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.

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