Lest We Forget

The Jerry Falwell Saga

The Rev. Jerry Falwell enjoyed a long, checkered career as a leader of the Religious Right before his death May 15 at the age of 73. This timeline of his activities was originally prepared for Church & State in 1999 in conjunction with a story we ran about Falwell’s claim to be re-entering the political fray. It has been updated to include more recent events.

May 1979: Falwell, a televangelist and Baptist pastor in Lynchburg, Va., is recruited by a bevy of far-right activists, including Howard Phillips and Paul Weyrich, to form the Moral Majority, a vehicle for bringing fundamentalist Protestants into the Repub­lican Party with the aim of unseating President Jimmy Carter.

March 1980: Addressing an Anchorage rally, Falwell recalls an alleged conversation with President Carter at the White House. Falwell claimed to have asked Carter why he had “practicing homosexuals” on his senior staff. According to Falwell, Carter replied, “Well, I am president of all the American people, and I believe I should represent everyone.” When others who attended the White House event insisted that the exchange never happened, Falwell responded that his account “was not intended to be a verbatim report,” but rather an “honest portrayal” of Carter’s position.

August 1980: After Southern Baptist Convention President Bailey Smith tells a Dallas Religious Right gathering that “God Almighty does not hear the prayer of a Jew,” Falwell gives a similar view. “I do not believe,” he told re­porters, “that God ans­wers the prayer of any unredeemed Gentile or Jew.” After a meeting with an Am­erican Jew­ish Commit­tee rabbi, he changes course, telling an interviewer on NBC’s “Meet the Press” that “God hears the prayers of all persons....God hears everything.”

1980-81: After the election of Ronald Reagan, the Moral Majority begins advocating for constitutional amend­ments banning abortion and restoring school-sponsored prayer. The group also demands tax aid to religious education.

September 1982: Falwell announces a drive to register 1 million new voters before the November elections.

July 1984: Falwell is forced to pay gay activist Jerry Sloan $5,000 after losing a court battle. During a TV debate in Sacramento, Falwell denied calling the gay-oriented Metro­politan Community Churches “brute beasts” and “a vile and Satanic system” that will “one day be utterly annihilated and there will be a celebration in heaven.” When Sloan insisted he had a tape, Falwell promised $5,000 if he could produce it. Sloan did so, Falwell refused to pay and Sloan successfully sued. Falwell appealed, with his attorney charging that the Jewish judge in the case was prejudiced. He lost again and was forced to pay an additional $2,875 in sanctions and court fees.

November 1984: Reports from the Federal Election Com­mission indicate that Falwell’s “I Love America Commit­tee,” a political action committee formed in 1983, is a flop. The PAC raised $485,000 in its first year – but spent $413,000 to do so.

May 1985: Falwell apologizes to a Jewish group for seeking a “Christian” America. From now on, he says, he will use the term “Judeo-Christian.”

January 1987: Falwell holds a Washington news conference to announce that he is changing the name of the Moral Majority to the Liberty Foun­dation. The new name never catches on and is soon abandoned.

October 1987: The Fed­­eral Election Commis­sion fines Fal­well $6,000 for transferring $6.7 million in funds intended for his ministry to political committees.

November 1987: Fal­well tells reporters he is stepping down as head of the Moral Majority and retiring from politics. “From now on, my real platform is the pulpit, not politics,” he says at a news conference.

February 1988: The U.S. Supreme Court strikes down a $200,000 jury award to Falwell for “emotional distress” he suffered because of a Hustler magazine parody. Chief Justice William H. Rehnquist, usually a Falwell favorite, wrote the unanimous opinion in Hustler v. Falwell, ruling that the First Amendment protects free speech.

June 1989: Falwell announces that the Moral Majority will shut down its offices and disband.

January 1991: Siding with Americans United, the Virginia Supreme Court unanimously rejects Falwell’s quest for $60 million in state bonds for his Liberty University. During the litigation, Falwell tried to camouflage the school’s rigidly fundamentalist character, telling the court that the school would no longer discriminate in hiring or force students to attend mandatory chapel (renamed convocation). All the while, Falwell assured his congregation that Liberty had not changed, insisting chapel will be mandatory “until Jesus comes.”

