Obituary: The Rev Jerry Falwell

Rabid evangelical leader of America's 'moral majority'

Of the evangelical preachers who came to prominence in 1980s America, the most loved and loathed was the Rev Jerry Falwell, who has died of heart failure aged 73. In 1979, after consultations with theologians and political strategists, he founded the Moral Majority, the first of the rightwing fundamentalist movements crucial to the rise of US conservatism, of which he was an influential leader.

On television, Falwell tried to appear reasonable, a religious radical, but tolerant. Frequently, however, he made statements, usually off-camera, of such outrage and hatred that he earned himself a website called Foulwell that listed his harshest remarks. The nastiest, in a conversation with the Rev Pat Robertson on the latter's evangelical TV channel, came three days after nearly 3,000 people died in the 9/11 terrorist attacks.

Falwell said: "The abortionists have got to bear some burden for this because God will not be mocked. And when we destroy 40 million little innocent babies, we make God mad. I really believe that the pagans, and the abortionists, and the feminists, and the gays, and the lesbians who are actively trying to make that an alternative lifestyle, the ACLU [American Civil Liberties Union], People for the American Way - all of them who have tried to secularise America - I point the finger in their face and say: 'You helped this happen.'" Later, on CNN, he issued a half-hearted apology.

Among other remarks he suggested that "Aids is not just God's punishment for homosexuals, it is God's punishment for the society that tolerates homosexuals," and "The idea that religion and politics don't mix was invented by the devil to keep Christians from running their own country." He criticised the Teletubbies for having a homosexual agenda on the basis that Tinky Winky carried a handbag.

Falwell did not admit to seeking to impose a theocracy on the US. But his own website showed an implacable hostility to political opponents: "Our goal" its mission statement said, "is to promote traditional family values and battle the liberals who would attempt to destroy those godly principles."

Falwell described his Moral Majority movement, which soon boasted 6.5 million members, as "a political organisation not based on theological considerations", even though he criticised black clergy for taking part in the civil rights struggle of the 1950s and 1960s. Ronald Reagan's election as president in 1980, and that of a slate of republicans to Congress, was credited partially to the organisation. Falwell disbanded it in 1989, a year after he had taken over the Praise the Lord television network, owned by the Rev Jim Bakker, the evangelist convicted of fraud. PTL soon went bankrupt, some said deliberately, as Falwell had helped convict Bakker and wanted to destroy his rival.

Then he became obsessed by the Clinton presidency and denounced Bill and Hillary constantly on his internet weekly column. He also promoted a video suggesting that Clinton was complicit in the murder of his White House counsel Vincent Foster, whom a coroner had ruled committed suicide.

In November 2004, after the election of George Bush, Falwell formed an MM successor called the Faith and Values Coalition, a clear exploitation of the choice of "values" that "people of faith" said inspired their vote for Bush. He appointed himself as chairman for four years with his son, the Rev Jonathan Falwell. The FVC was also overtly political, seeking to Christianise all schools and promoting Falwell's pro-Israel stance, so intense it was called Christian Zionism.

In 1979 he was given the use of a Lear jet by a grateful Israeli government, and after Israel bombed Iraq's nuclear plant the first call prime minister Menachem Begin placed to the US to explain the action was to Falwell - rather than Ronald Reagan. In the late 1990s on a visit to the US, the then prime minister Binyamin Netanyahu called on Falwell to ask him to mobilise supporters to pressurise President Clinton to make him refrain from calling on Israel to accept the Oslo accords.

Meanwhile, in his home town of Lynchburg, Virginia, where he was known simply as "Jerry", the Falwell Ministries empire included several landmark institutions that were among the town's largest employers: a 20,000-member church, where he continued to preach every Sunday; Liberty University, originally Lynchburg Baptist College and started with only 150 students but now with 8,000 (His online biography boasts that "a pre-school child can now enter the school system at age three, and 20 or more years later, leave the same campus with a PhD, without ever sitting in a classroom where the teacher was not a committed follower of Jesus Christ"); a correspondence school with 16,000 students; and a seminary.

In 1983 Larry Flynt's sex magazine Hustler carried a parody of a Campari ad that featured a fake interview with Falwell, in which he admited to incest with his mother. He sued, alleging invasion of privacy, libel and intentional infliction of emotional distress. A jury rejected the invasion of privacy and libel claims, holding that parody could not reasonably be considered a description of actual events, but ruled in favour of Falwell on the emotional distress claim. After the ruling was upheld on appeal, Flynt appealed to the US supreme court and won. The court confirmed that public figures cannot recover damages based on distress caused by parodies. The affair became a successful 1996 film, The People v Larry Flynt.

