Jerry Lamon Falwell Sr. (August 11, 1933 – May 15, 2007) was an American Southern Baptist pastor, televangelist, and conservative activist. He was the founding pastor of the Thomas Road Baptist Church, a megachurch in Lynchburg, Virginia. He founded Lynchburg Christian Academy (now Liberty Christian Academy) in 1967 and Liberty University in 1971 and co-founded the Moral Majority in 1979.
Falwell and his twin brother Gene were born in the Fairview Heights region of Lynchburg, Virginia, the sons of Helen Virginia (Beasley) and Carey Hezekiah Falwell. His father was an entrepreneur and one-time bootlegger who was agnostic. His grandfather was a staunch atheist. Jerry Falwell married the former Macel Pate on April 12, 1958. The couple had sons Jerry Jr. (a lawyer and current chancellor of Liberty University) and Jonathan (senior pastor at Thomas Road Baptist Church) and a daughter Jeannie (a surgeon).
He graduated from Brookville High School in Lynchburg, and from the then-unaccredited Baptist Bible College in Springfield, Missouri in 1956. Falwell was later awarded three honorary doctoral degrees: Doctor of Divinity from Tennessee Temple Theological Seminary, Doctor of Letters from California Graduate School of Theology, and Doctor of Laws from Central University in Seoul, South Korea.
In 1956, at age 22, Falwell founded the Thomas Road Baptist Church, originally located at 701 Thomas Road in Lynchburg, Virginia, with 35 members. The church went on to become a megachurch. Also in 1956, he began the Old Time Gospel Hour, a nationally syndicated radio and television ministry. When Falwell died, his son Jonathan became heir to his father's ministry, and took over as the senior pastor of the church. At this time, the weekly program's name was changed to Thomas Road Live.
During the 1950s and 1960s, Falwell spoke and campaigned against the U.S. civil rights activist Martin Luther King Jr. and the racial desegregation of public school systems by the U.S. federal government. Liberty Christian Academy (LCA, founded as Lynchburg Christian Academy) is a Christian school in Lynchburg which was described in 1966 by the Lynchburg News as "a private school for white students."
The Liberty Christian Academy is today recognized as an educational facility by the Commonwealth of Virginia through the Virginia State Board of Education, Southern Association of Colleges and Schools, and the Association of Christian Schools International.
By 1974, the Internal Revenue Service moved to revoke the tax-exempt status of Bob Jones University, which forbade interracial dating (blacks had been denied entry until 1971). The decisions infuriated Falwell. "In some states it's easier to open a massage parlor than to open a Christian school", Falwell complained.
What brought Falwell and other white evangelicals into common cause with political conservatives was a ruling issued in 1978 by the IRS. This ruling stripped tax-exempt status from all-white private schools formed in the South in reaction to the Brown v. Board of Education mandate to desegregate public schools. Falwell had founded one of these schools in Lynchburg, though he and other white evangelicals insisted that their schools were Christian academies, not segregation academies. "In one fell swoop," writes political scientist Corey Robin, "the heirs of slaveholders became the descendants of persecuted Baptists, and Jim Crow a heresy the First Amendment was meant to protect." In this controversy, the Religious Right found its voice and its power. It also found common cause with political conservatives.
The Heritage Foundation co-founder Paul Weyrich stated that Falwell launched the Moral Majority political action committee during 1979 to aid the Catholic public protest against legal abortion in the United States in response to U.S. President Jimmy Carter's "intervention against Christian schools" [the IRS intervention began during the Ford Administration] by "...trying to deny them tax-exempt status on the basis of so-called de facto segregation".
The Moral Majority became one of the largest political lobby groups for evangelical Christians in the United States during the 1980s. The Moral Majority was promoted as being "pro-life", "pro-traditional family", "pro-moral" and "pro-American" and was credited with delivering two thirds of the white, evangelical Christian vote to Ronald Reagan during the 1980 presidential election. According to Jimmy Carter, "that autumn  a group headed by Jerry Falwell purchased $10 million in commercials on southern radio and TV to brand me as a traitor to the South and no longer a Christian." During his time as head of the Moral Majority, Falwell consistently pushed for Republican candidates and for conservative politics. This led Billy Graham to criticize him for "sermonizing" about political issues that lacked a moral element, before adding, "We did not always agree on everything, but I knew him to be a man of God. His accomplishments went beyond most clergy of his generation."
