Jerry Falwell

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Jerry Falwell

Jerry Falwell (born 1933) is a fundamentalist religious leader who combined his religious activities, which included a nationwide television program, with promotion of a variety of right-wing political causes. He is perhaps best known as the founder of Moral Majority, Inc.

Jerry Falwell was born on August 11, 1933, in Lynchburg, Virginia. He attended public schools, excelled at sports, and earned a 98.6 percent average in high school before entering Lynchburg College in 1950. Midway through his sophomore year, on January 20, 1952, he underwent a religious conversion. Declining an offer to play baseball with the St. Louis Cardinals, Falwell transferred to the Baptist Bible College in Springfield, Missouri. On April 12, 1958, he married Macel Pate, a church pianist.

Ministry's Humble Origins

Ordained to the ministry in 1956, Falwell founded the Thomas Road Baptist Church in his home town of Lynchburg with an initial congregation of 35 adults and their families, using an abandoned building owned by the Donald Duck Bottling Company. Their first project was to scrub cola off the old brick walls. From this modest start the Thomas Road Church grew to a membership of 22,000, and eventually included a day school, a live-in rehabilitation center for alcoholics (Falwell's father drank excessively, and died when his son was just 15), a summer camp for children, a transportation service, and missionary and relief work in Guatemala, Haiti, South Korea, and elsewhere. A half-hour daily radio broadcast, "The Old-Time Gospel Hour," launched when the church was only a week old, grew into a television show which went national in 1971 and soon reached an audience estimated in the millions.

Mixing Church and State

The religion preached from Falwell's pulpit was what used to be called "fundamentalist." "The entire Bible, from Genesis to Revelation," Falwell said, "is the inerrant Word of God, and totally accurate in all respects." At times he sounded an apocalyptic trumpet: "This is the terminal generation before Jesus comes." Unlike the folkish "oldtime religion" formerly practiced in some rural areas, Falwell's gospel employed modern urban methods of persuasion. A symposium in June 1972 on "how to build a superaggressive local church" drew 5,000 Baptist church workers from all over the United States to hear one of Falwell's close associates declare: "God is impressed with a growing church. We believe Jesus must be sold as effectively as Coca-Cola."

By the late 1970s the conservative Christian movement had grown substantially, and Falwell's television ministry was just one of several thriving media pulpits. He had taken on a series of political causes: for voluntary prayer in schools, free enterprise, balanced budgets, military strength, and aid to Israel and against the Equal Rights Amendment, pornography, abortion, homosexuality, parimutuel betting, and rock and roll music.

Recognizing the political potential of his flock and others like it, Falwell founded the Moral Majority in 1979. The lobbying group's aim was to "reverse the politicization of immorality in our society," and it aimed to impel America's political leadership to demonstrate whether or not they were indeed religiously and morally committed, according to Falwell. The news magazine Time (October 1, 1979) described him at one rally holding up a Bible and saying, "If a man stands by this book, vote for him. If he doesn't, don't." He was also quoted as saying, "The liberal churches are not only the enemy of God but the enemy of the nation." This citizen action group soon operated with an annual budget of some $7 million.

The Reagan Years

It is difficult to assess the extent of Jerry Falwell's contribution to the wave of political conservatism that crested in the election of Ronald Reagan in 1980 and the first Republican-controlled Senate in 26 years, but it was surely substantial. Certainly he (and ministers like him), using his slogan "Get them saved, baptized, and registered," compelled many Americans to register as voters—citizens who, in some cases, had never participated in politics at any level before. During the Eighties, Republican politicians seemed to heed Falwell's warnings, and toeing the conservative line on a number of controversial issues (such as opposition to reproductive rights) became virtually obligatory in campaign strategies against Democrats.

To broaden his advocacy of purely political issues Falwell founded the Liberty Federation in 1986. Other victories directly and indirectly attributed to the influence of the Moral Majority included the election of President George Bush in 1988 and a number of conservative Supreme Court decisions beginning in the late 1980s. The Moral Majority's success was repeated in a number of offshoot groups, including the powerful Christian Coalition.

