Jerry Falwell died today at the age of 73. He will be chiefly remembered for two enormous accomplishments:
First, he led the fundamentalist movement out of the wilderness and won for it a seat at the table of public discourse. Looking back, it is hard to remember what things were like 35 years ago. Mainstream evangelicals had their leaders, most notably Billy Graham who traveled the world filling enormous stadiums for his crusades. But fundamentalists had no one comparable to Dr. Graham. Then Jerry Falwell stepped onto the scene, and he did it from the pulpit of a Baptist church in Lynchburg, Virginia. Using his televised sermons as a base, he rallied conservative Christians in a way that no leader had done before. Seizing the moment, he created the Moral Majority, a broad-based coalition of fundamentalists, evangelicals, conservative Catholics, conservative Jews, and he even included the Mormons, which was, to put it mildly, shocking. I recall attending one rally in the late 70s where he offered this simple defense for including the Mormons. The Moral Majority was not a religious organization, the nation is in trouble, and if people who agree on traditional values rally together, we can elect people who reflect those values. And, he said, after we get the ship of state turned around, we can have a debate with the Mormons if we want to, but for the moment, we’ve all got to work together. That sort of pragmatic populism worked for a while, certainly long enough to elect Ronald Reagan.
Eventually the Moral Majority faded away but it laid the foundation for what is generally called the “religious right.” I just heard someone on Fox News say that there are 80 million conservative Christians in the US, a formidable voting bloc by any estimation. The point to remember is that before Jerry Falwell, no one talked in those terms. Many others share in the credit, including Francis Schaeffer, but Falwell was the point man who galvanized the sleeping giant of American fundamentalism and made it a force to be reckoned with by politicians all along the political spectrum.
He was controversial and outspoken and he occasionally said things that got him in hot water. Sometimes he went “over the top” in talking about certain issues. He certainly wasn’t politically correct in his preaching. Beware when all men speak well of you, Jesus said. No problem there. Everyone who knew him or heard him or saw him on TV had an opinion about Jerry Falwell. He was that kind of man.
I am happy to say that I liked him and admired him. I still remember the weekend in 1973 when Tom Phillips and I took the weekend off and drove from Chattanooga to Lynchburg to attend one of the early youth conferences at Thomas Road Baptist Church. Back then Jerry Falwell was not a household word and Liberty University was barely off the ground. Walter Cronkite didn’t know who he was. But even then you could sense that something big was happening in Lynchburg. Jerry was incapable of doing anything small. He dreamed big, he talked big, and he lived long enough to see those dreams come true.
I fast-forward to 1980 or 81 when I was pastoring in the Los Angeles area and Jerry Falwell was coming to a church in Glendale for a conference. On the night I attended, the main speaker was the Rev. E. V. Hill who preached down the stars. In the long run-up to his message, Rev. Hill talked about the conference and this and that and how glad he was to be there. Along the way he said he was honored to share the platform with Dr. Jerry Falwell whom he called “one of the most fantastic personalities of our day.” Since those words could have applied to E. V. Hill himself, that was quite a compliment.
Second, beyond all question his most lasting legacy will be Liberty University. He dreamed of starting a top-flight Christian university that would be for evangelicals what Notre Dame is for Catholics and Brigham Young is for Mormons. Thousands of young people have attended there. And not all of them are pastors or missionaries. Liberty has produced lawyers and doctors and businessmen and women and visionary musicians and writers and a host of other graduates who reflect their founder’s passion and his rock-solid commitment to basic biblical truth. Fifty years from now his impact will be greater than it is today because of Liberty University.
Last week a friend sent along a column Dr. Falwell wrote praising Lee Roberson who died a few days ago at the age of 97.
The two men came from different generations and their ministries
reflected those differences. Dr. Roberson never got into politics and
Jerry couldn’t stay out of it. I heard someone say that Jerry Falwell’s
influence had waned in recent years. That’s probably true and
inevitable and it doesn’t matter. You have to have it in order to lose
it, and Jerry Falwell had it and still had a lot of it until he finally
entered heaven a few hours ago. At breakfast this morning he was fine
and then he was gone. Just like that. He didn’t drift away quietly into
the night. He was going full speed ahead when the Lord called him home.
Well done, Dr. Falwell. Rest in peace.