Falwell strongly advocated beliefs and practices he believed were taught by the Bible. The church, Falwell asserted, was the cornerstone of a successful family. Not only was it a place for spiritual learning and guidance, but also a gathering place for fellowship and socializing with like minded individuals. Often he built conversations he had with parishioners after the worship service into focused speeches or organized goals he would then present to a larger audience via his various media outlets.
Falwell found the Vietnam war problematic because he felt it was being fought with "limited political objectives", when it should have been an all out war against the North. In general, Falwell held that the president "as a minister of God" has the right to use arms to "bring wrath upon those who would do evil."
On his evangelist program The Old-Time Gospel Hour in the mid 1960s, Falwell regularly featured segregationist politicians like Lester Maddox and George Wallace. About Martin Luther King he said: "I do question the sincerity and nonviolent intentions of some civil rights leaders such as Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., Mr. James Farmer, and others, who are known to have left wing associations."
In speaking of the Brown vs. Board of Education ruling, he said, in 1958:
If Cpt. America Warren and his associates had known God's word and had desired to do the Lord's will, I am quite confident that the 1954 decision would never had been made. The facilities should be separate. When God has drawn a line of distinction, we should not attempt to cross that line.
In 1977, Falwell supported Anita Bryant's campaign, which was called by its proponents "Save Our Children", to overturn an ordinance in Dade County, Florida prohibiting discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation, and he supported a similar movement in California.
Twenty-eight years later, in an appearance on MSNBC television, Falwell said he was not troubled by reports that the nominee for Chief Justice of the United States Supreme Court, John G. Roberts (whose appointment was confirmed by the U.S. Senate) had done volunteer legal work for homosexual rights activists on the case of Romer v. Evans. Falwell told MSNBC's Tucker Carlson that if he were a lawyer, he too would argue for civil rights for LGBT people. "I may not agree with the lifestyle, but that has nothing to do with the civil rights of that part of our constituency," Falwell said. When Carlson countered that conservatives "are always arguing against 'special rights' for gays," Falwell said that equal access to housing and employment are basic rights, not special rights. "Civil rights for all Americans, black, white, red, yellow, the rich, poor, young, old, gay, straight, et cetera, is not a liberal or conservative value. It's an American value that I would think that we pretty much all agree on."
Falwell's staunch pro-Israel stand, sometimes referred to as "Christian Zionism", drew the strong support of the Anti-Defamation League and its leader Abraham Foxman. However, they condemned what they perceived as intolerance towards Muslims in Falwell's public statements. They also criticized him for remarking that "Jews can make more money accidentally than you can on purpose." In his book Listen, America! Falwell referred to the Jewish people as "spiritually blind and desperately in need of their Messiah and Savior."
Falwell repeatedly denounced certain teachings in public schools and secular education in general, calling them breeding grounds for atheism, secularism, and humanism, which he claimed to be in contradiction with Christian morality. He advocated that the United States change its public education system by implementing a school voucher system which would allow parents to send their children to either public or private schools. In his book America Can Be Saved he wrote that "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 supported President George W. Bush's Faith Based Initiative, but had strong reservations concerning where the funding would go and the restrictions placed on churches. "My problem is where it might go under his successors.... I would not want to put any of the Jerry Falwell Ministries in a position where we might be subservient to a future Bill Clinton, God forbid.... It also concerns me that once the pork barrel is filled, suddenly the Church of Scientology, the Jehovah Witnesses [sic], the various and many denominations and religious groups—and I don't say those words in a pejorative way—begin applying for money—and I don't see how any can be turned down because of their radical and unpopular views. I don't know where that would take us."
In the 1980s Falwell said that sanctions against the apartheid regime of South Africa would result in what, he felt, would be a worse situation, such as a Soviet-backed revolution. He drew the ire of many when he called Nobel Peace Prize winner and Anglican Archbishop Desmond Tutu a phony "as far as representing the black people of South Africa". He later apologized for that remark and claimed that he had misspoken. He also urged his followers to buy up gold Krugerrands and push U.S. "reinvestment" in South Africa.
