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About The


May 17, 2007
Column #1,342
Advance for May 20, 2007
The Impact of Jerry Falwell
by Mike McManus

The Rev. Jerry Falwell was one of the giants of the 20th Century. Few people truly change history, as he did. Almost single-handedly, he created "the religious right."

A bold innovator, he launched the Thomas Road Baptist Church 50 years ago with 35 adults in an abandoned building that once housed the Donald Duck Bottling Company. First, he visited 100 homes a day, seeking new members.  Second, he began a half-hour daily radio broadcast which morphed six months later into a televised "Old-Time Gospel Hour."

The 22-year-old was a born promoter.

On the church's first anniversary, 864 people showed up.  Falwell combined his deep commitment of winning souls for Christ with an entrepreneurial flash that attracted attention. His church, where Falwell preached weekly, became one of the early mega-churches that last year opened a huge new facility for its 22,000 members.

His hustle and passion for righteousness was nurtured in his own family. His father was a flamboyant entrepreneur who owned grocery stores, 17 gas stations, oil storage tanks and became a bootlegger and owner of the Merry Garden Dance Hall.  Also a committed atheist and a heavy drinker, he died at age 55.

By contrast, his mother was deeply religious "who planted the seeds of faith in me from the moment I was born," he wrote in his autobiography. He said that in his own family he saw a battle between God and the Enemy, "a malignant force just as real and just as determined to produce evil as God is to create good. It was the Enemy who destroyed his father... he said, and God whose grace ennobled his mother," noted a respectful New York Times obituary.

In the 1960's and 1970's he witnessed an America marked by growing decadence of drugs, easy sex - and its consequences of widespread abortion, soaring illegitimacy and divorce plus liberal politics blessing the permissiveness.

"Preachers are not called to be politicians, but soul winners," he preached in a 1964 sermon. But the Roe v. Wade decision legalizing abortion sparked a wholesale change in him. He began urging Christians to become involved in politics and advised churches to register voters.

Traditionally, Southern Baptists and many evangelical Christians were reluctant to get involved in "things of this world." especially the dirty world of politics.

To awake them from their slumber and non-involvement, Falwell created "The Moral Majority" in 1978 with the clear mission to organize a Christian-right electorate, who chose candidates espousing their views and raised money to elect them at state and national levels. He united religious conservatives of many faiths and doctrines, emphasizing their common enemies.

Literally millions registered as new voters. Their impact began to be felt in the 1978 election when liberal U.S. Senators were defeated. The watershed year, however, was 1980.

"Up until that time, evangelicals were evenly positioned between Republicans and Democrats," said Rev. Tony Campolo, a liberal evangelical. "History will record that because of Jerry Falwell, Ronald Reagan became President." For the first time in decades, Republicans also gained control of the Senate.

However, the ascendancy of conservatives to political power did little to change the culture. Reagan appointed Justices Kennedy and O'Connor to the Supreme Court who were liberal on the abortion issue.  He nominated conservative Judge Bork who was rejected after Democrats regained control of the Senate.

Marriage rates continued to plunge and cohabitation rates to soar. For example, there were only 1.6 million cohabiting couples in 1980, but 5.2 million in 2005.  However, abortion  did fall in the 1990's from 1.6 million a year to 1.3 million.

The "religious right," as it came to be known, played a decisive role in the election of both Presidents Bush and the Republican Congress from 2001-7. One clear result has been the appointments of the conservative Supreme Court Justices Roberts and Alito.

Falwell turned his attention to creating and building what has become Liberty University with 10,000 students, which is educating new generations of conservatives.

For example, Tony Perkins attended 20 years ago as an ex-Marine and cop. Falwell personally inspired him to shift his interest to public policy. Perkins became a TV newsman and anchor in Louisiana and was elected to the Legislature where he got the first Covenant Marriage bill passed. He is now President of the Family Research Council.

Falwell is best known for his intemperate remarks, such as calling Mohammad a terrorist. However, he apologized and often surprised his critics with his genuine graciousness.

In 1989 Falwell disbanded the Moral Majority, because its "work was done."

However, the legacy of Jerry Falwell will continue.

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