Measuring Falwell's Popularity Over His Lifetime

Popularity with most Americans was not among the Rev. Jerry Falwell's achievements.

Indeed, while some public figures describe intricate paths in their personal ratings -- arcs and twists following the course of events and their own actions -- Falwell's ratings, across his career, were largely stable, and generally negative.

The latest public opinion data on Falwell was a Newsweek poll in November, conducted among evangelical Christians only. About as many saw him unfavorably (34 percent) as favorably (31 percent); the remaining 35 percent didn't know of him, or had no opinion.

Another poll, in April 2004, asked about Falwell among the general public; 12 percent of Americans rated him generally positively, 43 percent not so. A Newsweek survey 10 years earlier was similar: Twenty percent saw Falwell favorably, 44 percent unfavorably.

Polls back to the 1980s found more of the same -- generally unfavorable ratings, steadily across time, by 2-1 or more. In a Gallup poll in May 1987, 26 percent of Americans saw Falwell favorably, 51 percent unfavorably; in a Gallup poll in September 1984 it was 21 percent favorable, 46 percent unfavorable; in a Time magazine poll in September 1981, 16 percent favorable, 41 percent unfavorable.

The source of these ratings seems to have been two-pronged: Disquiet both with the approach of Falwell's Moral Majority organization, and with Falwell himself.

A Harris poll in September 1985 asked about Falwell having urged investment in then-apartheid South Africa, and calling Bishop Desmond Tutu a "phony." Both those remarks were overwhelmingly unpopular. And in a Roper poll in April 1987, 62 percent said they held Falwell in "not very high regard."

In terms of his movement, in a January 1981 poll 55 percent of Americans said it was not proper for "clergymen to back political candidates." In an NBC poll that same year, 65 percent said religious groups should not get involved in election campaigns. More recently, in a 2005 ABC News/Washington Post poll, fairly few Americans -- 27 percent -- wanted to see religion have a greater influence in politics and public life than it does now; and in another ABC/Post poll just last fall, 61 percent said a political leader should not rely on his or her religious beliefs in making policy decisions.

Views on these issues, of course, are far different among the group of Americans for whom Falwell sought to speak. Among weekly churchgoing evangelical white Protestants, 66 percent said religion should play a greater role in politics and public life, and 70 percent said religious faith should guide political leaders on policy matters. This group, though, accounts just over one in 10 adults. (Evangelical white Protestants -- not limited to those who report attending church weekly -- account for about 17 percent.)

Ultimately, despite its name, the Moral Majority's political clout came not from majority support, but from its ability to motivate a much a smaller group to political activism. And for that, as it turned out, Falwell never needed the majority popularity he so steadily lacked.