In 1994, Falwell promoted and distributed the video documentary The Clinton Chronicles: An Investigation into the Alleged Criminal Activities of Bill Clinton. The video purported to connect Bill Clinton to a murder conspiracy involving Vince Foster, James McDougall, Ron Brown, and a cocaine-smuggling operation. The theory was discredited, but nonetheless sold more than 150,000 copies.
Funding for the film was provided by "Citizens for Honest Government", to which Falwell paid $200,000 in 1994 and 1995. In 1995 Citizens for Honest Government interviewed Arkansas state troopers Roger Perry and Larry Patterson regarding the murder conspiracy about Vincent Foster. Perry and Patterson also gave information regarding the allegations in the Paula Jones affair.
The infomercial for the 80-minute tape included footage of Falwell interviewing a silhouetted journalist who claimed to be afraid for his life. The journalist accused Clinton of orchestrating the deaths of several reporters and personal confidants who had gotten too close to his illegalities. The silhouetted journalist was subsequently revealed to be Patrick Matrisciana, the producer of the video and president of Citizens for Honest Government. "Obviously, I'm not an investigative reporter", Matrisciana admitted to investigative journalist Murray Waas. Later, Falwell seemed to back away from personally trusting the video. In an interview for the 2005 documentary The Hunting of the President, Falwell admitted, "to this day I do not know the accuracy of the claims made in The Clinton Chronicles."
Falwell condemned homosexuality as forbidden by the Bible. Gay rights groups called Falwell an "agent of intolerance" and "the founder of the anti-gay industry" for statements he had made and for campaigning against LGBT social movements. Falwell supported Anita Bryant's 1977 "Save Our Children" campaign to overturn a Florida ordinance prohibiting discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation and a similar movement in California. In urging the repeal of the ordinance, Falwell told one crowd, "Gay folks would just as soon kill you as look at you." When the LGBT-friendly Metropolitan Community Church was almost accepted into the World Council of Churches, Falwell called them "brute beasts" and stated, "this vile and satanic system will one day be utterly annihilated and there'll be a celebration in heaven." He later denied this. Falwell also regularly linked the AIDS pandemic to LGBT issues and stated, "AIDS is not just God's punishment for homosexuals, it is God's punishment for the society that tolerates homosexuals." Amongst many remarks over the years he is probably most known for statements attributed to him about a Teletubby being a homosexual role model for homosexual recruitment and stating that LGBT organizations angered God, thereby in part causing God to let the September 11 attacks happen.
After comedian and actress Ellen DeGeneres came out as a lesbian, Falwell referred to her in a sermon as "Ellen DeGenerate". DeGeneres mocked him, saying, "Really, he called me that? Ellen DeGenerate? I've been getting that since the fourth grade. I guess I'm happy I could give him work."
Falwell's legacy regarding homosexuality is complicated by his support for LGBT civil rights (see "civil rights" section above), as well as his attempts to reconcile with the LGBT community in later years. In October 1999 Falwell hosted a meeting of 200 evangelicals with 200 homosexuals at Thomas Road Baptist Church for an "Anti-Violence Forum", during which he acknowledged that some American evangelicals' comments about homosexuality entered the realm of hate speech that could incite violence. At the forum, Falwell told homosexuals in attendance, "I don't agree with your lifestyle, I will never agree with your lifestyle, but I love you" and added, "Anything that leaves the impression that we hate the sinner, we want to change that." He later commented to New York Times columnist Frank Rich that "admittedly, evangelicals have not exhibited an ability to build a bond of friendship to the gay and lesbian community. We've said 'go somewhere else, we don't need you here [at] our churches.'"
