Jerry Falwell, the conservative preacher whose television ministry helped fuel the rise of the Religious Right, died Tuesday, May 15, after being found unresponsive in his office at Liberty University in Lynchburg, Virginia. He was 73.
Ron Godwin, an executive vice president at the university, said Falwell was transported to Lynchburg General Hospital and pronounced dead at 12:40 p.m. "He has had a history of heart problems," Godwin said in a news conference.
Dr. Carl Moore, a cardiovascular specialist, said Falwell was found "unconscious without a heartbeat" about 11:30 a.m. Efforts to resuscitate him in his office, in an ambulance, and at the hospital were unsuccessful.
Moore said Falwell had a cardiac arrhythmiaan irregularity in the heart's rhythmthat occurs "without warning and cannot be predicted."
Evangelist Billy Graham, in a statement, called Falwell "a close personal friend for many years. We did not always agree on everything, but I knew him to be a man of God."
For many, Falwell represented the public face of evangelical Protestantism, particularly its involvement in politics. Falwell founded the Moral Majority in 1979 to lobby politicians to "reverse the politicization of immorality in our society," he said at the time.
By then, Falwell had already been a radio and television preacher for 20 years. He rode a politically conservative wave and used his television ministry as a platform to advance conservative causes, including voluntary prayer in public schools, opposition to abortion, and military strength.
"When most people think of the Christian Right, they think of the Moral Majority," said John Green, a senior fellow at the Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life. The Moral Majority was "an opportunity to bring a lot of Southern conservatives into the Republican Party," Green said.
For decades before Falwell, evangelicals had largely withdrawn from politics. That began to change in the late 1970s, in part because of Falwell's activism.
Falwell initially supported Democratic President Jimmy Carter because of the Georgian's "born again" faith. But Falwell eventually became critical of Carter after Falwell objected to what he called the President's move toward liberal policies.
Falwell's cause was emboldened by the 1980 election of Ronald Reagan, but he dissolved the Moral Majority in 1989. He said the group had accomplished what it intended by lifting the Religious Right to prominence. Not long afterward, its place in politics was assumed by Pat Robertson's Christian Coalition.
Falwell and his twin brother, Gene, were born August 11, 1933, the youngest of five children. Their father, Carey, was a successful businessman who battled alcoholism; Falwell described their mother, Helen, as a gentle "woman of great faith."
It was to his native Lynchburg, Virginia, that Falwell traced his religious conviction, starting with a 1952 conversion experience midway through his sophomore year at Lynchburg College. The event led him to transfer to the Baptist Bible College in Springfield, Missouri, and a professional life in the pulpit.
"I wanted to study the Bible and prepare myself for whatever God wanted me to do," Falwell later remembered. "My heart was burning to serve Christ. I knew nothing would ever be the same again."
After graduation, Falwell founded a Baptist church in Lynchburg, with a congregation of 35 adults in 1956. Over the years, Thomas Road Baptist Church grew to a membership of 24,000, with an expansive campus that housed a day school and missionary work to serve impoverished countries.
"It really had the feeling of the old-time religion," said the Pew Forum's Green. "In a lot of ways, Falwell was on the cutting edge of church building."
A half-hour daily radio broadcast, "The Old-Time Gospel Hour," launched when Falwell's church was only a week old, grew into a television show that went national in 1971, and soon reached an audience estimated in the millions.
Falwell became known for his fundamentalist Christian teachings and dabbling in conservative politics. "The entire Bible, from Genesis to Revelation, is the inerrant Word of God, and totally accurate in all respects," Falwell once said.
After maintaining a near-constant public presence throughout the 1970s and 1980s, Falwell in 1990 withdrew from the political sphere to concentrate on his preaching and his work as chancellor at Liberty University, a respected institution he had founded in 1971.
Falwell's return to private life was short-lived. He again became politically active, railing against Bill Clinton's election as President in 1992. Falwell described Clinton as an "ungodly liar," and distributed a video that accused Clinton of a number of crimes, including an insinuation of murder. Falwell was also an outspoken advocate for Clinton's impeachment in 1998.
Long an independent pastor, Falwell became affiliated with the Southern Baptist Convention in 1996.
Just days after the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks on New York and Washington, Falwell was roundly criticized for saying God had allowed the tragedy because of America's liberal drift. "I really believe that the pagans, and the abortionists, and the feminists, and the gays and the lesbians the ACLU, People for the American Wayall of them who have tried to secularize AmericaI point the finger in their face and say, 'You helped this happen,'" Falwell said on Robertson's 700 Club program.
Falwell later apologized, saying his remarks were "uncalled for at the time." A poll taken not long after his apology showed 73 percent of Americans "totally disagreed" with his remarks.
Barely one year later, Falwell angered Muslims by calling the Prophet Muhammad "a terrorist," a remark that set off deadly riots in India and prompted a death threat from an Iranian cleric. Falwell apologized again, saying he "intended no disrespect to any sincere, law-abiding Muslim."
After conservatives turned out in force to re-elect President George W. Bush in 2004, Falwell launched the Moral Majority Coalition to "finish what I started 25 years ago," with the goal of sending 40 million evangelicals to the polls in 2008.
In a late March interview with Religion News Service, Falwell contemplated the upcoming election and the role of evangelicals.
"We're about a third of the Republican constituency, social conservatives," he said. "Political and fiscal conservatives are the other two-thirds. We all need each other to win."
Falwell is survived by his wife of 49 years, Macel Pate, and three children, Jerry, Jeannie, and Jonathan.
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He was publisher of National Liberty Journal, and founder, chancellor, and president of Liberty University and co-founder of Moral Majority, which was reactivated in 2004 as the Moral Majority Coalition.
NPR interviewed him this past June in "Religion, Politics a Potent Mix for Jerry Falwell."
Christianity Today articles by or about Falwell include:
The Power of Hospitality | How to win over enemies and influence people. (A Christianity Today editorial, June 1, 2006)
Give Me Shelter (Now Workers) | "The devil appears again in the Trade Center smoke, Falwell tries another apology, and bin Laden's Abu Sayaaf connection." (September 17, 2001)
America on the Offensive | The world joins in prayerand in attacking Jerry Falwell. (September 2001)
Conversations: The Jerry Falwell We Never Knew | He hangs out with liberal pundits and gay activists. Is this the same Jerry Falwell who founded the Moral Majority? (April 24, 2000)
Building Outreach and Friendship with the Homosexual Community | What Jerry Falwell really said at the Anti-Violence Forum. (Jerry Falwell, November 1, 1999)
I'd Do It All Again | Jerry Falwell is pastor of Thomas Road Baptist Church and chancellor of Liberty University in Lynchburg, Virginia. He founded the Moral Majority in 1979 and closed it down in 1989. (Jerry Falwell, September 6, 1999)
Is the Religious Right Finished? | Responses to the call of Ed Dobson and Cal Thomas for "some sort of quarantine." (Paul Weyrich, James Dobson, Cal Thomas, Ralph Reed, Jerry Falwell, Don Eberly, and Charles Colson, September 6, 1999)
Making Radio Waves | Christian talk radio's high-wireless act is soaring. But without strong accountability structures, it could lose its balance. (August 15, 1994)
CT Liveblog has other news about Falwell.