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Falwell: a trailblazer for evangelical Christianity

The Virginia preacher's legacy is conservative Christian activism – and a reshaped US political landscape.

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For three decades, the Rev. Jerry Falwell stood as a prominent voice of conservative Christianity and a leader in the reshaping of American politics.

The Baptist preacher from Virginia, who died Tuesday, spearheaded the move of evangelical Christians from the margins of society into mainstream public life. His founding of the Moral Majority in 1979 was influential in electing President Ronald Reagan, spurring the rise of the "religious right" and its ties to the Republican Party. He became a major force in the culture wars, particularly on abortion and homosexuality.

While the movement's leadership shifted into other hands in the 1990s, and Mr. Falwell's penchant for shooting from the lip occasionally got him into trouble, he retained enough influence that Republican presidential candidates still sought his blessing. That includes, recently, Sen. John McCain, who once dubbed Falwell an "agent of intolerance."

"He was a very important figure in the political mobilization of conservative Christians in the 1980s, and we see the end product of that process today with [their] prominent role ... in the Republican Party," says John Green at the Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life.

Falwell was first and foremost a preacher. He started his church in Lynchburg, Va., right out of college in 1956 and within weeks began a radio and TV ministry with the "Old Time Gospel Hour." He gained prominence as a televangelist. (The "Hour" is today seen on every continent.)

"He was the first to recognize the potential of televangelism ... and also how important it was ... to get through to the secular media," says James Guth, a political scientist at Furman University in Greenville, S.C.

Falwell's church now numbers 24,000, and the college he founded in 1971 has become Liberty University. "He had enormous abilities organizationally, and those [institutions] are his two permanent legacies," says Walter Kaiser Jr., president emeritus of Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary in South Hamilton, Mass.

For many, though, his role in the transformation of evangelical Christianity stands as his most remarkable accomplishment.

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