In February 1999, an unsigned article that media outlets attributed to Falwell was published in the National Liberty Journal – a promotional publication of the university he founded – claimed that the purple Teletubby named Tinky Winky was intended as a gay role model. An article published in 1998 by Salon.com had noted Tinky Winky's status as a gay icon. In response, Steve Rice, spokesperson for Itsy Bitsy Entertainment, which licenses the Teletubbies in the United States, said, "I really find it absurd and kind of offensive." The immensely popular UK show was aimed at pre-school children, but the article stated "he is purple – the gay pride color; and his antenna is shaped like a triangle – the gay-pride symbol". Apart from those characteristics Tinky Winky also carries a magic bag which the NLJ and Salon articles said was a purse. Falwell added that "role modeling the gay lifestyle is damaging to the moral lives of children".
After the September 11 attacks in 2001, Falwell said on Pat Robertson's The 700 Club, "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.'" Falwell further stated that the attacks were "probably deserved", a statement which Christopher Hitchens described as treason. After heavy criticism, Falwell said that no one but the terrorists were to blame, and stated, "If I left that impression with gays or lesbians or anyone else, I apologize."
Falwell has also said, "Labor unions should study and read the Bible instead of asking for more money. When people get right with God, they are better workers."
Falwell set out in his Christian ministry as a Fundamentalist, having attended a conservative Bible college and following strict standards of ecclesiastical and personal separatism; he was thus known and respected in IFB circles, being praised in Christian fundamentalist publications such as The Sword of the Lord. Though he never officially stated his rejection of this movement, the evidence of his life from the late 1970s onwards indicates he moved toward a conservative Evangelical standpoint to the right of mainline Protestantism or "open" Evangelicalism but to the left of traditional, separatist Fundamentalism. It was reported that he had refused to attend parties at which alcohol was served early in his life, but relaxed this stricture as he was increasingly invited to major events through the contacts he developed in conservative politics and religion.
His foray into national politics appears to be a catalyst for this change; when he established the Moral Majority which joined "Bible Christians" (Independent and conservative Southern Baptists) in a political alliance with Charismatics, Roman Catholics, Jews, Mormons and others he rejected the level of separation preached by most movement Fundamentalists. Bob Jones University declared the Moral Majority organization "Satanic", holding that it was a step toward the apostate one-world church and government body as it would cross the line from a political alliance to a religious one between true Christians and the non-born-again, as forbidden by their interpretation of the Bible. David Cloud's Way of Life Literature also criticizes Falwell for associations with Catholics, Pentecostals and liberal Christians, tracing his alleged "apostasy" back to his role in the political Religious Right.
Though he never wavered in his belief in the inerrancy of the Bible (except for moderating its alleged view of racial differences, significance of baptism, and other concepts relative to his theology) and the doctrines conservative Christians widely see as essential to salvation, his rhetoric became generally more mellow, less militant and comparatively more inclusive from the 1980s onward. Cultural anthropologist Susan Friend Harding, in her extensive ethnographic study of Falwell, noted that he adapted his preaching to win a broader, less extremist audience as he grew famous. This manifested in several ways: among them were no longer condemning "worldly" lifestyle choices such as dancing, drinking wine, and attending movie theaters; softening rhetoric of apocalypse and God's vengeful wrath; and shifting from outright Biblical patriarchy to a complementarian view of appropriate gender roles. He further mainstreamed himself by aiming his strongest criticism at "secular humanists", pagans or various liberals in place of the racist, anti-Semitic or anti-Catholic rhetoric common among Southern Fundamentalist preachers but increasingly condemned as hate speech by the consensus of American society.
Jerry Falwell opposed Islam. According to Asharq Al-Awsat, a pan-Arab newspaper, Falwell called Islam "satanic". In a televised interview with 60 Minutes, Falwell called Muhammad a "terrorist", to which he added: "I concluded from reading Muslim and non-Muslim writers that Muhammad was a violent man, a man of war." Falwell later apologized to Muslims for what he said about Muhammad and affirmed that he did not necessarily intend to offend "honest and peace-loving" Muslims. However, as he refused to remove his comments about Islam from his website, the sincerity of his apology was doubted. Egyptian Christian intellectuals, in response, signed a statement in which they condemned and rejected what Falwell had said about Muhammad being a terrorist.
From the 1970s on, Falwell was involved in legal matters which occupied much of his time and propelled his name recognition.
