Minister led religious shift in '80s

The Baltimore Sun

The Rev. Jerry Falwell, the conservative televangelist and founder of the Moral Majority, died yesterday afternoon at a Lynchburg, Va., hospital after being found unconscious and without a pulse in his office at Liberty University.

Mr. Falwell, who gained national stature for galvanizing conservative Christians into political action during the 1980s, was 73 and had suffered from a heart condition.

The Chicago Tribune interviewed him May 1 at his office in a little stone cottage on the campus of Liberty University, which he founded in 1971 and which has 9,600 students on campus. He spoke proudly of the huge education complex - now providing programs from preschool to doctoral studies - that he has built in Lynchburg, all created around the Thomas Road Baptist Church, where he had preached since 1956.

"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.

Mr. Falwell's 1979 founding of the Moral Majority, an organization he characterized as "pro-life, pro-family, pro-moral and pro-American," changed the political conversation in the country, encouraged Christian conservatives to become politically active and was instrumental in the 1980 election of President Ronald Reagan, whose candidacy the organization championed.

Despite efforts at resuscitation at his office, en route to the hospital and in the emergency room of Lynchburg General Hospital, Mr. Falwell never regained a pulse and apparently died of cardiac arrhythmia, Dr. Carl Moore, his personal cardiologist, said at a news conference yesterday afternoon. Dr. Moore said the heart rhythm abnormality occurs without warning and cannot be predicted.

Ron Godwin, the university's executive vice president, said he had met with Mr. Falwell for breakfast at 8:30 a.m. and they left for their respective offices about 9:50 a.m. After Mr. Falwell failed to appear at a meeting, colleagues found him unconscious and unresponsive in his campus office, Mr. Godwin said.

At breakfast, Mr. Godwin said, Mr. 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."

Mr. Godwin also said that Mr. Falwell had made "timely and prescient preparations for an event such as this." He said Mr. Falwell's two sons, Jerry Jr., a vice chancellor at the university, and Jonathan, executive pastor of the Thomas Road Baptist Church, would fill the void in leadership left by their father's death.

Mr. Falwell "was a giant of faith and a visionary leader and has always been a man of great optimism and faith. He has left instructions to those of us who have to carry on, and we will be faithful to that charge," said Mr. Godwin.

Over a 20-year period, Mr. Falwell spoke at several events for Rock City Church in Baltimore County, said its pastor, Bishop Bart Pierce.

"He was always concerned we were slipping on that slippery slope away from those family values we've known, and he was a swinging voice to try to bring us back," Bishop Pierce said. "We do need that voice in the balancing act of a society that tends to lean in one direction.

"It's a loss, no doubt, to the entire body of Christ, and really honestly to a lot of generations because of the great school they had in Liberty," Bishop Pierce said.

Mr. Falwell died just days before the university's commencement ceremony, which is scheduled to take place Saturday as planned. Former House Speaker Newt Gingrich will deliver the address, and Liberty will graduate the first class of its new law school.

Mr. Falwell clearly had been looking forward to that event.

"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 earlier this month.

The law school was just the latest item to be ticked off Mr. Falwell's ambitious list of educational institutions he planned to found, 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, sitting at a dining room table at one end of his wood-paneled office.

"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.

"So we bought 5,000 acres of land over the years. It's called Liberty Mountain. And our church actually established all of this. The law school, three years ago, was our most recent invention."

The law school will graduate 50 students Saturday.

In his book With God on Our Side: The Rise of the Religious Right in America, Rice University professor William Martin points out that with the founding of the Moral Majority, Mr. Falwell became one of the first evangelicals to use his pastoral influence for political purposes. Pointing to a report that 8 million evangelicals were not registered to vote at the time, Mr. Falwell declared that dereliction "one of that major sins of the church today" and urged pastors to help eradicate it.

At the time, Mr. Falwell was breaking new ground by inserting Christian values into the political arena. The priority for evangelical Christians at the time was to love God and neighbor and forget about politics. But Mr. Martin writes that the miracle of the Moral Majority was that, in just a matter of months, that whole concept was shattered.

In explaining his own shift in attitude, Mr. Falwell said in 1995, "I had preached many, many sermons at pastors' conventions saying: 'Fellows, don't lead marches; don't get involved politically; focus on your pulpit.' Later, when I got into politics personally, it was morally necessary for me to say out loud that I have misled you on that issue. 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."

That thinking also informed his determination to found Christian law and medical schools, with the hope that their graduates would be able to take up leadership positions in their professions and make a difference on a national level.

Mr. Falwell often was outspoken but rarely caused as much controversy as he did in remarks he made after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks. Speaking on the 700 Club television program of fellow televangelist Pat Robertson, Mr. Falwell said, "I really believe that the pagans, and the abortionists, and the feminists, and the gays and the lesbians who are actively trying to make that an alternative lifestyle, the ACLU, People for the American Way, all of them who have tried to secularize America - I point the finger in their face and say, 'You helped this happen.'"

Michael Metzger, president and senior fellow of the Clapham Institute, an Annapolis-based group helping people integrate faith in their daily lives, said Mr. Falwell "was a lightning rod and will probably have a mixed legacy."

Mr. Falwell's work with the Moral Majority was "well-intended, but I'm not sure tactically was so smart," Mr. Metzger said.

He said promoting what would be good for all, regardless of faith, might have been more successful, instead of a "moral majority" - something Mr. Metzger says is easy to observe and say, more than two decades later.

"The idea of a 'moral majority' might have been a reach," Mr. Metzger said. "There might have been a consensus that might have been formed around a civic public square, rather than a moral majority where everyone felt it was his morality and no one else's.

"I think it overreached; I think it was presumptuous sometimes," he said. "I'm sure he did and said some things that he regretted."

Born and raised in Lynchburg, Mr. Falwell returned home after college to found Thomas Road Baptist Church in 1956. The church now has 24,000 members.

Funeral services are set for 2 p.m. Monday at Thomas Road Baptist Church.

Mr. Falwell is also survived by his wife of nearly 50 years, Macel, and a daughter, Dr. Jeannie Falwell Savas, who is a surgeon in Richmond, Va.

Lisa Anderson writes for the Chicago Tribune. Tribune reporter Margaret Ramirez, Sun reporter Liz Kay and the Associated Press contributed to this article.

Copyright © 2021, The Baltimore Sun, a Baltimore Sun Media Group publication | Place an Ad