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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.

After fundamentalists lost the battle over evolution in the 1920s, they withdrew from society, seeing the culture as a "sinking ship" that only Jesus' return could save. But the Roe v. Wade ruling legalizing abortion galvanized Falwell to create the Moral Majority, with an agenda that was anti-abortion, pro-family, pro-Israel, and pro-strong national defense.

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"He led the Evangelical movement out of a passive, in-the-wilderness mentality ... giving them a motivation and a voice in issues of public policy," says Richard Mouw, president of Fuller Theological Seminary in Pasadena, Calif.

That required two radical steps: getting involved in hot-button issues such as abortion and gay rights, and cooperating with people from different theological backgrounds with the same concerns, such as conservative Catholics and Jews. While almost heretical to some, "those two ideas were very powerful," says Dr. Green. But some felt that the way Falwell addressed them was often inappropriate.

"His was an immature political voice. He said intemperate things and articulated a theological perspective that was not sensitive to the realities of a pluralistic democracy," says Dr. Mouw.

Falwell once said God did not hear the prayers of Jews; he called Islam's prophet, Muhammad, a terrorist. He saw a hidden homosexual agenda in the "Teletubbies" children's program. Most infamous is his post-9/11 statement blaming the attack on gays, abortion-rights activists, feminists, the ACLU, and others he opposed. A genial man personally, his political pronouncements nonetheless left little room for give and take.

"He mixed religion and politics in a particularly toxic way. If you disagreed with his political positions, you were standing against God and couldn't be a good Christian or American," says Peter Montgomery, spokesman for People for the American Way, a liberal advocacy group.

Falwell did apologize for some of his remarks. But his narrow agenda and divisive approach left a mark on Christianity that makes some people cringe. What it means to be Christian has been politicized, some say, so that the true message of Jesus is overshadowed in the culture.

"He loved his Lord and his country and loved them in that order," Dr. Kaiser says. "Many of us had wished there was a way you could separate Jerry the preacher from Jerry the politician. It would have been better not to mix the gospel with the politics."

Linda Feldmann in Washington contributed to this report.

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