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Jerry Falwell, Political Innovator

5 minute read
Michael Duffy

Jerry Falwell stood apart from other fundamentalist Christian leaders in the last quarter of the 20th century as the man who dragged his strongly conservative faith fully — and many said recklessly — into the public square. American politics and, in many ways, American religion have not been the same since.

Unlike famed evangelist Billy Graham, who was far more careful about ever tipping his hand in public, Falwell showed no hesitation to shout his politics from the pulpit — and then shout them again on radio and television.

Secular Americans found Falwell to be horrifying, a dangerous mix of sacred and conservative. But so, at least at first, did many fundamentalists, who believed that politics had no place in houses of prayer. “What you have to remember is that American fundamentalists were separate from the rest of country politically and theologically,” said Michael Cromartie of the Ethics and Public Policy Center. “Falwell came along and said, ‘Politics is important now. You can’t stay apart.’ That was no small thing. Whether one agrees with Falwell or not, to mobilize millions of people who had heretofore been apolitical — and apolitical for theological reasons — was quite a shift for a Southern fundamentalist preacher.”

Falwell’s spiritual breakthrough, however, was accompanied by a political innovation. Instead of enlisting just fundamentalists and other conservative Protestants, Falwell opened the Moral Majority up to everyone: Jews, Catholics and Mormons — in short, the very people (and faiths) that fundamentalists had been separating themselves from for generations. That was Falwell’s greatest political discovery: he understood that fundamentalists, orthodox Jews, conservative Catholics and Mormons had so much in common politically that they could overlook their theological differences.

The son of a Lynchburgh, Va., family with utility company and entertainment businesses, Falwell started the Thomas Road Baptist Church in Lynchburg after graduating from a Missouri Bible college. A year later, the church’s membership had grown from 35 to nearly 1000. Like many of his denomination, he railed against premarital sex, adultery and drinking — and in 1965, just a few weeks after Bloody Sunday in Selma, Alabama, Falwell delivered a sermon that urged against any formal mixture of politics and faith: “Believing the Bible as I do, I would find it impossible to stop preaching the pure saving gospel of Jesus Christ and begin doing anything else — including the fighting of communism, or participating in the civil rights reform…. Preachers are not called to be politicians, but to be soul winners.”

But Falwell’s views on that would change. By the mid-1970s, he was big enough to lure the attention of Jimmy Carter, who was openly courting faith- minded voters in his own campaign for president. But Falwell cooled on Carter and within a year or two of his election turned hostile. In 1979, he started the Moral Majority, partly at the urging of two Republican political consultants. In 1980, Falwell moved the organization behind Ronald Reagan, buying anti-Carter ads on tiny radio stations across the South and Midwest.

That November, he recalled later, he sat in his pickup truck listening to the returns on the radio and claimed to be stunned by the breadth and depth of the landslide. The next morning, when he appeared at a rally at Liberty, the band played “Hail to the Chief.”

Along the way, he created his own Bible college — and then turned it into an even bigger university, where Republican Presidents and presidential candidates stood in line to speak to graduating classes. By 1985, his operations had budgets of more than $100 million a year, and he was winging round the world in private jets, appearing on the cover of TIME, over the headline, “Thunder on the Right.”

It was during the Reagan years that Falwell seemed to most flex his political muscles, pushing the newly minted Republican Administration to tighten laws regulating abortion, preaching against homosexuality and pornography and pushing for looser tax treatment of, and more generous federal grants to, parochial and Christian schools. Falwell also dabbled in foreign policy, supporting Israeli sovereignty against the Palestinians and opposing the Reagan Administration when it announced plans to sell early warning planes to Saudi Arabia. The Moral Majority lasted only a decade, until l989. But Falwell remained a controversial figure — and a go-to source for politicians and reporters seeking to know how the nation’s growing tide of values voters would respond to various issues. Many other leaders did not care for his intensely partisan pulpiteering and kept their distance from him. The Lynchburg preacher was downright hostile to Bill Clinton, boasting to his flock in the first week after Clinton’s inauguration in 1993 that he had a sex tape of the new President, but was too appalled by it to share it in public. Falwell came out early for Bush in 2000. Not long after, John McCain called Falwell, along with Rev. Pat Robertson, an “agent of intolerance.” McCain more recently traveled to Lynchburg to mend fences.

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