The Rev. Jerry Falwell, the fundamentalist preacher who transformed American politics by rallying the religious right into an electoral...

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The Rev. Jerry Falwell, the fundamentalist preacher who transformed American politics by rallying the religious right into an electoral force and helping Ronald Reagan into the presidency, died Tuesday of apparent heart failure shortly after collapsing in his office at Liberty University in Lynchburg, Va. He was 73.

The founder and leader of the Moral Majority organization married Christian religious belief and conservative political values — a bond that has helped the Republican Party for the past 25 years.

With his outspoken pronouncements on matters moral, political and religious, the Rev. Falwell became not only one of the most polarizing religious-political figures in America but also one of the most powerful. He built one of the nation’s first mega-churches, founded a cable-television network and a growing Bible-based university. In 1983, U.S. News & World Report named him one of the 25 most influential people in America.

Founder and pastor at Lynchburg’s Thomas Road Baptist Church for more than 50 years, the Rev. Falwell played a major role in taking evangelism from the revival tent to the TV screen. He first achieved national stature for spurring conservative Christians into political action beginning with his founding of the Moral Majority in 1979, largely driven by the 1973 Supreme Court Roe v. Wade ruling that established the right to an abortion.

Encompassing other issues such as gay rights, pornography and bans on school prayer, the Rev. Falwell told Christians it was their duty to jump into the political fray. And they did, millions of them registering and voting for the first time in 1980, a development that helped propel Reagan into the White House.

The Rev. Falwell initially supported Democratic President Jimmy Carter because of the Georgian’s embrace of his “born-again” Christianity. But he eventually became critical of Carter after what Falwell called the president’s move toward liberal policies.

At one point the Moral Majority claimed 6.5 million members. It soon begat the Christian Coalition, led by the Rev. Pat Robertson, who ran for president in 1988.

The outspoken preacher

Falwell had a knack for being provocative:

South Africa: As a supporter of South Africa’s apartheid regime in the 1980s, he visited the country and backed the white minority government.

Antichrist: In 1999, he told an evangelical conference that the Antichrist was a male Jew alive in the world today. He later apologized for his remarks but not for holding the belief.

Teletubbies: That same year he warned parents that a character on the children’s TV show “Teletubbies,” Tinky Winky, the purple Teletubby with the red bag, was a gay role model.

Muhammad: On “60 Minutes” in 2002, he labeled the Prophet Muhammad a terrorist.

AIDS: “AIDS is the wrath of God upon homosexuals,” he said on one occasion.

Sept. 11: After the terrorist attacks, Falwell said, “I really believe that the pagans and the abortionists and the feminists and the gays and the lesbians … all of them who have tried to secularize America, I point the finger in their face and say, ‘You helped this happen.’ “

Global warming: Falwell recently preached a sermon on global warming, in which he dismissed the issue as “hocus-pocus,” a Satanic plot to distract Christians from the more important work of spreading the Gospel.

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Meanwhile, the Rev. Falwell, Robertson, Jim Bakker and other televangelists had quickly mastered the new media available to them, primarily cable television, and built huge new audiences of people hungry for traditional values and increasingly agitated by what they saw as the moral decline of America. “Values voters” helped elect George W. Bush in 2000 and 2004.

Evangelical change

Before the Rev. Falwell founded Moral Majority, Southern Baptists and most other evangelical Christian groups were reluctant to get involved in “things of this world,” including politics; they had their eyes on what they considered higher causes, primarily saving souls.

As late as 1965, the Rev. Falwell himself had preached that ministers should stay out of the civil-rights movement.

But, in 1976, the Rev. Falwell said “the idea that religion and politics don’t mix was invented by the devil to keep Christians from running their own country.”

Paul Weyrich, a founder of modern conservatism, recalls a meeting in the late 1970s at which the Rev. Falwell discussed his plans.

“I said, ‘Out there is what you might call a moral majority’ ” that holds similar views, Weyrich said. “Falwell said, ‘Wait a minute.’ He turned and said, ‘That’s the name of the organization.’ “

What’s more, the Rev. Falwell forged an alliance with those of other beliefs, including Catholics and Jews — a step that appalled some fundamentalists.

