barry Lynn of the Americans United for Separation of Church told Westfall in her article for People. Senator John McCain, who had once broken with Fal-well, calling him one of the “agents of intolerance” inAmerican politics, later reconciled with the leader, writing in a statement quoted by Chicago Tribune writers Lisa Anderson and Margaret Ramirez, “Dr. Falwell was a man of distinguished accomplishment who devoted his life to serving his faith and country.” Leading reform rabbi Eric Yoffie was cited by the Los Angeles Times as saying of Falwell, “We disagreed often and deeply on the application of religious teachings and traditions to the public sphere; too often he used faith to create divisions within our society. Yet his commitment to encouraging Americans to express their faith was genuine.” Fal-well died in Lynchburg, Virginia, and his funeral was held in the church he founded, which now has 24,000 members and is presided over by his son, Jerry Falwell Jr. He was 73 years old. Sources: Chicago Tribune, May 16, 2007, p. 1, p. 4; Los Angeles Times, May 16, 2007, p. A1, pp. A12–A13; New York Times, May 16, 2007, p. A1, p. A15; People, May 28, 2007, pp. 99–100; Times (London), May 16, 2007, p. 64; Washington Post, May 16, 2007, p. A1, p. A6.
—Alana Joli Abbott