Falwell Rallied Moral Majority, Riled Critics

Falwell's life marked by influence, controversy.

ByABC News
January 8, 2009, 12:19 AM

May 15, 2007 — -- The Rev. Jerry Falwell, who died Tuesday at the age of 73, rarely shied away from controversy.

After Sept. 11, he blamed the terrorist attacks on the morals of some Americans.

On the Christian television program the "700 Club," Falwell said, "That's the pagans and abortionists, the feminists and the gays and lesbians who are actively trying to make that an alternative lifestyle," later adding, "the ACLU, People for the American Way, all of them tried to secularize America. I point the finger in their face and say, you helped this happen."

He also infuriated Muslims when he attacked Muhammad, telling "60 Minutes" in 2002, "I think Muhammad was a terrorist."

The Bush administration found those remarks unhelpful, and that time he apologized.

What Falwell said mattered. He had come a long way from his early days as one of the first television preachers. By the '70s he was the soft-spoken superstar of evangelism, and entered the world of politics, not as a candidate, but as a mover and shaker.

Howard Phillips, of the Conservative Coalition, said, "I don't think anyone has had a greater influence in encouraging conservative Christians to become politically active than Dr. Falwell."

In the late 1970s, Falwell founded the Moral Majority, backing politicians who took socially conservative positions.

Moral Majority comprised a number of Christian lobbying organizations, frequently campaigning against abortion, homosexuality and for what they termed a "pro-family" agenda.

On ABC News' "This Week," Falwell said, "I believe that ministers -- there are 600,000 of us in this country -- ought to speak out on the moral and social issues."

He was an important supporter of Ronald Reagan, and later, George H.W. Bush. Falwell refused to support another TV evangelist, Pat Robertson, who ran against Bush.

Conservative Christians who thought Bush weak on social issues were reassured when Falwell backed him.

In 1983, Falwell received some unwanted attention from Hustler magazine.

A parody entitled "Jerry Falwell Talks About His First Time" mocked the conservative Christian leader and featured a false and explicit description of Falwell's first sexual encounter.

Falwell sued Hustler and the publisher of its pornographic material Larry Flynt for libel and intention of infliction of emotional distress.

By 1988, the case had weaved its way all the way to the Supreme Court which found in favor of Flynt and Hustler.

The already famous -- or infamous -- case was made known to the next generation of Americans in the Milos Forman film "The People vs. Larry Flynt."

Falwell disbanded the Moral Majority in 1989.

But he continued to speak out on issues such as abortion and homosexuality. Said Falwell, "I believe the Bible clearly teaches the gay lifestyle is wrong."

He criticized Ellen Degeneres when she revealed on her TV sitcom that she was gay. Falwell said he could hate the sin but still love the sinner.