The Rev. Jerry Falwell
In 1979, the Rev. Jerry Falwell, the pastor of a congregation he organized in Lynchburg, Va., founded a political advocacy group called the Moral Majority. It would have a lasting effect on American politics. Mr. Falwell mobilized socially conservative Christian voters and turned them into an effective voting bloc, helping to elect Ronald Reagan in 1980 and 1984. The Moral Majority dissolved in 1989, but the mobilized religious conservatives, the so-called values voters, helped carry President Bush to victory in 2000 and 2004. Mr. Falwell died May 15 after collapsing in his office at Liberty University, but for years to come his legacy of politically invigorating religious voters will continue to shape the terrain of American politics for the better.
Mr. Falwell was vital to bringing evangelicals who had previously held themselves above politics into the secular political arena. Said Ralph Reed of Mr. Falwell: “He gave a voice to conservative people of faith who had previously been marginalized in our politics.” He did it largely by talking about the issues, translating widespread opposition to Roe v. Wade, for instance, into votes for those who oppose — or would appoint judges who oppose — the egregious Supreme Court ruling.
Rep. Barney Frank once quipped that anti-abortion activists and legislators seemed to believe that life begins at con- ception and ends at birth. That could not be said of Mr. Falwell, who worked to provide a home for unwed mothers to encourage young women to consider adoption, not abortion. “For 18 years, we have owned and operated the Liberty Godparent Foundation here in Lynchburg, Virginia — a home for unwed mothers, mostly teenaged girls, and about 1,200 homes around the nation that interface with us,” he said on the Fox News Channel show “Hannity and Colmes” in 1999. “We have therefore talked to thousands of young ladies. We’ve placed for adoption hundreds of babies.”
Mr. Falwell’s teaching legacy will be preserved through Liberty University. The school he founded in Lynchburg in 1971 under a different name grew to be one of the largest fully accredited Christian universities, with 9,600 students on campus and more than 17,000 enrolled in its distance learning program. Mr. Falwell’s congregation, Thomas Road Baptist Church, which he founded in 1956, has enrolled 22,000 members.
Mr. Falwell’s influence on American politics will be lasting, but his most enduring legacy will be how he taught and lived his faith. His church and the university that grew from it will project that legacy for the years and decades to come. This is the legacy that a minister of the Gospel lives to leave behind. We will miss him.