TV evangelist Jerry Falwell dies at 73
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
Falwell credited the Moral Majority with getting
millions of conservative voters registered, aiding in
Reagan's victory and giving Republicans control of the
"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
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
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
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
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
From his living room, he broadcast his message of
salvation and raised the donations that helped his
"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
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
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
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
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
"My heart was burning to serve Christ," he once said
in an interview. "I knew nothing would ever be the
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
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."