Rev. Jerry Falwell, a four-star general in the Religious Right's culture wars and a televangelist whose Moral Majority group forged conservative Christians into a formidable political force, died Tuesday after collapsing in his office in Lynchburg, Va.
Falwell, an influential man with a booming voice and a penchant for provocative statements, was 73. Speaking at a news conference, Falwell's personal cardiologist, Dr. Carl Moore, said Falwell had suffered from heart problems and likely had died from cardiac arrhythmia, a heart rhythm abnormality that occurs without warning.
Founder and pastor of Lynchburg's Thomas Road Baptist Church for more than 50 years, Falwell played a major role in taking evangelism from the revival tent to the television screen to a prominent seat at the table of national politics. He achieved national stature -- as well as the covers of Time and Newsweek magazines -- for spurring conservative Christians into political action beginning with his founding of the Moral Majority in 1979, a development that helped propel Ronald Reagan into the White House.
Engaging issues such as abortion, gay rights, pornography and bans on school prayer, Falwell told Christians, many of whom had avoided politics, that it was their duty to jump into the political fray. And they did, millions of them registering and voting for the first time in 1980.
"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," said Matthew Wilson, a political scientist at Southern Methodist University in Dallas.
The 2008 election presents a crucial moment for the movement Falwell fostered, Wilson said, especially if Republicans nominate an abortion-rights supporter like Rudolph Giuliani. "I think Jerry Falwell's passing highlights something -- we're moving beyond the period when evangelicals and the Republican Party operated with the understanding that each was good for the other," he said.
Falwell left the Moral Majority in 1987 and turned his attention to the growth of Liberty University, believed to be the largest evangelical university in the world, which he founded in 1971. Liberty has 9,600 resident students and 17,250 distance learning students. Falwell projected 25,000 resident students by 2020.
The Tribune interviewed him on May 1 at his campus office in a 1923 stone cottage built for Woodrow Wilson's Treasury Secretary Carter Glass. He spoke proudly of the massive education complex -- now providing programs from preschool to PhD -- that he has built in his hometown of Lynchburg, all centered on Thomas Road Baptist Church, where Falwell preached every Sunday as he had since 1956. Then, the church had 35 members; today it has 24,000.
"Everything we're doing here is to produce multiple young champions for Christ," he said, referring to the sprawling campus in the Blue Ridge Mountains. On that bright and steamy May afternoon, Falwell looked dapper in his signature black suit with a gold American flag on his lapel, crisp white shirt and cranberry tie.
It was in his office that colleagues found him late Tuesday morning, unconscious and without a pulse. Efforts at resuscitation failed and Falwell was pronounced dead at 12:40 p.m. EDT.
Ron Godwin, university executive vice president, said he met Falwell for breakfast at 8:30 a.m. and they left each other for their respective offices at about 9:50 a.m.
At breakfast, Godwin said, "Dr. Falwell was talking about the future, plans for the future and about some encounters he had had with Liberty students yesterday that were very encouraging to him."
Godwin also said Falwell had "left instructions to those of us who have to carry on and we will be faithful to that charge." He said Falwell's two sons, Jerry Jr., vice chancellor at the university, and Jonathan, executive pastor of Thomas Road Baptist Church, would fill the void in leadership left by their father's death.
Godwin said commencement events would take place this weekend as planned.
Falwell died just days before the university's Saturday commencement ceremony. Former House Speaker Newt Gingrich will address the 2,106 graduates. Liberty also will mark the graduation of its first law school class, which has 50 members.
Falwell told the Tribune he was looking forward to that milestone. "The reason we have a law school, I'm not sure another law school is needed unless there is a unique purpose and ours is to train up men and women who can provide the salt of ministry to a hurting nation and world," he said.
The law school was just the latest item to be ticked off Falwell's ambitious list of planned educational institutions, he said.
"More than 40 years ago, I had already been pastor of Thomas Road Baptist Church here in Lynchburg for 10 or 11 years and I began building a dream," he said.
"The dream was a Christian institution of education providing preschool, kindergarten, elementary, high school, liberal arts university, graduate schools, seminary, law school, engineering school, medical school. Well, the engineering starts this fall and the medical is five years down the road," he said proudly.
"So, we bought 5,000 acres of land over the years. Its called Liberty Mountain. And our church actually established all of this. The law school, three years ago, was our most recent invention."
Rice University sociologist William Martin, author of "With God on Our Side: The Rise of the Religious Right in America," pointed out that by founding the Moral Majority, Falwell became one of the first evangelicals to use his pastoral influence for political purpose.