January 1993: In the wake of Bill Clinton’s election to the pres­idency, Falwell mails fund-raising letters nationwide asking people to vote on whether he should reactivate the Moral Maj­ority. He later refuses to say how much money the effort raised and tells reporters he has no intention of reactivating the organization.

February 1993: The Internal Revenue Service determines that funds from Falwell’s Old Time Gospel Hour program were illegally funneled to a political action committee. The IRS forces Falwell to pay $50,000 and retroactively revokes the Old Time Gospel Hour’s tax-exempt status for 1986-87.

March 1993: Despite his promise to Jewish groups to stop referring to America as a “Christian nation,” Falwell gives a sermon saying, “We must never allow our children to forget that this is a Christian nation. We must take back what is rightfully ours.”

September 1993: Falwell announces he will not reactivate the Moral Majority but will instead do political work through a group called the Liberty Alliance.

March 1994: Falwell announces the formation of a new group, Mission America, which he claims will mobilize like-minded clergy across the country. Falwell describes the group as a “personal ministry” and says it will have no budget or staff. Nothing more is heard from it.

May 1994: Jerry Falwell’s Liberty Flame newspaper runs an article calling TV preacher John Hagee a heretic for saying Jews can be saved without accepting Jesus Christ. Falwell urges every pastor to “take this information to the podium next Sunday.” (Falwell and Hagee later mend fences.)

September 1994: Falwell endorses former Iran-Contra figure Oliver North for a U.S. Senate seat in Virginia. Falwell glosses over North’s legal problems, saying they happened “in the past.”

1994-1995: Falwell is criticized for using his Old Time Gospel Hour to hawk a scurrilous video called “The Clinton Chronicles” that makes a number of unsubstantiated charges against President Bill Clinton – among them that he is a drug addict and that he arranged the murders of political enemies in Arkansas. Despite claims Falwell has no ties to the project, evidence surfaces that he helped bankroll the venture with $200,000 paid to a group called Citizens for Honest Gov­ernment (CHG). CHG’s Pat Matrisciana later admitted that Falwell and he staged an infomercial interview promoting the video in which a silhouetted reporter said his life was in danger for investigating Clinton. Matrisciana himself posed as the re­porter. “That was Jerry’s idea to do that,” Matrisciana recalled. “He thought that would be dramatic.”

April 1996: Falwell hosts a “Washington for Jesus” rally in the nation’s capital where he holds a mock trial of America for engaging in seven deadly sins: persecution of the church, homo­sexuality, abortion, racism, occultism, addictions and HIV/AIDS (acronym: PHAROAH). He declares the nation guilty “of violating God’s law.”

July 1996: Falwell announces a series of “God Save America” rallies in evangelical churches to stop the United States from entering a “post-Christian” era.

February 1997: Falwell sponsors a pastors’ briefing in Washington, during which he threatens to form a new political party if Republicans waver on abortion.

June 1997: Falwell announces a plan to urge fundamentalist churches to intervene in partisan politics. He vows to send sample candidate endorsement sermons that pastors can read in their churches and says he has already done this in the Virginia attorney general’s race. Falwell drops the plan after being reported to the IRS by Americans United.

August 1997: Falwell pleads for funds for a new group, the National Committee for the Restoration of the Judeo-Christian Ethic. In a fund-raising letter, he promises to “get back in the ring” and be a “spiritual George Foreman.” He pledges to register 4 million new voters and mobilize 50,000 pastors. After publishing a couple of fund-raising letters, the group is never heard from again.

November 1997: Falwell accepts $3.5 million from a front group representing controversial Korean evangelist Sun Myung Moon to ease Liberty University’s financial woes. The donation, and several Falwell appearances at Moon conferences, raise eyebrows because Moon claims to be the messiah sent to complete the failed mission of Jesus Christ, a doctrine sharply at odds with Falwell’s fundamentalist Christian theology. (In 1978, before the Moon money started flowing, Falwell told Esquire magazine, “Reverend Sun Myung Moon is like the plague: he exploits boys and girls, and he should be exported.”)

February 1998: Falwell accepts a $70 million donation from insurance magnate Art Williams for his debt-ridden Liberty University. Falwell says the contribution will free him to focus on politics again.

