Jerry Falwell: a Life of Fire and Brimstone

The Rev. Jerry Falwell's voice echoed down through the decades in American churches and American politics, infuriating for an increasing majority, still inspiring for some. The always controversial figure passed away Tuesday at the age of 73. What will his legacy be? Will Falwell's death have an impact on conservative Christians looking to define themselves in the coming election season?

When Falwell spoke from behind the lectern at Liberty University in Lynchburg, Va., last year, there was a unique presence surrounding him.

Perhaps it was the hundred or so audience members gathered before him, a mix of those utterly fascinated and others who were only mildly engaged. Maybe it was the university staff behind him, all of whom stared at the preacher in silent reverence. Most likely, it was the portrait on the wall behind him -- that of a similar Falwell, yet one that harkens back to a younger, more energized man.

'Not What I Used to Be'

"I would have to say things have gotten worse," he told me last year. "And a lot of this has happened, really, on my watch. I've been preaching 50 years. So, you have to take some of the blame. I have to take some of it."

That was a strange admission of failure from the "fire and brimstone" preacher who founded the Moral Majority in 1979, and helped launch the Reagan revolution. Through the 1970s and 1980s, Falwell's pronouncements -- idealistic or hateful, depending on one's point of view -- regularly made news. He said that AIDS was God's punishment for homosexuals and that liberals and feminists and Democrats were doing the work of Satan. But times have changed, and the power structure in Christian America has shifted.

Mark Rozell, a professor of public policy at George Mason University who studies the Christian conservative movement, said last year that "Falwell's golden years are behind him, no doubt. The religious right movement very much matured and grew over time. And didn't really need someone who was such a controversialist to draw attention to himself and to his movement."

Falwell himself admitted that "I could tell you I'm not what I used to be as far as potential of work and energy."

Controversy and 'Liberty'

Falwell made headlines until the end of his life, though, when he chose to. In 1999, he famously stated his belief that the Tinky Winky character on the popular children's show "Teletubbies" was gay, adding that "role modeling the gay lifestyle is damaging to the moral lives of children."

More infamously, following the terrorist attacks on Sept. 11, Falwell generated attention for his remarks on the Christian Broadcasting Network's "700 Club." During the broadcast, he blamed the attacks on groups ranging from pagans to gays to the ACLU and said that the attackers had given us "probably what we deserve."

Falwell later apologized for those comments. But they shocked many Americans and helped to push him further to the margins of the political world he once dominated.

In the last years of his life, Falwell focused most of his energy into Liberty University, the private Christian college in the foothills of the Blue Ridge Mountains in southern Virginia that he founded in 1971, and its 26,000 like-minded students. The license plate on his black SUV said it all: "LU 01" or Liberty University 1.

Falwell said that his school "is a drug-free zone. It's an alcohol-free zone. It is a tobacco-free zone. No alcohol. No drugs. No tobacco. No coed dorms. We catch a boy in a girl's dorm, we shoot him. Make him wish we had."

For years now, Liberty University has been the place where Falwell put most of his energy, where he trained what he hoped would be the next generation of Christian leaders. His dream was to make his school what Brigham Young University is for the Mormons: the place to go.

Politics and Preaching

And Liberty University was not just Falwell's school. It was also a platform for him, and the scene of his last political hurrah.

Even when his political clout was on the wane, Falwell was a sought after supporter for political candidates. During his 2000 presidential campaign, Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., notably referred to Falwell as "an agent of intolerance." But six years later, on May 13, 2006, McCain traveled to Lynchburg, Va., to speak at the Liberty University commencement.

As McCain began his 2008 presidential campaign, he said that Falwell and he had buried the hatchet. But on at least one big issue, the men were still deeply divided. McCain opposed a constitutional amendment banning gay marriage, a cause Falwell believed in passionately, or offensively, depending on your point of view.

"I believe that all our behavior is a matter of choice," Falwell said. "I don't believe there's any scientific evidence and certainly no spiritual evidence that anyone is born a bank robber or born, born a racist. Or born heterosexual. Or born homosexual."

"We're born physically heterosexual," he continued. "But our behavior, our behavior then is a matter of choice. And when our families are properly oriented, we teach our children, it doesn't happen. I believe that if every family in the world was headed by men and women who love Christ, committed to the Lordship of Christ, who brought their children up in the nurturing atmosphere of the Lord, there would be aberrations of gay behavior, like heterosexual promiscuity, but it would not be prevalent."

'We're Losing the Battle'

When asked if he thought those comments could be viewed by gay men and women as almost genocidal, Falwell said that "I spoke last year at a huge camp in North Carolina to 2,000 former gays. And there's no group more hated in the country today than former gays who have been born again, trusted Christ as savior, abandoned the lifestyle. And then, with the help of the church and other believers, found their way back to normalcy."

Falwell did denounce violence against gay people, saying that "Anyone who commits violence, in any way against gay people or promiscuous heterosexuals or whatever, is not doing it in the name of the Lord."

Despite the fact that Falwell spent a quarter century fighting the culture wars, America today is more tolerant of gay people. There are more nontraditional families than ever before. The country has changed. And Falwell admitted that he was losing his battle.

"There's no question that we're losing the battle for the hearts and minds of our young people. All sexual activity outside marriage between a man and a woman is forbidden by God. It's immoral. It's better for them, it's better for their children later. It is the way I belief God intends it."

Jerry Falwell had a born knack for controversy, for inspiring some and enraging others. But whatever you thought of him, as we said, he was an American original.

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