- The Washington Times - Wednesday, May 16, 2007

The Rev. Jerry Falwell, one of the founders of the so-called religious right and a friend and ally of Republican presidents, died yesterday from a heart rhythm abnormality in his office on the campus of the Lynchburg university he founded. He was 73.

He was discovered in his office, unconscious and not breathing, by an aide when he did not attend a meeting at Liberty University, his doctor said.

Dr. Carl Moore, Mr. Falwell’s physician, said he was found at 11:30 a.m. in his office without a heartbeat. Several efforts to resuscitate him in his office, en route to the hospital and at the hospital, were unsuccessful.

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

“He was found without a pulse and never regained a pulse,” Dr. Moore said. It is too soon to determine the exact cause of death, but Dr. Moore speculated that it was due to cardiac arrhythmia. “He [was] known to have a heart condition and this … occurs without warning.”

Mr. Falwell, a Southern Baptist, came to national and international prominence by using his leadership and entrepreneurial skills to combine religion and politics and forge an unprecedented electoral coalition.

President Bush said he and his wife, Laura, were “deeply saddened” by the loss of a man who “cherished faith, family and freedom.”

“One of his lasting contributions was the establishment of Liberty University, where he taught young people to remain true to their convictions and rely upon God’s word throughout each stage of their lives,” Mr. Bush said.

Mr. Falwell formed the Moral Majority in 1979, which transformed U.S. politics by galvanizing long-dormant evangelical and fundamentalist Christians, who had largely ignored politics, and by bringing them into cooperative relations with conservative Catholics.

“I really think that it was the Equal Rights Amendment fight that got him going in the mid-1970s,” Eagle Forum President Phyllis Schlafly said. “We did a rally together on the steps of the Capitol in Springfield, Illinois, in 1978, and he and I spoke. That’s when he rallied the Baptists to join the conservative movement.”

His religious contemporaries praised his leadership on learning of his death. The Rev. Billy Graham called Mr. Falwell “a close personal friend for many years. We did not always agree on everything, but I knew him to be a man of God.” Chuck Colson, founder of the Prison Fellowship, said Mr. Falwell was often “unfairly caricatured,” but “when the going got tough, Jerry just got stronger.”

“Jerry has been a tower of strength on many of the moral issues which have confronted our nation,” said Pat Robertson, a fellow evangelist and political activist. “Jerry’s courage and strength of convictions will be sadly missed in this time of increasing moral relativism.”

Douglas Brinkley, a professor of history at the University of New Orleans, told Fox News that the term “moral majority” was “building on Richard Nixon’s ‘silent majority’, ” in reaction to the ‘60s counterculture, including the loosening of laws and moral standards against abortion and homosexuality.

“Here was Reverend 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.”

Since then, 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.

Free Congress Foundation President Paul M. Weyrich, a key founder of the coalition that brought religious conservatives into a new and muscular electoral coalition with economic and national-defense conservatives, said that Mr. Falwell “gave us the troops necessary to put together a political movement.”

“Without Jerry Falwell, we would not have succeeded in what we did in the early days.”

He founded Liberty University in 1971 as Lynchburg Baptist College. With Mr. Falwell as chancellor, Liberty University grew into one of the nation’s largest fully accredited Christian institutions 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 are scheduled for this weekend.

Ronald 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 on as scheduled. Newt Gingrich, the former speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives, will be the commencement speaker.

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

Mr. Falwell founded Thomas Road Baptist Church in 1956 and was its senior pastor for several decades. The congregation first worshipped in a building that had been a bottling plant for Donald Duck Cola, and Mr. Falwell once recalled that “for months we left Sunday morning services with the residue of syrup on the bottoms of our shoes.” The church now enrolls 24,000 members. He was an early pioneer of radio and TV evangelism, with “The Old Time Gospel Hour” growing into a $100 million television ministry.

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

Ralph Reed, the evangelical political activist, said that “he gave a voice to conservative people of faith who had been previously marginalized in our politics.” He added that Mr. Falwell “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.

The Republican Party’s presidential candidates debated last night in Columbia, S.C., a state with a strong evangelical presence. Even before the debate, tributes to Mr. Falwell poured in from the candidates.

“Dr. Falwell was a man of distinguished accomplishment who devoted his life to serving his faith and country,” said Sen. John McCain, Arizona Republican. “Our thoughts and prayers are with Dr. Falwell’s family at this difficult time.”

Mr. McCain clashed with Mr. Falwell during the 2000 presidential campaign when he called him and other evangelical leaders “agents of intolerance.” All was forgiven last year when Mr. McCain gave the commencement address at Liberty University.

Former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney said Mr. Falwell “built and led a movement based on strong principles and strong faith,” and “the legacy of his important work will continue through his many ministries where he put his faith into action.”

Mr. Falwell’s own life had an unlikely beginning. He was born Aug. 11, 1933, in Lynchburg, Va., to an intensely religious mother and a father who said he was an atheist. His father was a bootlegger during Prohibition, and in one scrap fatally shot his own brother in self-defense.

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

Mr. Falwell’s most enduring legacy is likely to be in the lives of generations of students who have attended Liberty University, and several generations of worshippers at Thomas Road Baptist Church, which he established in the living room of his home, with a modest 35 families.

“Dr. Falwell made big dreams reality — by inspiring millions to political involvement, by dedicating himself to higher education, and most importantly, by fostering Christian outreach to the spiritually and physically needy through Thomas Road Baptist Church and its myriad ministries,” Beverly LaHaye, founder and chairman of Concerned Women for America, said on learning of his death. “Though he is now with the Savior he loved,” Mrs. LaHaye said, “Jerry Falwell’s legacy will continue through the lives of those who were so profoundly touched by his vision.”

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 homosexual activists as a “homophobe.” But Mel White, who served as both friend and ghost writer for Mr. Falwell’s autobiography and later left his wife and established a relationship with another man, often attended Mr. Falwell’s church, and the two engaged in a vigorous public exchange of open letters.

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.”

He prosecuted a libel suit against Larry Flynt, the publisher of Hustler magazine, after it ran a vicious parody of Mr. Falwell endorsing alcohol and describing a sexual encounter with his mother. A federal jury awarded him $200,000 for mental distress, but the U.S. Supreme Court overturned the judgment, observing that the parody was too far-fetched for anyone to believe to be true.

In 1987, he took over for a short time the scandal-rocked PTL Club ministry of the Rev. Jim Bakker, a Pentecostal television evangelist, after it foundered in bankruptcy. Mr. Falwell dissolved the Moral Majority in 1989 and in recent years took a smaller role as a new generation of evangelical and religious-conservative leaders came to the fore. He suggested shortly after the September 11 attacks that homosexuals, feminists and liberals “helped this happen.” He later apologized.

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