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The Rev. Jerry Falwell died at 73, having founded a Southern Baptist mega-church, one of the first of its kind, and a respected university, brought Christian evangelicals into mainstream politics and helped engineer the Reagan presidency. His penchant for truly outrageous statements — and just as quickly apologizing — often obscured his accomplishments.
His obituaries tended to dwell on his role as a political powerbroker of the Christian right, a term that he may not have created but certainly defined, and treat him as a singular phenomenon. But Falwell's use of the pulpit to extend his influence into politics, popular culture and education has deep antecedents in American history.
The mixture of the sacred and the secular, with certain appalling exceptions, has had a largely positive effect in shaping the national destiny. The father-and-son Puritan preachers, Increase and Cotton Mather, did much to define the notion of the American experiment. By decamping from the strictures of Massachusetts to found Providence and the colony of Rhode Island, Roger Williams asserted the ideal of religious liberty.
Jonathan Edwards and the Calvinist preachers of the Great Awakening helped lay the groundwork for the American Revolution. The fiery abolitionist preachers of the early 19th century pushed the country toward civil war, which at a terrible cost in blood rid the United States of the blight of slavery.
In the 1930s, Father Coughlin pioneered the potent merger of religion and radio. However, his broadcasts, originally benign, wandered off into the swamps of anti-Semitism and fascism, and his career foundered.
Perhaps the best-known preacher since World War II is the Rev. Billy Graham, who never took a Falwell-like role in electoral politics but was an intimate of seven presidents and a frequent visitor to the Oval Office. His charismatic style and presence gave us the current generation of televangelists.
With the United States having no established religion, our religious leaders tend to be self-created rather than anointed. Jerry Falwell was very much part of a long, rich and peculiarly American tradition.