Cover Story

Falwell's mountains

Until the past 30 years, many Baptists (and evangelicals generally) tended toward separatism, refraining from political involvement. Jerry Falwell was instrumental in changing all that. He persuaded millions around the country to dive into the muck of politics, and those efforts splattered the windshields of others who became hostile. He energized both supporters and opponents

Issue: "Jerry Falwell," May 26, 2007

LYNCHBURG, Va.- Realtor Brenda Phelps likes to point out the sights to those contemplating a move to Lynchburg: "There's Jerry's church. There's Jerry's mountain." Once, when asked if Jerry Falwell personally owned that land overlooking the city, she said no, Liberty University did-"but it's Jerry's mountain."

Lynchburg is one of those cities that, in the Roman tradition, claim to be built on seven hills, and Jerry Falwell, who died on May 15 at age 73, was a man of many mountains. He's probably best known for founding the Moral Majority in 1979 and quickly growing it to 6.5 million members: It played a major role in electing Ronald Reagan but faded in the late 1980s.

Liberty University is another Falwell mountain: It began as Lynchburg Baptist College in 1971 and several times seemed leveled financially, but it now claims almost 10,000 students in residence, with 15,000 more in distance learning programs. He hoped some day to have Liberty play Notre Dame in football, and joked to WORLD last month that he was officially Liberty's chancellor but primarily its athletic director.

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A third mountain is Falwell's Thomas Road Baptist Church, which he started with 35 members in 1956 in an abandoned Donald Duck Bottling Company plant. It now has 22,000 members in a building opened last year that seems to sprawl as far as the Blue Ridge off in the distance, with spots near the sanctuary for adults to buy coffee, teens to buy pizza, and children to romp in a playscape.

Falwell climbed almost every fundraising mountain. Small contributions that came in through the "Old Time Gospel Hour," a pioneering evangelistic show carried on TV stations throughout the United States, supported "Jerry's church" and his schools, along with homes for unwed mothers and alcoholics. Big contributions are evident in Liberty campus buildings with names like LaHaye Student Center and DeMoss Learning Center.

He was also a mountain of a man, with a girth that long put his health in jeopardy, but he remained optimistic about his remaining time in this life. In a phone meeting in March he said that he planned to continue as chancellor for another 13 years, until he was 86. In his 1997 autobiography he wrote, "God may call me home today, and I would have no regrets or complaints, but in my heart of hearts I actually believe that He is going to give me another 20 or 30 years. If you read some day soon that 'Jerry Falwell has died,' be assured that I was greatly surprised."

Last month, during a meeting in his office in Liberty's administration building, the Carter-Glass Mansion, he was clearly enjoying life. Falwell's father had been an entrepreneur who ran bootleg whiskey during Prohibition and staged illegal cockfights and dogfights in his barn, and here Chancellor Falwell was sitting in the former home of Senator Carter Glass, Secretary of the Treasury under Woodrow Wilson, surrounded by plaques and art work (including one depicting Mickey Mantle) that displayed his accomplishments and passions (he was a New York Yankees fan).

Falwell spoke of the presidential aspirants who were making pilgrimages to Lynchburg as they had for nearly three decades; Newt Gingrich was scheduled to be the commencement speaker on May 19. He had something to say about each political visitor. He was pleased to have hired new football and basketball coaches during the past 15 months and excited by all the prospective students who were visiting Liberty during a campus preview weekend.

He seemed more joyful than prideful in his role as a political player and leader, and spoke of his willingness to make provocative statements: He didn't mean to be harsh, but he wanted to tell the truth, and he had long ago realized that bold speaking would bring press attention to issues that otherwise would be ignored. Those provocative words about homosexuality, in which he expressed love for sinners but hatred for the sin, were what many critics remembered when he died.

After he collapsed in his Carter-Glass office on May 15, some headlines remembered Falwell the way traditionalist football coaches refer to a forward pass. (Three things can happen-completion, interception, incompletion-and two of them are bad.) CNN.com was typical with its headline, "Falwell's legacy: faith, hate or Teletubbies?" The last reference was to a criticism of the PBS toddler TV character Tinky Winky by a magazine under Falwell's authority.

Others reported the views of those within liberal press circles: The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette headline read, "Falwell's tactics viewed as extreme; people here saw him as a too strident visionary." The Vancouver Sun announced that "Canadian evangelicals dismissed Falwell's views," and the Globe and Mail in Toronto said Falwell was "one of a kind, thank God; there's no successor for this big, booming, bigoted man."

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