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TV evangelist Jerry Falwell dies at 73

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  • Greg Cannon
    http://news.yahoo.com/s/ap/jerry_falwell;_ylt=AuTg.V.cqga6bekaJC4mXE2s0NUE TV evangelist Jerry Falwell dies at 73 By SUE LINDSEY, Associated Press Writer 10
    Message 1 of 1 , May 15, 2007
      http://news.yahoo.com/s/ap/jerry_falwell;_ylt=AuTg.V.cqga6bekaJC4mXE2s0NUE

      TV evangelist Jerry Falwell dies at 73

      By SUE LINDSEY, Associated Press Writer 10 minutes ago

      LYNCHBURG, Va. - The Rev. Jerry Falwell was stricken
      at his campus office and died Tuesday after a career
      in which the evangelist used the power of television
      to transform the religious right into a mighty force
      in American politics. He was 73.

      The founder of the Moral Majority was discovered
      without a pulse at Liberty University and pronounced
      dead at a hospital an hour later. Dr. Carl Moore,
      Falwell's physician, said he had a heart condition and
      presumably died of a heart rhythm abnormality.

      Driven into politics by the 1973 Supreme Court ruling
      that established the right to an abortion, Falwell
      founded the Moral Majority in 1979. One of the
      conservative lobbying group's greatest triumphs came
      just a year later, when Ronald Reagan was elected
      president.

      Falwell credited the Moral Majority with getting
      millions of conservative voters registered, aiding in
      Reagan's victory and giving Republicans control of the
      Senate.

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

      Fellow TV evangelist Pat Robertson, himself a one-time
      GOP candidate for president, declared Falwell "a tower
      of strength on many of the moral issues which have
      confronted our nation."

      The rise of Christian conservatism — and the Moral
      Majority's full-throated condemnation of
      homosexuality, abortion and pornography — made Falwell
      perhaps the most recognizable figure on the
      evangelical right, and one of the most controversial
      ones, too.

      Over the years, Falwell waged a landmark libel case
      against Hustler magazine founder Larry Flynt over a
      raunchy parody ad, and created a furor in 1999 when
      one of his publications suggested that the
      purse-carrying "Teletubbies" character Tinky Winky was
      gay.

      Matt Foreman, executive director of National Gay and
      Lesbian Task Force, extended condolences to those
      close to Falwell, but added: "Unfortunately, we will
      always remember him as a founder and leader of
      America's anti-gay industry, someone who exacerbated
      the nation's appalling response to the onslaught of
      the
      AIDS epidemic, someone who demonized and vilified us
      for political gain and someone who used religion to
      divide rather than unite our nation."

      The 1980s marked the religious conservative movement's
      high-water mark. In more recent years, Falwell had
      become a problematic figure for the GOP. His remarks a
      few days after Sept. 11, 2001, essentially blaming
      feminists, gays and liberals for bringing on the
      terrorist attacks drew a rebuke from the White House,
      and he apologized.

      Falwell's declining political star seemed apparent
      when he was quietly led in and out of the Republican
      Party's 2004 national convention. Just four years
      earlier, he was invited to pray from the rostrum.

      The big, blue-eyed preacher with a booming voice
      started a fundamentalist church in an abandoned
      bottling plant in Lynchburg in 1956 with just 35
      members. He built it into a religious empire that
      included the 24,000-member Thomas Road Baptist Church,
      the "Old Time Gospel Hour" carried on TV stations
      around the country and 9,600-student Liberty
      University, which Falwell founded in 1971 as Lynchburg
      Baptist College.

      From his living room, he broadcast his message of
      salvation and raised 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. Alley
      died last summer.

      Falwell had once opposed mixing preaching with
      politics, but changed his views. The Moral Majority
      grew to 6.5 million members and raised $69 million as
      it supported conservative politicians and railed
      against abortion, homosexuality, pornography and bans
      on school prayer.

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

      "Jerry's passions and convictions changed the course
      of our country for the better over the last 20 years,"
      said James Dobson, founder of the conservative
      Christian Focus on the Family ministry. "It was Jerry
      who led an entire wing of Christianity, the
      fundamentalist wing, away from isolation and into a
      direct confrontation with the culture."

      "Dr. Falwell was a man of distinguished accomplishment
      who devoted his life to serving his faith and
      country," said Sen. John McCain (news, bio, voting
      record), a GOP presidential contender who during the
      2000 primaries referred to Falwell and Robertson as
      "agents of intolerance." McCain has since distanced
      himself from those comments.

      In 1984, Falwell sued Hustler for $45 million,
      charging that he was libeled by an liquor-ad parody
      that quoted him as saying he lost his virginity to his
      mother in an outhouse.

      A federal jury found the fake ad did not libel him,
      but awarded him $200,000 for emotional distress. The
      verdict was overturned in a landmark 1988
      U.S. Supreme Court decision that held that even
      pornographic spoofs about a public figure enjoy First
      Amendment protection.

      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.

      In 1999, he told an 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, the
      children's TV character, was a gay role model and
      morally damaging to children.

      Falwell was re-energized after family values 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 gay marriage and more conservative elected
      officials.

      In 1987, Falwell took over the PTL (Praise the Lord)
      ministry in South Carolina after the Rev. Jim Bakker
      got caught in a sex and money scandal. Falwell slid
      fully clothed down a theme park water slide after
      donors met his fundraising goal to help rescue the
      rival ministry. He gave it up seven months later after
      learning the depth of PTL's financial problems.

      Largely because of the sex scandals involving Bakker
      and fellow evangelist Jimmy Swaggart, donations to
      Falwell's ministry dropped from $135 million in 1986
      to less than $100 million the following year. Hundreds
      of workers were laid off and viewers of his television
      show dwindled.

      Liberty University was $73 million in debt and on the
      verge of bankruptcy, and his "Old Time Gospel Hour"
      was $16 million in debt. By the mid-1990s, two local
      businessmen with long ties to Falwell began overseeing
      the finances and helped get companies to forgive debts
      or write them off.

      Falwell dreamed that Liberty would grow to 50,000
      students and be to fundamentalist Christians what
      Notre Dame is to Roman Catholics and Brigham Young
      University is to Mormons.

      Falwell's father and his grandfather were militant
      atheists, he wrote in his autobiography. He said his
      father made a fortune off his businesses — including
      bootlegging during Prohibition.

      As a student, Falwell was a star athlete and a
      prankster who was barred from giving his high school
      valedictorian's speech after he was caught using
      counterfeit lunch tickets.

      He ran with a gang of juvenile delinquents before
      becoming a born-again Christian at 19. He turned down
      an offer to play professional baseball and transferred
      from Lynchburg College to Baptist Bible College in
      Springfield, Mo.

      "My heart was burning to serve Christ," he once said
      in an interview. "I knew nothing would ever be the
      same again."

      Falwell had made careful preparations for a transition
      of his leadership to his two sons, Jerry Falwell, Jr.,
      now vice chancellor of Liberty University, and
      Jonathan Falwell, executive the pastor of Thomas Road
      Baptist Church.

      Falwell is survived by his wife, Macel, his two sons
      and a daughter, Jeannie Falwell Savas. Funeral
      arrangements were not immediately known.

      Former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney, a Mormon whose
      own faith has become an issue during his run for the
      presidency, said Falwell "built and led a movement
      based on strong principles and strong faith," and "the
      legacy of his important work will continue through his
      many ministries where he put his faith into action."
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