Projects Faltered

However, by the late 1980s Christian televangelism was suffering from serious blows to its credibility. While Falwell himself remained untainted by scandal, the names of other prominent ministers—most notably Jim Bakker and Jimmy Swaggart—appeared in newspaper headlines that included the words "prostitute," "adultery," and "payoff." Bakker's Praise the Lord (PTL) ministry, which included its own cable television network, was accused of financial mismanagement, and Falwell took over the organization in 1987, ostensibly in an effort to rescue it. This was ideologically akin to a Protestant becoming Pope; some within the organization later asserted that Falwell had deliberately mismanaged PTL, his ministry's main competition, to steer it into bankruptcy.

Falwell also made headlines when he sued a pornographic magazine and its publisher for a vicious parody that appeared in it. He was awarded $200,000 in emotional damages, but the case was appealed all the way to the Supreme Court, who struck down the previous verdict. The incident was woven into the plot of a 1996 feature film, The People vs. Larry Flynt.

In 1989 Falwell announced the dissolution of the Moral Majority, asserting its political aims had succeeded to such an extent that the organization was no longer necessary. He planned to concentrate on his other projects, most notably his Thomas Road Baptist Church, where he remained senior pastor, and Liberty University, a full-fledged educational institution he had founded in 1971. But Falwell, as chancellor, had pushed for an expansion of the university during the 1980s, and built facilities on borrowed money. The school also issued bonds and sold them on "The Old-Time Gospel Hour," later defaulting on interest payments to bond-holders, many of whom were elderly and poor. Scholarships to Liberty were given away freely, and by 1990 the school was $110 million in debt. Repeated requests on "The Old-Time Gospel Hour" for donations to shore up the faltering ministry sent Falwell's trio of organizations into a downward spiral. Contributions dropped, and his financial troubles multiplied. His long-running show even went off the air for a time.

A New Direction

By the mid-1990s Falwell had ventured into political issues once again, selling a video that accused President Bill Clinton of a number of crimes; elsewhere, the minister described Clinton in one sermon as an "ungodly liar," (Christianity Today, December 9, 1996, p, 63). Falwell appeared on an infomercial for a videocassette bible-study course sold by his ministry, in which he asserted that it was possible that human beings and dinosaurs once coexisted. Marking his return to the political arena, Falwell delivered the benediction at the Republican National Convention in 1996, and launched his God Save America tour later that year.

Falwell also began to ally with powerful Southern Baptist leadership, who would exhibit a more conservative and outspoken outlook by their 1997 national convention. Now in his sixties, Falwell still preaches Sunday services at the Thomas Road church, and there are hints that the youngest of his three children, Jonathan, may someday assume its pastorship. The younger Falwell was appointed administrator of the church in 1995; his brother Jerry Jr. serves as in-house counsel for his father's projects, and Falwell's only daughter is a surgeon in Richmond, Virginia.

Further Reading

Falwell and his Moral Majority were the subjects of a shrewd and pertinent essay by Frances Fitzgerald, "A Disciplined, Charging Army," in the New Yorker (May 18, 1981). There is an admiring and uncritical biography by Jerry Strober and Ruth Tomczak, Jerry Falwell: Aflame for God (1979). Journalist Dinesh D'Souza is the author of Falwell: Before the Millennium (1984). Falwell was frank and self-revelatory in his books, such as How You Can Clean Up America (1978), America Can Be Saved (1979), and especially Listen, America (1980). He has also written The Fundamentalist Phenomenon (1981), Strength for the Journey (1987), and The New American Family (1992). Falwell: An Autobiography, was published in 1996. Contemporary appraisals are in Newsweek (July 24, 1972), and September 15, 1980), Time (October 1, 1979), and Christianity Today, December 9, 1996. □

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