Jerry Falwell, founder of the Moral Majority and one of the key architects of the rise of the Religious Right, died May 15 at age 73.
Falwell, pastor of Thomas Road Baptist Church and chancellor of Liberty University, was tapped by conservative political activists to lead fundamentalist Christians into the Republican Party in the late 1970s. His Religious Right group, the Moral Majority, took credit for helping elect Ronald Reagan president in 1980 and for aiding the rise of the GOP in the South.
In 1989, Falwell disbanded the Moral Majority, saying he wanted to devote more time to Liberty University. He never completely disengaged from politics, however, and came back in force when Bill Clinton was elected president in 1992. Falwell backed George W. Bush in 2000 and 2004 and recently was being courted by U.S. Sen. John McCain, former House Speaker Newt Gingrich and other GOP hopefuls.
The Lynchburg, Va., evangelist, who founded and hosted the “Old-Time Gospel Hour” television program, was no fan of the wall of separation between church and state. He repeatedly said that concept was not in the Constitution.
In a press statement, Barry W. Lynn, executive director of Americans United, said, “Jerry Falwell politicized religion and failed to understand the genius of our Constitution, but there is no denying his impact on American political life. He will long be remembered as the face and voice of the Religious Right.”
Continued Lynn, “Falwell manipulated a powerful pulpit in exchange for access to political power and promotion of a narrow range of moral concerns. I appeared with him on news programs dozens of times over the years and, while I disagreed with just about everything Falwell stood for, he was a determined advocate for what he believed.
“Falwell reached his apex of power in the 1980s,” concluded Lynn. “Since then, leadership of the Religious Right has passed to James Dobson, Pat Robertson, Tony Perkins, Donald Wildmon and others. However, Falwell remained influential in politics, with Republican presidential candidates seeking his support this year.”
There will be a full report on Falwell and his legacy in the July-August Church & State.