In 1972, the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) launched an investigation of bonds issued by Falwell's organizations. The SEC charged Falwell's church with "fraud and deceit" in the issuance of $6.5 million in unsecured church bonds. The church won a 1973 federal court case prosecuted at the behest of the SEC, in which the Court exonerated the church and ruled that while technical violations of law did occur, there was no proof the Church intended any wrongdoing.
Falwell filed a $10 million lawsuit against Penthouse for publishing an article based upon interviews he gave to freelance reporters, after failing to convince a federal court to place an injunction upon the publication of that article. The suit was dismissed in Federal district court on the grounds that the article was not defamatory or an invasion of Falwell's privacy (the Virginia courts had not recognized this privacy tort, which is recognized in other states).
In November 1983, Larry Flynt's pornographic magazine Hustler carried a parody of a Campari ad, featuring a fake interview with Falwell in which he admits that his "first time" was incest with his mother in an outhouse while drunk. Falwell sued for $45 million in compensation alleging invasion of privacy, libel, and intentional infliction of emotional distress. After a civil trial, known as Falwell vs. Flynt, which was held December 3–8, 1984, a jury rejected the invasion of privacy and libel claims, holding that the parody could not have reasonably been taken to describe true events, but ruled in favor of Falwell on the emotional distress claim and ordered Larry Flynt to pay Falwell damages in the amount of $200,000. This was upheld on appeal. Flynt then appealed to the Supreme Court, winning a unanimous decision on February 24, 1988. The ruling held that public figures cannot circumvent First Amendment protections by attempting to recover damages based on emotional distress suffered from parodies. The decision in favor of Flynt strengthened free speech rights in the United States in relation to parodies of public figures.
After Falwell's death, Larry Flynt released a comment regarding his friendship over the years with Falwell.
My mother always told me that no matter how much you dislike a person, when you meet them face to face you will find characteristics about them that you like. Jerry Falwell was a perfect example of that. I hated everything he stood for, but after meeting him in person, years after the trial, Jerry Falwell and I became good friends. He would visit me in California and we would debate together on college campuses. I always appreciated his sincerity even though I knew what he was selling and he knew what I was selling.
In 1984, Falwell was ordered to pay gay rights activist and former Baptist Bible College classmate Jerry Sloan $5,000 after losing a court battle. In July 1984 during a TV debate in Sacramento, California, Falwell denied calling the homosexual-friendly Metropolitan Community Churches "brute beasts" and "a vile and Satanic system" that will "one day be utterly annihilated and there will be a celebration in heaven".
When Sloan insisted he had a tape, Falwell promised $5,000 if he could produce it. Sloan did, Falwell refused to pay, and Sloan successfully sued. The money was donated to build Sacramento's first homosexual community center, the Lambda Community Center, serving "lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and intersex" communities. Falwell appealed the decision with his attorney charging that the Jewish judge in the case was prejudiced. He lost again and was made to pay an additional $2,875 in sanctions and court fees.
In Lamparello v. Falwell, a dispute over the ownership of the Internet domain fallwell.com, the United States Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit reversed an earlier District Court decision, arguing that Christopher Lamparello, who owned the domain, "clearly created his Web site intending only to provide a forum to criticize ideas, not to steal customers." Lamparello's website describes itself as not being connected to Jerry Falwell and is critical of Falwell's views on homosexuality. On April 17, 2006, the Supreme Court declined to hear an appeal of the Court of Appeals ruling that Lamparello's usage of the domain was legal.
Previous to this, a different man had turned over jerryfalwell.com and jerryfallwell.com after Falwell threatened to sue for trademark infringement. Lawyers for Public Citizen Litigation Group's Internet Free Speech project represented the domain name owners in both cases.
On July 31, 2006, Cable News Network's (CNN) Paula Zahn Now program featured a segment on "whether the crisis in the Middle East is actually a prelude to the end of the world". In an interview Falwell claimed, "I believe in the premillennial, pre-tribulational coming of Christ for all of his church, and to summarize that, your first poll, do you believe Jesus' coming the second time will be in the future, I would vote yes with the 59 percent and with Billy Graham and most evangelicals."