April 1998: Confronted on national television with a controversial quote from America Can Be Saved!, a published collection of his sermons, Falwell denies having written the book and said he had nothing to do with it. In the 1979 work, Falwell wrote, “I hope to live to see the day when, as in the early days of our country, we won’t have any public schools. The churches will have taken them over again and Christians will be running them. What a happy day that will be!” Despite Falwell’s denial, Sword of the Lord Publishing, which produced the book, confirms that Falwell wrote it and brings forward a copy of the printing contract.

October 1998: In a fund-raising letter, Falwell announces plans to expand his ministry and to “immediately rededicate myself to use my God-given skills as a national spokesman for morality and return to the moral/political arena.... [W]ith God’s anointing and your prayerful support, you will soon think I am omnipresent.”

January 1999: Falwell tells a pastors’ conference in Kingsport, Tenn., that the Anti­christ prophesied in the Bible is alive today and “of course he’ll be Jewish.”

February 1999: Falwell becomes the object of nationwide ridicule after his National Liberty Journal issues a “parents alert” warning that Tinky Winky, a character on the popular PBS children’s show “Teletubbies,” might be gay. (Americans United was responsible for releasing the information to the national press.)

Spring-Fall 1999: Falwell is criticized for spreading hysteria about the “Y2K” problem. He markets a $28 video urging people to stockpile food, water and weapons. He also endorses an expensive line of canned goods. After selling the video for months, Falwell abruptly changes course shortly before the new year and says he does not expect major problems. He does not apologize when 2000 arrives without major problems.

February 2000: Falwell is honored with a “Distinguished Lifetime Achievement Award for Freedom, Faith and Family” at a Washington, D.C., banquet hosted by a foundation owned by the Rev. Sun Myung Moon.

April 2000: Falwell announces that he will spend $18.6 million to register 10 million religious conservative voters. Falwell insists the project will be non-partisan but is scored for telling USA Today, “If I’m right, the Republicans are going to feel a very positive result from this from the top to the bottom of the ticket.”

January 2001: Falwell joins other right-wing activists at an inaugural celebration in Washington hosted by a foundation owned by the Rev. Sun Myung Moon.

September 2001: A backlash occurs when Falwell blames the horrific terrorist attacks of Sept. 11 on liberals and church-state separation advocates. “I really believe,” he said, “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.’”

October 2002: Riots erupt in northern India after comments Falwell made about Islam are broadcast on CBS News’ “60 Minutes.” Falwell tells a correspondent, “I think Muhammad was a terrorist. He – I’ve read enough of the history of his life written by both Muslims and non-Muslims – that he was a, a violent man, a man of war.” In Mumbai, the rioting kills five and injures 47.

December 2003: Falwell sends an e-mail to supporters asserting that a Sacramento public school has banned teachers from saying the word “Christmas” in class. He cites an anonymous first-grade teacher as his source. Officials with the Sacramento public schools issue a statement saying that no such policy was ever issued.

July 2004: Falwell issues an e-mail bulletin through a Web site owned by Jerry Falwell Ministries urging people to vote for President George W. Bush. “For conservative people of faith, voting for principle this year means voting for the re-election of George W. Bush,” asserts the bulletin. “The alternative, in my mind, is simply unthinkable.” Falwell also implores people to donate to a right-wing political action committee. Americans United reports the ministry to the IRS.

November 2004: Falwell announces the formation of a new group, the Faith and Values Coalition, that will be run by his son Jonathan and evangelical author Tim LaHaye. Although announced with much fanfare, the group promptly disappears.

March 2005: Falwell is admitted to a hospital in Lynchburg with a respiratory ailment. A month after his discharge, his ministry sends out a fund-raising letter urging people to send Falwell get-well cards and cash donations.

September 2006: Speaking at a closed-door session during a conference sponsored by the Family Research Council in Wash­ington, D.C., Falwell remarks, “I certainly hope that Hil­lary is the [Democratic presidential] candidate. I hope she’s the candidate, because nothing will energize my [constituency] like Hil­­lary Clinton. If Lucifer ran, he wouldn’t.” He also assures at­tendees that the Republicans will keep control of the House and Senate, saying, “I think the Lord’s going to take care of that.” Americans United releases a recording of the comments to the media.

December 2006: Falwell announces plans to pull together other right-wing religious leaders to screen Republican Party presidential hopefuls for ideological purity. The ministers, he says, hope to “find the next Ronald Reagan.”