Early Years and Thomas Road Baptist Church
Jerry Lamon Falwell was born on August 11, 1933, in Lynchburg, Virginia, to Helen Beasley and Carey H. Falwell. His paternal grandfather, Charles William Falwell, was an outspoken atheist and his father was a Prohibition-era bootlegger who also rejected religion. But Falwell’s mother was deeply religious and she had a strong influence on her son’s thinking. Falwell attended Baptist Bible College in Springfield, Missouri, and at the age of twenty-two founded the Thomas Road Baptist Church in Lynchburg. Several months later he began broadcasting his sermons on radio and television on the Old-Time Gospel Hour. Both of these ventures were successful, and Falwell built a large following.
Falwell did not envision a role for himself in politics. Indeed, for many years, in his capacity as a pastor and prominent televangelist, Falwell had preached the separationist view that church and politics do not mix. Like many leading evangelicals, Falwell became increasingly exasperated by what he perceived as a rapid cultural decline in the United States brought about by the counterculture movement of the 1960s and 1970s, legal protection for abortion, and social tolerance for so-called alternative lifestyles. Both from the pulpit and on his nationally telecast Old-Time Gospel Hour, Falwell became outspoken on various cultural and social issues. He was especially critical of public education and the entertainment media as hostile to Christian values and for promoting “secular humanism.” He advocated the eventual elimination of public schools. In his book America Can Be Saved (1979), he wrote, “I hope I live to see the day when, as in the early days of our country, we won’t have any public schools. The churches will have taken them over again and Christians will be running them.”
Falwell and Politics
Falwell once preached from the pulpit that evangelicals should stay separated from the political world, but eventually he changed his mind and decided to use his skills at working mass media and mobilizing supporters to achieve political change. In 1978 he successfully organized a campaign in Virginia to oppose a state referendum to legalize pari-mutuel betting, a system commonly used to gamble on horse or dog races. He and other leading conservative religious figures in the state mounted an expensive television and print advertising campaign. The referendum failed by a narrow margin and many credited that outcome to Falwell’s leadership of the conservative religious coalition. Falwell soon announced that his efforts on behalf of the coalition were a portent of “future endeavors together” on the campaign.
Dennis Pederson, the executive director of the group opposed to the referendum, later said that this campaign gave conservative religious leaders in the state “a taste of what they could do in politics—how influential they could be.” He said that Falwell had brought together a wide spectrum of religious leaders who “had never sat around a breakfast table before to discuss how they could organize to pursue a common goal.”
1980 U.S. Senate Race in Virginia
In that same year there was a close election for the U.S. Senate, pitting Republican John W. Warner against Democratic candidate Andrew Miller, who was widely expected to win. Warner had earlier lost the GOP nomination to Richard D. Obenshain, a strongly conservative candidate who died in a plane crash in 1978. Although Warner then received the nod from his party to be the nominee, the conservative wing of the GOP did not trust him. Warner thus openly sought a nod of approval from Falwell to establish his credentials with members of the GOP who had earlier opposed his candidacy.
On the Sunday before the election, the two parties’ nominees attended a service at the Thomas Road Baptist Church at the request of its pastor, Reverend Falwell. Both eagerly awaited some approving sign from the pastor. It was a measure of how much influence the candidates believed that Falwell could have with a block of voters in the state. After introducing the two candidates by their political credentials, Falwell referred to Warner as “my friend.” Never again would a Democratic nominee for state office in Virginia seek Falwell’s approval. Warner went on to win the election by a mere 4,721 votes, and more than a few observers suggested that Falwell’s nod to the GOP candidate had been important to that outcome.
The Moral Majority
Secular New Right leaders approached Falwell in 1978 and offered their backing if he could use his skills to head a national political organization that would link conservative evangelicals to the Republican Party. Falwell agreed and he formed his Moral Majority, relying primarily on his connections with fellow pastors in the Baptist Bible Fellowship denomination.
Falwell and the Moral Majority thus became the face of the Christian Right movement in America. For the 1980 elections he claimed to have mobilized as many as four million previously apolitical evangelicals. Some observers disputed that number, but, whatever the total, Falwell had certainly been the key figure to initially mobilize a large corps of activists who over time transformed the GOP and American politics more generally.
Yet Falwell’s political influence was never again as strong as it had been in 1980. Despite his continued support for Reagan and the Republican Party, Falwell and his supporters eventually became disgruntled with GOP leaders’ lack of commitment to social issues. Although Falwell and many others in the Christian Right believed that the GOP owed much of its success in the 1980s to the Christian Right, they did not believe that Republican political leaders were giving back much in return for this loyalty. Reagan legitimized the views of religious conservatives on many issues, especially when he espoused pro-life views and support for “pro-family” issues, but he did not put the social policy agenda on the front burner of his administration.