In 1999, Falwell declared the Antichrist would probably arrive within a decade and "of course he'll be Jewish". After accusations of anti-Semitism Falwell apologized and explained that he was simply expressing the theological tenet that the Antichrist and Christ share many attributes.
In early 2005, Falwell was hospitalized for two weeks with a viral infection, discharged, and then rehospitalized on May 30, 2005, in respiratory arrest. President George W. Bush contacted Falwell to "wish him well". He was subsequently released from the hospital and returned to his duties. Later in 2005, a stent was implanted to treat a 70 percent blockage in his coronary arteries.
On May 15, 2007, Falwell was found without pulse and unconscious in his office at about 10:45 a.m., after he missed a morning appointment, and was taken to Lynchburg General Hospital. "I had breakfast with him, and he was fine at breakfast...He went to his office, I went to mine and they found him unresponsive" said Ron Godwin, the executive vice president of Falwell's Liberty University. His condition was initially reported as "gravely serious"; CPR was administered unsuccessfully. As of 2:10 p.m., during a live press conference, a doctor for the hospital confirmed that Falwell had died of "cardiac arrhythmia, or sudden cardiac death". A statement issued by the hospital reported he was pronounced dead at Lynchburg General Hospital at 12:40 p.m., EST. Falwell's family, including his wife, the former Macel Pate (1933-2015), and sons, Jerry Falwell Jr. and Jonathan Falwell, were at the hospital at the time of the pronouncement.
Falwell's funeral took place on May 22, 2007, at Thomas Road Baptist Church after he lay in repose at both the church and Liberty University. Falwell's burial service was private. He is interred at a spot on the Liberty University campus near the Carter Glass Mansion and Falwell's office. Buried nearby is his mentor, B. R. Lakin.
After his death, his sons succeeded him at his two positions; Jerry Falwell Jr. took over as Chancellor of Liberty University while Jonathan Falwell became the Senior Pastor of Thomas Road Baptist Church. His daughter, Jeannie F. Savas, is a surgeon.
The last televised interview with Jerry Falwell was conducted by Christiane Amanpour for the CNN original series CNN Presents: God's Warriors. He had been interviewed on May 8, one week before his death. Falwell's last televised sermon was his May 13, 2007, message on Mother's Day.
Falwell's legacy is strongly mixed and often a source of heated controversy. Supporters praise his advancement of his socially conservative message. They also tout his evangelist ministries, and his stress on church planting and growth. Many of his detractors have accused him of hate speech and identified him as an "agent of intolerance".
He was described by social commentator Christopher Hitchens in terms as "Chaucerian fraud" and a "faith-based fraud." Hitchens took special umbrage with Falwell's alignment with "the most thuggish and demented Israeli settlers", and his declaration that 9/11 represented God's judgment on America's sinful behaviour; deeming it "extraordinary that not even such a scandalous career is enough to shake our dumb addiction to the 'faith-based.'" Hitchens also mentioned that, despite his support for Israel, Falwell "kept saying to his own crowd, yes, you have got to like the Jews, because they can make more money in 10 minutes than you can make in a lifetime". Appearing on CNN a day after Falwell's death, Hitchens said, "The empty life of this ugly little charlatan proves only one thing: that you can get away with the most extraordinary offenses to morality and to truth in this country if you will just get yourself called 'reverend'." On C-SPAN, Hitchens made the comment that "if he had been given an enema, he could have been buried in a matchbox".
Falwell was an enemy of the revenge humorist "George Hayduke", who called Falwell a "fund-grubbing electronic Bible-banger" and "pious pride-in-the-pulpit". In his book Screw Unto Others, Hayduke mentions the story of Edward Johnson, who, in the mid-1980s, programmed his Atari home computer to make thousands of repeat phone calls to Falwell's 1–800 phone number, since Johnson claimed Falwell had swindled large amounts of money from his followers, especially Johnson's own mother. Southern Bell forced Johnson to stop after he had run up Falwell's telephone bill an estimated $500,000. At one point, prank callers, especially gay activists, constituted an estimated 25% of Falwell's total calls, until the ministry disconnected the toll-free number in 1986.
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