Jerry Falwell, Architect of Religious Right, Dies at 73
Jerry Falwell, the conservative preacher whose television ministry helped fuel the rise of the Religious Right, died Tuesday, May 15, after being found unresponsive in his office at Liberty University in Lynchburg, Virginia. He was 73.
Ron Godwin, an executive vice president at the university, said Falwell was transported to Lynchburg General Hospital and pronounced dead at 12:40 p.m. "He has had a history of heart problems," Godwin said in a news conference.
Dr. Carl Moore, a cardiovascular specialist, said Falwell was found "unconscious without a heartbeat" about 11:30 a.m. Efforts to resuscitate him in his office, in an ambulance, and at the hospital were unsuccessful.
Moore said Falwell had a cardiac arrhythmiaan irregularity in the heart's rhythmthat occurs "without warning and cannot be predicted."
Evangelist Billy Graham, in a statement, called 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."
For many, Falwell represented the public face of evangelical Protestantism, particularly its involvement in politics. Falwell founded the Moral Majority in 1979 to lobby politicians to "reverse the politicization of immorality in our society," he said at the time.
By then, Falwell had already been a radio and television preacher for 20 years. He rode a politically conservative wave and used his television ministry as a platform to advance conservative causes, including voluntary prayer in public schools, opposition to abortion, and military strength.
"When most people think of the Christian Right, they think of the Moral Majority," said John Green, a senior fellow at the Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life. The Moral Majority was "an opportunity to bring a lot of Southern conservatives into the Republican Party," Green said.
For decades before Falwell, evangelicals had largely withdrawn from politics. That began to change in the late 1970s, in part because of Falwell's activism.
Falwell initially supported Democratic President Jimmy Carter because of the Georgian's "born again" faith. But Falwell eventually became critical of Carter after Falwell objected to what he called the President's move toward liberal policies.
Falwell's cause was emboldened by the 1980 election of Ronald Reagan, but he dissolved the Moral Majority in 1989. He said the group had accomplished what it intended by lifting the Religious Right to prominence. Not long afterward, its place in politics was assumed by Pat Robertson's Christian Coalition.
Falwell and his twin brother, Gene, were born August 11, 1933, the youngest of five children. Their father, Carey, was a successful businessman who battled alcoholism; Falwell described their mother, Helen, as a gentle "woman of great faith."
It was to his native Lynchburg, Virginia, that Falwell traced his religious conviction, starting with a 1952 conversion experience midway through his sophomore year at Lynchburg College. The event led him to transfer to the Baptist Bible College in Springfield, Missouri, and a professional life in the pulpit.
"I wanted to study the Bible and prepare myself for whatever God wanted me to do," Falwell later remembered. "My heart was burning to serve Christ. I knew nothing would ever be the same again."
After graduation, Falwell founded a Baptist church in Lynchburg, with a congregation of 35 adults in 1956. Over the years, Thomas Road Baptist Church grew to a membership of 24,000, with an expansive campus that housed a day school and missionary work to serve impoverished countries.