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Falwell leaves legacy for 21st century

Rev. Jerry Falwell (Baptiststandard.com).

Rev. Jerry Falwell’s legacy will continue long into the 21st century, not only as the launcher of a movement bringing evangelical and fundamentalist Christians into the political sphere but as the founder of a university he hoped one day would become a “Protestant Notre Dame.”

Falwell, a WND columnist, died yesterday at age 73 after being found unconscious in his office at Liberty University in Lynchburg, Va., where he served as chancellor.

Falwell founded the Moral Majority in 1979 to support lawmakers who opposed abortion, homosexuality, pornography and bans on school prayer. The organization grew to 6.5 million members before he stepped down as president in 1987. He credited it with registering millions of conservative voters that helped elect Ronald Reagan and give Republicans control of the Senate in 1980.

“I shudder to think where the country would be right now if the religious right had not evolved,” Falwell said he resigned from the group.

Falwell launched an independent Baptist church in 1956 with 35 people that grew into the 22,000-member Thomas Road Baptist Church. His “Old Time Gospel Hour” television show was carried on stations nationwide. He founded Lynchburg Baptist College in Lynchburg in 1971, which became Liberty University. The school now has 7,700 students.

Never known to be shy about voicing his opinion, Falwell’s public remarks often stirred controversy.

As WND reported in 2002, a leading Islamic group in Canada prepared legal action under the country’s hate-crimes laws against the broadcast of Falwell’s assertion “Muhammad is a terrorist.”

On a “60 Minutes” broadcast, Falwell told CBS interviewer Bob Simon: “I think Muhammad was a terrorist. I read enough, by both Muslims and non-Muslims, [to decide] that he was a violent man, a man of war.”

Falwell told WND just before the interview was aired that his intent was not to attack Muhammad.

“I have avoided that. But [Simon] was pressing me on the issue of Muhammad’s behavior, his involvement in war, and I simply said what I do believe, that Muhammad is not a good example for most Muslim people.”

Born Aug. 11, 1933, in Lynchburg, Va., Falwell excelled in school, graduating at the top of his high school class and enjoying recognition as a stellar athlete but also a reputation as a prankster who ran with a gang of juvenile delinquents. His high school barred him from giving the valedictorian’s speech after he was caught using counterfeit lunch tickets.

Falwell became a Christian during his sophomore year at Lynchburg College, where he intended to earn a degree in mechanical engineering.

He once said during an interview that at the time his heart “was burning to serve Christ.”

“I knew nothing would ever be the same again.”

He turned down an offer to sign with the St. Louis Cardinals baseball team, and, about the same time, transferred to Baptist Bible College in Springfield, Mo.

In 1956, after graduation, he established the Thomas Road church and began broadcasting a daily radio program.

The “Old Time Gospel Hour” television program began just six months later. In 1971, the program began airing nationwide, the same year Falwell established the college.

Falwell, like most fundamentalist leaders, believed it was wrong to mix politics and religion, but in the late 1970s he began speaking out on moral issues related to public policy, such as abortion and homosexuality. He also opposed the Equal Rights Amendment and pressed for prayer in school.

After forming the Moral Majority in 1979 he soon saw the values of millions of evangelical and fundamentalist Christians adopted as policy positions by the Republican Party.

Along with its political activity, the Moral Majority drew notice for a boycott of 7-Eleven convenience stores that convinced the chain to stop selling the pornographic magazines Playboy, Penthouse and Forum.

In a high profile case, Falwell won a lawsuit against Hustler magazine publisher Larry Flynt in 1984, charging he had been libeled by a cartoon depicting him as an incestuous drunk. The libel charge was rejected by the jury, but Falwell was awarded $200,000 for “emotional distress.” The decision was overturned by the Supreme Court in 1988, however, which ruled public figures are not protected against “outrageous” statements of opinion.

Falwell stepped down from the Moral Majority in 1987 and disbanded it in 1989. He remained, however, an outspoken figure until his death.

In the 1997, critics slammed Falwell for urging advertisers to pull commercials from the television show “Ellen” after it was reported the lead character would announce she was a lesbian.

Two years later, the spotlight was on him when his National Liberty Journal warned parents the purse-toting “Teletubbies” character Tinky Winky was a homosexual role model that posed a moral threat to children. Falwell was widely ridiculed, but one year before the flap, the “gay” magazine The Advocate wrote, “PBS is clearly terrified that the same fundamentalists who boycott Disney are going to flip once they get wind of the latest lavender love puppet.”

Falwell drew scorn after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks when he said abortionists, feminists, gays and others “have tried to secularize America … helped this happen.” He later apologized for having “singled out for blame certain groups of Americans.”

Falwell also spoke out on cultural controversies in recent years, including the Christmas holiday.

“I believe the celebration of Christmas is a wonderful opportunity to honor Christ and share the gospel,” he told WND. “And I plan to celebrate it on the ‘other side.'”

Falwell acknowledged many of the customs associated with the observance are not found in the Bible, but he did not have a problem with that.

“The Christmas tree and Santa Claus don’t bother me,” he said. “If we can use anything to get people under the sound of the gospel, without violating Scripture, it’s a good thing.”

He also addressed the issue of the Sabbath Day, the biblical day of rest.

“The church always met on Sunday throughout the New Testament,” Falwell said. “Saturday is clearly the Sabbath as is recorded many times in the Old Testament. In Christian Church tradition, Sunday became ‘the Lord’s Day’ when Jesus rose from the grave.”

He noted the actual times of Jesus’ crucifixion and resurrection were not universally agreed upon.

“I personally believe he was crucified on Wednesday evening … and rose after 6 p.m. Saturday evening,” Falwell told WND. “Others believe he died on Friday. … But the point is, he did rise on Sunday, which, in Jewish tradition, started the evening before at 6 p.m.”

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