- The Washington Times - Tuesday, May 15, 2007

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The Rev. Jerry Falwell, one of the founders of contemporary religious conservatism and a friend and ally to Republican presidents, died today on the campus of the Lynchburg university he founded. He was 73.

He was discovered unconscious by an aide after missing a meeting at Liberty University.

“He was a wonderful human being,” said Michael Reagan, son of President Ronald Reagan.

Mr. Reagan told NBC News as the network initially announced Mr. Falwell’s death that the Baptist preacher and his father had “a moral partnership.”

Dr. Carl Moore, the Rev. Falwell’s physican, said he was found at 11:30 a.m. in his office “without a heartbeat” and that several efforts to resuscitate him in his office, en route to the hosital and at the hospital, were unsuccessful.

He was pronounced dead at 12:40 p.m.

“We was found without a pulse and never regained a pulse,” Dr. Moore said.

Dr. Moore said it is too soon to determine cause of death but speculated that it was due to heart failure or cardiac arrhythmia.

“He is known to have a heart condition and this … occurs without warning,” Dr. Moore said.

Mr. Falwell won national and international fame by using his leadership and entrepreneurial skills to combine religion and politics in a way never quite seen before in America.

In the world of campaigns and elections, he was best known for forming the Moral Majority in 1979, which transformed American politics by galvanizing long-dormant evangelical and fundamentalist Christians, who had been largely indifferent to national politics, and by bringing them in cooperative relations with conservative Catholics.

“He helped politicize Christian evangelicals …. and was able to make them a major political force,” historian Douglas Brinkley told Fox News this afternoon, saying that the term “moral majority” was “building on Richard Nixon’s ‘silent majority’” in reacting against the 60s counterculture, including the loosening of laws and moral standards against abortion and homosexuality.

“Here was Rev. Falwell talking about issues: we don’t believe in Roe v. Wade; we don’t believe in all aspects of equal rights for homosexuals; we believe … family values are being neglected,” Mr. Brinkley said.

In education, he achieved renown as the founder of Liberty University, where he was chancellor of what became the world’s largest, fully accredited Christian institution of higher learning, claiming an enrollment of more than 25,000 resident students and correspondence-students from all 50 states and more than 50 countries.

This year’s graduation ceremonies already were planned for this weekend.

Ron Godwin, the university’s executive vice president, said the events would be made more somber and “bittersweet” by Mr. Falwell’s death but would go ahead as scheduled.

In evangelical religious circles, he was known as the founder and senior pastor of Thomas Road Baptist Church, claiming 22,000 members, and for his $100 million-plus television ministry, “The Old Time Gospel Hour.” The first memorial service was planned there for this afternoon.

Thomas Road’s associate pastor Ed Dobson called Mr. Falwell “a man of deep compassion and prayer.”

“He gave a voice to conservative people of faith who had been previously marginalized in our politics,” said Ralph Reed, who also praised Mr. Falwell as a man who “preached the gospel in season and out of season. He wanted to lead as many people to faith and love of Christ as possible.”

The new voting bloc forged by Mr. Falwell became known in the popular press as “the religious right.” Whatever its name, the religious-political movement begun by Mr. Falwell has become an important part of the Republican electoral coalition, helping candidates win or lose. The Republican Party’s presidential candidates were scheduled to debate tonight in Columbia, S.C., a conservative state with a strong evangelical presence.

Since 1979, no Republican has won his party’s presidential nomination without first affirming the importance of religion in public life and claiming opposition to abortion and, more recently, same-sex “marriage.” Ronald Reagan, George Bush and George W. Bush all declared themselves born-again Christians before seeking the presidency and sought the aid and advice of Mr. Falwell.

For all his achievements as a religious and political leader, Mr. Falwell’s own life had an unlikely beginning.

He was born Aug. 11, 1933, in Lynchburg, Va., to an intensely religious mother but a father who professed agnosticism, ran a number of businesses, including the bootlegging of whiskey during Prohibition, and fatally shot his own brother in self-defense.

After high school, a young Jerry briefly studied journalism at Lynchburg College, then transferred to the Baptist Bible College in Missouri.

In some ways, Mr. Falwell’s most enduring influence is likely to be not in the political world but in the lives of generations of students who have attended his Liberty University, which he founded as Lynchburg Baptist College in 1971, and several generations of worshipers at Thomas Road Baptist Church, which he established in 1956, starting out with a modest 35 families.

His theological and social views did not find agreement among conservatives whose main interest is either free-market economics, individual freedom or social as distinct from religious issues, but he became a part of that political movement. Unlike fellow religious broadcaster Pat Robertson, Mr. Falwell never personally sought political office.

In an interview in 2003, Mr. Falwell told The Washington Times that the combination of social, religious and economic conservatism that had become the conservative movement by 1980 has produced victories in politics — but not necessarily in policy.

“The biggest failure of all has been our inability to turn back the homosexual agenda and to end abortion in America,” he said.

Mr. Falwell’s views on homosexuality were complicated. He was widely denounced by gay activists as a homophobe. But Mel White, who served as both friend and ghost writer for Mr. Falwell’s autobiography later left his wife and took up a relationship with another man, attended Mr. Falwell’s church.

Mr. Falwell once said from the pulpit: “There has to be repentance. Homosexuality is no more sinful than adultery or fornication, but is as sinful. But if we were to stop sinners from attending our church, this place would be a lumberyard.”

In 1967, Mr. Falwell began his work as an educator by founding Lynchburg Christian Academy, an accredited Christian day school, enrolls more than 900 students, preschool through 12th grade.

He is survived by his wife, Macel Pate Falwell, and three children: Jerry Falwell Jr., general counsel of Liberty University; Jonathan Falwell, the Thomas Road Baptist Church executive pastor, and Jeannie Falwell Savas, a surgeon in Richmond, Va.

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