Friends and political foes remembered controversial television preacher Jerry Falwell, pronounced dead Tuesday afternoon after collapsing in his Liberty University office, as a larger-than-life figure who leaves a lasting imprint on American religion and politics.
Founder of the Moral Majority in 1979, Falwell received much credit for mobilizing evangelical Christians to help elect Ronald Reagan as president in 1980, defeating incumbent Jimmy Carter, a born-again Southern Baptist, and establishing the Religious Right as a viable voting bloc that has influenced elections ever since.
But those who knew him best said Falwell viewed his most lasting legacy as Liberty University, a school he founded in 1971 that today includes two colleges, four schools, and a seminary. About 10,000 students are enrolled on campus, with thousands more in distance-learning program.
Ron Godwin, an executive vice president at Liberty, who had breakfast with Falwell Tuesday morning, said Falwell was found later unconscious and unresponsive in his office. Efforts to resuscitate him both at the university and Lynchburg General Hospital failed.
Falwell’s physician, Dr. Carl Moore, said the most likely cause of death was a sudden abnormal heart rhythm.
Falwell, 73, had a history of heart problems. He had two arteries repaired in February 1998 after blockages were discovered during a routine checkup. His most recent health scare came in 2005, when doctors put him on a ventilator to help him breathe during 12 days in the hospital for pneumonia.
Robert Parham of the Baptist Center for Ethics said Falwell’s death leaves a void in American politics.
“His death marks the first major transition in the leadership of the Christian Right that endorsed the GOP as the Party of God and labeled the Democratic Party as being against God, beginning in the late 1970s,” Parham said.
According to a biographical sketch by the LynchburgNews & Advance, Falwell founded Thomas Road Baptist Church in 1956 in an old soft-drink bottling plant after graduating from Baptist Bible College in Springfield, Mo. That same year, he started his weekly television broadcast, the “Old Time Gospel Hour.”
The church moved into a 3,200-seat sanctuary on Thomas Road in the Fort Hill area in 1970, with services broadcast around the world.
Falwell cut back on his political activity somewhat in the late 1980s and early 1990s, saying he was tired of being a lightning rod and needed to spend more time getting LibertyUniversity and his other ministries, hurt financially by the televangelist scandals of the late 1980s, on solid footing.
But Falwell continued to generate controversy with public statements, like his post-9/11 comment blaming liberal and secular groups for the terrorist attacks in 2001, for which he later apologized.
Energized by President Bush’s re-election in 2004, Falwell rolled out a reincarnated Moral Majority Coalition, with a goal of attracting 1 million members to mobilize evangelical voters against activist judges, electing conservatives to Congress and replacing President Bush with another conservative in 2008.
Originally an independent Baptist, Falwell joined ranks with the Southern Baptist Conservatives of Virginia in 1996 and began attending annual meetings of the Southern Baptist Convention, won over by friends in the “conservative resurgence” that moved the convention to the right in the 1980s.
That drew rebuke from separatists in the Baptist Bible Fellowship, who accused him of compromise for linking with a denomination that, despite fundamentalist gains, still tolerated “false teaching” like ecumenism and the charismatic movement.
Paige Patterson, president of Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary and a fundamentalist leader in the SBC, said he lost “a great friend” and America “a great patriot.”
“Dr. Falwell’s shadow falls across the face of the rebirth of conservative values in our nation, in the Southern Baptist Convention and in the entire evangelical world,” Patterson said. “Only once in a generation will a man of his stature arise.”
Bruce Prescott of Mainstream Oklahoma Baptists, a group opposed to fundamentalism in the SBC, said Falwell certainly had an influence on American politics.
“I do not believe that it was a positive influence, nor do I believe that it represents what is best in the Baptist tradition,” Prescott said. “I could be wrong. I trust that every Baptist will find comfort in knowing that God will be the judge of his legacy.”
Parham of the Nashville, Tenn.,-based BCE expressed sympathy for Falwell’s family and followers mourning loss of a “beloved leader, who defined faith for them and gave them purpose.”
Parham called Falwell “an entrepreneurial, energetic and opinionated fundamentalist, who was almost always wrong, but never in doubt about the righteousness of his cause.”
“He sharpened the attitudes of friends and foes, never allowing Christians to have dull edges,” Parham said. “He deserves applause for that accomplishment alone.”
Parham also credited Falwell with “reshaping Christian fundamentalism, moving a culturally disengaged collection of clergy into a politically powerful party of preachers, who mobilized their members to help Republicans win five presidential elections and retake Congress in the 1994 landslide.”
Falwell’s departure, Parham said, “will leave the public square strangely quiet, with less clarity and with some uncertainly about the future.”
Bob Allen is managing editor of EthicsDaily.com.