When the Rev. Falwell stepped down as Moral Majority president in 1987, he said, “I shudder to think where the country would be right now if the religious right had not evolved.” In 1989, he dissolved the Moral Majority, saying the group had accomplished the job it set out to do.

Although his political influence and public profile had diminished in recent years as he devoted more of his time to Liberty University, his positions on a number of core issues such as abortion, gay rights and school prayer have become mainstream positions of the modern Republican Party.

“He came to understand that if people of faith were not engaged in the larger culture, eventually the culture would move in a direction so hostile to its values it would be difficult to live in that culture,” said Ralph Reed Jr., former executive director of the Christian Coalition.

Robertson declared Falwell “a tower of strength on many of the moral issues which have confronted our nation.”

Matt Foreman, executive director of National Gay and Lesbian Task Force, extended condolences to those close to the Rev. Falwell, but added: “Unfortunately, we will always remember him as a founder and leader of America’s anti-gay industry, someone who exacerbated the nation’s appalling response to the onslaught of the AIDS epidemic, someone who demonized and vilified us for political gain and someone who used religion to divide rather than unite our nation.”

For all the public controversy, the Rev. Falwell’s close associates said he was immensely likable. A burly, blue-eyed bear of a man, he was known for taking time to visit members of his congregation in the hospital. He prayed with his friends and his political antagonists.

Mel White, who ghost-wrote the Rev. Falwell’s autobiography, later came out as gay and repudiated the preacher for a stridency that made him, as White put it, “the face of homophobia in America.”

Yet White said he still appreciated the Rev. Falwell as “a really wonderful pastor, a good father and husband.”

With his preacherly voice and cocksure confidence, he had a penchant for provocative comments. Perhaps his most provocative came Sept. 13, 2001, when he appeared on Robertson’s TV show, and blamed pagans, abortionists, feminists, gays, the ACLU and others for the Sept. 11 attacks.

“I point the finger in their face and say, ‘You helped this happen,’ ” he said. He later apologized.

The Rev. Falwell also made headlines when he sued publisher Larry Flynt for a 1983 parody liquor ad in the adult magazine Hustler. The Rev. Falwell was awarded $200,000 in emotional damages for the ad — which had him committing incest with his mother in an outhouse — but the U.S. Supreme Court eventually struck down the decision.

His cause suffered setbacks with the televangelism scandals involving Bakker, Jimmy Swaggart and others. When Bakker resigned in 1987 under a cloud of financial troubles, he turned his PTL media empire over to the Rev. Falwell, with whom he had had a simmering rivalry for years. The Rev. Falwell quickly turned on the Pentecostal Bakker, accusing him of paying blackmail to a mistress, Jessica Hahn, and having “homosexual problems dating back to 1956.”

A turnaround

Jerry Lamon Falwell was born August 11, 1933, in Lynchburg. His father, whom the Rev. Falwell described as “an agnostic, an alcoholic, a bootlegger,” shot and killed his younger brother and drank himself to death when Falwell was 15.

In high school, the future preacher was the valedictorian of his 1950 graduating class but didn’t get to deliver the address because he was caught with a group that had been stealing lunch tickets. he was an 18-year-old student at Lynchburg College when he became a Christian in 1952.

He transferred to Baptist Bible College, a strict fundamentalist, school in Springfield, Mo., where, he said, “God literally turned my life around.”

The Rev. Falwell returned to his hometown in 1956 and, at 22, founded Thomas Road Baptist Church. In his autobiography, “Strength for the Journey” (1987), he explained how he built the congregation: He knocked on a hundred doors a day, knowing he might encounter “a sick child who needed prayer, a lonely and frightened widow who needed someone to talk to, an isolated alcoholic who wanted help. … “

They made their way to the Rev. Falwell’s church. He built it into an empire that included the 24,000-member Thomas Road church, the “Old Time Gospel Hour” carried on TV stations around the country and 9,600-student Liberty University, which the Rev. Falwell founded in 1971.

Survivors include his wife of 49 years, Macel Pate Falwell, of Lynchburg; three children, Jerry Falwell Jr. and Jonathan Falwell, both of Lynchburg, and Jeannie Falwell Savas, of Richmond; and eight grandchildren.

Compiled from The Washington Post, Chicago Tribune, The Associated Press, USA Today McClatchy Newspapers and Los Angeles Times