While the Republicans held the White House in the 1980s, support for the Moral Majority rapidly declined. Some opinion polls showed that support from Jerry Falwell actually hurt a candidate’s standing with voters more than it helped. Fewer and fewer candidates sought out Falwell’s backing in campaigns and many were quick to distance themselves from the controversial pastor. By late in the 1980s the Moral Majority had become a spent force in U.S. politics and, under financial pressure, Falwell closed down the organization in 1989. Soon after, the Reverend Pat Robertson, someone long seen as a rival to Falwell for the status of leading evangelical political figure in the United States, founded the Christian Coalition. Robertson’s organization quickly rose to national prominence and became a more formidable and effective political organization than the Moral Majority had ever been.
As a political figure, Falwell was far more effective at using mass media to draw attention to himself and his issues than he was at building a grassroots political organization. The Moral Majority had relied on media exposure for its stature and it had raised money primarily through mass mailings. The organization never built a strong and enduring grassroots network of activists—a key factor in the Moral Majority’s ultimate demise.
In relying so heavily on media attention, Falwell needed to strike a balance between rousing his followers into political action and maintaining his credibility with mainstream leaders and the press. Yet oftentimes the rhetoric that he used to mobilize religious conservatives sounded threatening or extreme to those outside his movement. For example, he denounced a civil rights bill in Congress because he said that it would require sin to be labeled as a handicap and would force churches to hire “active homosexuals, transvestites, alcoholics, and drug addicts” as youth counselors. In making an appeal to supporters against public broadcasting, Falwell lambasted the PBS children’s program Teletubbies by claiming that its purple handbag–toting character, Tinky Winky, exhibited homosexual attributes. As his political influence waned in the 1990s when Bill Clinton was U.S. president, Falwell turned his attention to promoting the sales of an inflammatory video documentary that alleged that Clinton was involved in several murder conspiracies.
Falwell caused a national uproar on September 13, 2001, in an interview on Pat Robertson’s television program, The 700 Club. In explaining his view that God had chosen not to protect the United States against the devastating terrorist attacks of 9/11, Falwell stated: “The abortionists have got to bear some burden for this because God will not be mocked. And when we destroy forty 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, People for the American Way—all of them who have tried to secularize America—I point the finger in their face and say, ‘You helped this happen.'” In the wake of a firestorm of anger, Falwell apologized for these comments as well as for having called the prophet Muhammad a terrorist.
Although Falwell is best remembered for his role in mobilizing the Christian Right late in the 1970s and 1980s, his legacy also includes the ministry he founded and that was subsequently headed by his son Jonathan Falwell in 2007 after Falwell’s death, as well as Liberty University, where Jerry Falwell Jr. was named vice-chancellor in 2003 and then chancellor in 2007. The latter, founded in 1971 and formerly called Lynchburg Baptist College and then Liberty Baptist College, achieved accreditation in 1980 from the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools, and then obtained university status and changed its name in 1985. The university promotes a Christian-based liberal arts curriculum and also has graduate programs in theology and arts and sciences as well as a law school.
Falwell’s name also has a prominent place in U.S. constitutional law. In 1983 the pornographic magazine Hustler featured a fake interview with Falwell that contained material broadly considered to be highly offensive. Although the interview was intended as parody, Falwell sued the magazine and its publisher, Larry Flynt, for defamation and causing emotional distress. Falwell initially won in lower courts on his claim of having suffered distress, but the case went to the United States Supreme Court, where Falwell lost in a landmark unanimous ruling in 1988. The court’s decision ultimately strengthened the foundation of First Amendment protection for free expression, and the battle between Falwell and Flynt became the subject of a popular 1996 Hollywood movie, The People v. Larry Flynt.
Toward the end of his life Falwell toned down some of his fiery rhetoric about gays and lesbians. The pastor’s friend and former ghostwriter Mel White revealed to Falwell that he was gay and proposed that the two of them cosponsor a summit of prominent gay and evangelical figures. Falwell agreed and the event attracted substantial national media attention as a potential shifting event that would encourage greater tolerance and understanding between these groups.
Falwell died of a heart ailment in his office at Liberty University in 2007. Just several days earlier he had told an interviewer that he needed still another twenty years to accomplish his goal to make his Liberty University a “major evangelical Christian University.”