"He legitimized voting and participation in the political arena which was not common, or in many cases thought to be a bad thing, particularly for the most conservative evangelical and fundamentalist people," he said, adding the Moral Majority played "a significant role in getting millions of people registered to vote who had previously not registered to vote."
Falwell's decision to embrace politics marked a watershed for conservative Christians, said Larry Eskridge, associate director of The Institute for the Study of American Evangelicals at Wheaton College.
"Because up until that point, Falwell's general attitude and [that of] other people in the conservative realm of evangelicals and fundamentalists was that politics was not to be a part of their concern. They were supposed to be out there saving souls. For him to come out there and stake a claim was a major difference," Eskridge said.
In explaining his own shift in attitude, Falwell said in 1995, "I never thought the government would go so far afield, I never thought politicians would become so untrustworthy, I never thought courts would go so nuts to the left, and I misjudged the quality of government that we have."
Falwell was often outspoken. In 1999, he accused Tinky Winky, a character on the BBC's "Teletubbies" children's show, of being gay because he was purple and had an antenna shaped like a triangle -- a gay color and symbol -- and toted a purse.
But he ignited a firestorm of controversy after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks. Speaking on "The 700 Club" program of fellow televangelist Pat Robertson, Falwell said, "God continues to lift the curtain and allow the enemies of America to give us probably what we deserve." He went on to blame atheists, abortion providers, feminists, gays, lesbians, the ACLU and People for the American Way for helping cause the attacks.In a statement, Matt Foreman, executive director of the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force, said, , "Unfortunately, we will always remember him as a founder and leader of America's anti-gay industry ... someone who demonized and vilified us for political gain and someone who used religion to divide rather than unite our nation."
Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), who had crossed swords with Falwell during his 2000 bid for the White House and called Falwell one of the political "agents of intolerance," reconciled with the pastor and delivered Liberty University's 2006 commencement address. "Dr. Falwell was a man of distinguished accomplishment who devoted his life to serving his faith and country," McCain said Tuesday in a statement.
In addition to his two sons, Falwell is survived by Macel, his wife of nearly 50 years, and his daughter Jeannie Falwell Savas, a surgeon in Richmond, Virginia.
Televangelist left his mark on politics
Rev. Jerry Falwell rose from obscurity to become one of the most influential TV preachers, helping launch the religious right as a political force and stoking controversy along the way.
Aug. 11, 1933: Jerry Laymon Falwell is born in Lynchburg, Va. 1956: After graduating from Baptist Bible College in Springfield, Mo., Falwell starts Thomas Road Baptist Church in Lynchburg. He also begins a local radio show and television ministry called the "Old Time Gospel Hour." 1958: He marries Macel Pate. The two would have two sons and a daughter. 1971: Falwell starts Lynchburg Baptist College, which later becomes Liberty University. 1979: Falwell launches the Moral Majority, a national conservative religious political movement. 1980: The Moral Majority mobilizes in support of Ronald Reagan in the U.S. presidential election. The organization claims to register millions of new voters, helping elect Reagan. 1984: Falwell sues Hustler magazine for libel after it features him in an obscene parody. A $200,000 damage verdict for emotional distress is overturned by the U.S. Supreme Court in 1988. 1989: Following a series of scandals involving televangelists, and declining donations, Falwell dissolves the Moral Majority. 1994-95: Falwell is criticized for using the "Old Time Gospel Hour" to hawk a video called "The Clinton Chronicles" that makes a number of unsubstantiated charges against President Bill Clinton--among them that he is a drug addict and that he arranged the murders of political enemies in Arkansas. 1997: Falwell accepts $3.5 million from a group representing controversial Korean evangelist Sun Myung Moon to ease Liberty University's financial woes. 1998: Palm Beach billionaire Arthur Williams acknowledges donating $70 million to Liberty University to help the school erase decades of debt. 1999: In January, Falwell says that the Antichrist is a Jewish man who probably is alive today. He later apologizes. In February, a magazine published by Falwell sparks controversy when it suggests that a character in the PBS children's show "Teletubbies" is gay. 2001: During an appearance on Pat Robertson?s "The 700 Club" two days after the Sept. 11 terror attacks, Falwell blames pagans, abortionists, feminists, gays and lesbians and the ACLU in part for what happened. He later apologizes. 2005: Falwell is hospitalized with a viral infection and a respiratory problem. He later has stents inserted to unblock an artery. May 15, 2007: Falwell dies.
Sources: Associated Press, Liberty University, Tribune archives Chicago Tribune