Falwell was born in Lynchburg, the son of an alcoholic businessman, did well at (state) school and entered the local college to study journalism, but then experienced a religious conversion. He switched to the Baptist Bible College in Missouri, was ordained a southern Baptist minister in 1956 and that year formed the Lynchburg church.

He built it much the way a politician would solicit votes: he knocked on dozens of doors a day, asking people to come to his Sunday evening service. He took notes on their responses, followed up with phone calls - and slowly built his congregation. He helped his cause with some aggressive - and, for the time, audacious - self-promotion. Shortly after founding the church, he launched a daily radio broadcast. In 1968 he began televising his sermons, in a show called The Old-Time Gospel Hour, which by 1980 had 21 million viewers. Still on the air, it is the longest continuously running religious broadcast on television.

Like many southern preachers, Falwell opposed black civil rights; in 1965 he told his congregation he would find it impossible to preach the pure gospel and still participate in such reforms, and that integration would mean the destruction of the white race. But in later years he was not above massaging the date of his conversion, saying he had first baptised a black family "probably" in 1960, whereas the parish records showed it had not happened until 1971. To the last, he blended his life's work of saving souls with political activism. He recently preached a sermon on global warming, in which he dismissed the issue as "hocus pocus", a satanic plot to distract Christians from the more important work of spreading the gospel.

In 1958 he married a church pianist, Macel Pate. She survives him, as do Jonathan and another son and daughter.

· Jerry Lewis Falwell, clergyman, born August 11 1933; died May 15 2007


Christopher Reed

The GuardianTramp

Related Content

Article image
Will Jerry Falwell Jr’s fall from grace end his influence over Trump voters?
Sex scandal surrounding ex-head of Liberty University could weigh on president’s white evangelical fanbase in run-up to election

Harriet Sherwood

28, Aug, 2020 @8:53 AM

Article image
Christian leader Jerry Falwell urges Trump support: 'He’s a moral person'
The evangelical Liberty University president, who helped give Trump the Christian vote in 2016, aims to influence voters again

Harriet Sherwood in Lynchburg, Virginia

09, Oct, 2018 @5:00 AM

Defender of the faith

As ITV halves its religious output and evangelical pressure groups lead the charge against 'blasphemy' on screen, the broadcasters' official adviser on religion, the Bishop of Norwich, tells Maggie Brown why television needs God.

Maggie Brown

27, Mar, 2005 @11:50 PM

Scrap Jerry Springer invitation, say rabbis

Rabbis have criticised a leading Jewish charity for inviting Jerry Springer, the American television presenter, to be the guest speaker at its annual fundraising dinner next week. By Stephen Bates.

Stephen Bates, religious affairs correspondent

21, Jan, 2005 @7:33 AM

The late Jerry Falwell

Michelle Goldberg: The man who called the Teletubbies gay also opposed civil rights, blamed 9/11 on lesbians, and built a more conservative America.

Michelle Goldberg

15, May, 2007 @9:00 PM

Article image
Abusive calls give BBC chiefs a Jerry Springer moment

Guards were last night protecting the homes of two senior BBC executives as complaints from Christian groups at Saturday's showing of Jerry Springer - the Opera escalated into threats of violence. By Owen Gibson.

Owen Gibson, media correspondent

10, Jan, 2005 @11:20 AM

Tim Dowling on televangelism in America today

Tim Dowling goes Christian channel-surfing.

Tim Dowling

02, Mar, 2007 @11:57 PM

Jerry Falwell lives ... in Poland

Michelle Goldberg: The Poles are now investigating whether the Teletubbies are gay as US religious-right style politics spreads through Europe.

Michelle Goldberg

30, May, 2007 @1:00 PM

Article image
Jerry Falwell Jr accused of hypocrisy after sharing photo of pants unzipped
Head of Liberty University is one of Americas’s most powerful evangelical leaders and a prominent backer of Donald Trump

Adam Gabbatt

04, Aug, 2020 @5:35 PM

Comment: Face to faith
Fissiparous evangelical Christians are now being reunited by hatred, says Giles Fraser.

17, Feb, 2007 @11:59 PM