Religious leader Jerry Falwell dead at 73

Rev. Jerry Falwell
  Rev. Jerry Falwell (AP)

The Rev. Jerry Falwell, who founded the Moral Majority and built the religious right into a political force, died Tuesday shortly after being found unconscious in his office at Liberty University, a school executive said. He was 73.

Ron Godwin, the university's executive vice president, said Falwell, 73, was found unresponsive around 10:45 a.m. and taken to Lynchburg General Hospital. "CPR efforts were unsuccessful," he said.

Godwin said he was not sure what caused the collapse, but he said Falwell "has a history of heart challenges."

"I had breakfast with him, and he was fine at breakfast," Godwin said. "He went to his office, I went to mine, and they found him unresponsive."

Falwell had survived two serious health scares in early 2005. He was hospitalized for two weeks with what was described as a viral infection, then was hospitalized again a few weeks later after going into respiratory arrest. Later that year, doctors found a 70 percent blockage in an artery, which they opened with stents.

Falwell credited his Moral Majority with getting millions of conservative voters registered, electing Ronald Reagan and giving Republicans Senate control in 1980.

"I shudder to think where the country would be right now if the religious right had not evolved," Falwell said when he stepped down as Moral Majority president in 1987.

The fundamentalist church that Falwell started in an abandoned bottling plant in 1956 grew into a religious empire that includes the 22,000-member Thomas Road Baptist Church, the "Old Time Gospel Hour" carried on television stations around the country and 7,700-student Liberty University. He built Christian elementary schools, homes for unwed mothers and a home for alcoholics.

He also founded Liberty University in Lynchburg, which began as Lynchburg Baptist College in 1971.

Liberty University's commencement is scheduled for Saturday, with former U.S. House Speaker Newt Gingrich as the featured speaker.

In 2006, Falwell marked the 50th anniversary of his church and spoke out on stem cell research, saying he sympathized with people with medical problems, but that any medical research must pass a three-part test: "Is it ethically correct? Is it biblically correct? Is it morally correct?"

Falwell had once opposed mixing preaching with politics, but he changed his view and in 1979, founded the Moral Majority. The political lobbying organization grew to 6.5 million members and raised $69 million as it supported conservative politicians and campaigned against abortion, homosexuality, pornography and bans on school prayer.

Falwell became the face of the religious right, appearing on national magazine covers and on television talk shows. In 1983, U.S. News & World Report named him one of 25 most influential people in America.

In 1984, he sued Hustler magazine for $45 million, charging that he was libeled by an ad parody depicting him as an incestuous drunkard. A federal jury found the fake ad did not libel him, but awarded him $200,000 for emotional distress. That verdict was overturned, however, in a landmark 1988 U.S. Supreme Court decision that held that even pornographic spoofs about a public figure enjoy First Amendment protection.

The case was depicted in the 1996 movie "The People v. Larry Flynt."

With Falwell's high profile came frequent criticism, even from fellow ministers. The Rev. Billy Graham once rebuked him for political sermonizing on "non-moral issues."

Falwell quit the Moral Majority in 1987, saying he was tired of being "a lightning rod" and wanted to devote his time to his ministry and Liberty University. But he remained outspoken and continued to draw criticism for his remarks.

Days after Sept. 11, 2001, Falwell essentially blamed feminists, gays, lesbians and liberal groups for bringing on the terrorist attacks. He later apologized.

In 1999, he told a evangelical conference that the Antichrist was a male Jew who was probably already alive. Falwell later apologized for the remark but not for holding the belief. A month later, his National Liberty Journal warned parents that Tinky Winky, a purple, purse-toting character on television's "Teletubbies" show, was a gay role model and morally damaging to children.

Falwell was re-energized after moral values issues proved important in the 2004 presidential election. He formed the Faith and Values Coalition as the "21st Century resurrection of the Moral Majority," to seek anti-abortion judges, a constitutional amendment banning same-sex marriage and more conservative elected officials.

The big, blue-eyed preacher with a booming voice started his independent Baptist church with 35 members. From his living room, he began broadcasting his message of salvation and raising the donations that helped his ministry grow.

"He was one of the first to come up with ways to use television to expand his ministry," said Robert Alley, a retired University of Richmond religion professor who studied and criticized Falwell's career.

Comments

  1. Joe Sedlak

    Joe Sedlak

    Who said that Falwell was a Christian? Oh, he did! He also said lots of other stupid things – and, no, he will not be missed! Whoever came up with that “About the dead,nothing but good” (De mortuis nisi bonum) nonsense – he has misled many honest citizens and even some honest politicians – the best thing I can think of to say about him is that he had good handwriting!

    I remember what someone once said about people who talk to God – they are praying! But when God talks to them – they are schizophrenic!

  2. billtc

    … will be his role in the rise of the Christian Taliban in the United States. He bears major responsibility for turning back the clock on tolerance and acceptance in this country. I will shed no tears for his passing.

  3. Sonorous Pest

    Sonorous pest

    I never cared for this blowhard who tried to force his own faith down the throats of millions.
    GOD spoke to me about Falwell and said HE was tired of Falwell using him as a paycheck.
    You cannot serve two masters, GOD or money, Falwell chose money.
    However the mercy of GOD is endless and I’m sure Falwell got exactly what he wanted.

  4. Sandy Price

    I was going to do a commentary on this subject but left before I could get it done. For Stoney and anyone having to face a agonizing and painful death, here is the organization to help you. It’s an old group that is now found in most of the states but we are growing and even have a lobbyist in D.C. to help us find Representatives who want our services.

    http://www.compassionandchoices.org/

    Headquarters are in Denver, Colorado and here in Arizona I am on the board of directors of our local chapter. There are also Pain Management classes being given all over the place and Hopice is able to give full medications for pain. We have not yet passed the physician assisted suicide in Arizona like Oregan has done but we are working on it with Newpaper ads, letters to the editor and inviting our local newspapers to come to our district meetings if only to listen to our audience’s questions.

    No one should fear the pain of these diseases and Compassion and Choices are doing everything possible to get this out of the hands of the religious right. We thought we had, after seeing the reaction to Shaivo’s death but everyone on that podium of Republicans will ban Death with Dignity. They speak of it as a mandate to kill and only a Christian could think that way.

    If this hits your family, contact your local Hospice, look for pain management classes and then Compassion and Choices. We do not need to suffer.

  5. Bat

    Bat

    I was taught that you should not speak of the dead unless you can say something good about them.

    Falwell is dead. Good.

  6. Elmo

    My greatest regret regarding Mr. Falwell’s passing is that he won’t be able to discover that he devoted his life to a figment of his imagination. But I can imagine what the look of dismay on his face might be, which is chuckle generation material.

  7. inga

    Falwell tried to make life miserable for anyone who didn’t follow his narrow interpretation of scripture. Tinky Winky seemed to behave more like a christian that Jerry.

  8. LurkingFromTheLeft

    …that tinky winky hit a little too close to home for ol’ JF –

    LFTL

  9. Joe Lawrence

    …. what Falwell would have been saying about God’s purposes and intentions if some prominent, outspoken and widely quoted opponent of his had died under the same circumstances.

    I think everyone knows the answer.

    Back when dinosaurs were still a big problem, I worked for a miserable s.o.b. – a self-appointed-though-faux conservative rich guy. He was a pig in many, many ways, but you had to respect the total sincerity of his feelings. He once said – truthfully, I believe – “I ain’t never wished nobody would die, but I read the obituaries with continuing interest…and occasional satisfaction.”

    I never forgot either the remark, or the sincerity thereof.

    Joe Lawrence