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Rev. Jerry Falwell dies at 73

The Rev. Jerry Falwell, who as founder of the Moral Majority played a key role in making religious fundamentalism a force to be reckoned with in US politics, died today, according to an official at Liberty University.

Ron Godwin, the executive vice president of Falwell's Liberty University, said Falwell, 73, was found unresponsive around 10:45 a.m. and taken to Lynchburg General Hospital. Godwin said he was not sure what caused the collapse, but "he has a history of heart challenges."

"I had breakfast with him, and he was fine at breakfast," Godwin said. "He went to his office, I went to mine and they found him unresponsive."

Falwell had survived two serious health scares in early 2005. He was hospitalized for two weeks with what was described as a viral infection, then hospitalized again a few weeks later after going into respiratory arrest.

The Rev. Falwell founded the Moral Majority, a political lobbying group that sought to further traditional religious values through support of conservative political candidates, in 1979. Ceasing operation in 1989, it was succeeded in 1991 by the Liberty Alliance. The Rev. Falwell served as head of both organizations.

As a public figure, the Rev. Falwell combined folksiness and brimstone. His moon face and well-fed smile gave him an emollient quality his rhetoric often lacked. He once called feminism "a satanic attack on the home." The Equal Rights Amendment, he said, struck "at the foundations of our social structure."

After the 9/11 terrorist attacks, the Rev. Falwell said, "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.' " He later apologized for his remarks.

"I am not a Republican," the Rev. Falwell said in a 1980 speech, "I am not a Democrat! I am a noisy Baptist!"

Broadcasting much amplified that noise. The Rev. Falwell was keenly aware of the power of the media. He gave serious thought to journalism before deciding to become a minister.

"Journalism has been a part of my life throughout most of my ministry," he said in a biographical interview on the website of his pastorate, Thomas Road Baptist Church, in Lynchburg, in central Virginia.

Within weeks of Thomas Road Baptist's opening, in 1956, the Rev. Falwell began radio broadcasts of church services. It took only six months before he started videotaping services for later broadcast on a local station. Live broadcasts began in 1968, which since 1971, as "The Old Time Gospel Hour,” have been syndicated to hundreds of radio and television stations and regularly drawn an audience of millions.

Not the first minister to use electronic media, neither was the Rev. Falwell the first to combine religion and conservative politics. In both cases, though, he did so with great impact.

Emphasizing politics, the Rev. Falwell carved out a special place for himself among high-profile evangelists. Partisan and controversial as, say, the Rev. Billy Graham never was, the Rev. Falwell was more respectable than such Pentecostal televangelists as Jimmy Swaggart or Jim Bakker.

When scandal engulfed Bakker’s Praise the Lord ministry, in 1987, he asked the Rev. Falwell to take charge of the PTL. The Rev. Falwell agreed, giving up control in 1988. Bakker and others later accused the Rev. Falwell of deliberately leading the PTL into bankruptcy, so as to remove a broadcast competitor.

The Rev. Falwell was a favorite target of liberals. It was in direct response to the Moral Majority that in 1980 television producer Norman Lear formed the liberal organization People for the American Way.

Yet the Rev. Falwell was not universally admired among fundamentalists or conservatives. The fundamentalist minister Bob Jones Jr., who considered the Rev. Falwell too polished and mainstream, once called him "the most dangerous man in America." And when the Rev. Falwell said “good Christians” should oppose Sandra Day O’Connor’s nomination to the Supreme Court, US Sen. Barry Goldwater (R-Ariz.) said, “I think every good Christian ought to kick Falwell’s ass.”

The Rev. Falwell’s base, Lynchburg, is home to Liberty University as well as Thomas Road Baptist. One can gauge the extent of the Rev. Falwell's by noting the growth of the church, which had a congregation of 35 when it began and numbered 22,000 in recent years.

Liberty University, which the Rev. Falwell founded as Lynchburg Baptist College in 1971, has an enrollment of 16,000 students. Unlike many fundamentalist schools, it is fully accredited. The Rev. Falwell said he hoped it would one day be for evangelicals what Brigham Young University is for Mormons or the University of Notre Dame for Catholics. “My goal,” he liked to quip, “is to sit on the 50-yard-line in South Bend when Liberty beats Notre Dame.”

Jerry Falwell was born on Aug. 11, 1933, in Lynchburg. The Rev. Falwell credited his father, a prosperous businessman, Carey Falwell, for his entrepreneurial abilities, and his mother, Helen Falwell, for his faith. On Sunday mornings, she would turn on broadcasts of “The Old Fashioned Revival Hour,” knowing that, as her son put it, “We were too lazy to get out of bed and turn off the radio.”

A gifted student, the Rev. Falwell skipped second grade and was valedictorian of his high school class, as well as editor of the school paper and captain of the football team. He was also an inveterate prankster, and because of his frequent misconduct was not allowed to deliver his valedictory address.

During his sophomore year at Lynchburg College, the Rev. Falwell decided to go to an evening service at a local church. It was there, on Jan. 20, 1952, that he had his conversion experience and became born again in his faith. At that service, he also met his future wife, Marcel Pate, the church pianist. She would later serve as pianist at Thomas Road Baptist.

Two months later, the Rev. Falwell decided to become a minister. He transferred to Baptist Bible College, in Springfield, Mo., and he earned his bachelor's degree there, in 1956. “I totally surrendered my life to God,” he later wrote. “There was no emotion.... It all happened quietly, inside my heart.”

In his 1980 book, "Listen, America!," Rev. Falwell wrote that he helped form the Moral Majority to create "a coalition of God-fearing Americans" who might "reverse the politicization of immorality in our society." The organization helped drive the New Right movement of the late '70s and early '80s. Joining Rev. Falwell in its creation were such major New Right figures as pollster Richard Viguerie; Howard Phillips, of the Conservative Caucus; and Paul M. Weyrich.

"I've tried to do for the evangelical movement what Martin Luthur King Jr. did for the civil rights movement,” the Rev. Falwell said in a 1992 Boston Globe interview: “Get people informed and involved to the point where they can be first-class citizens."

Material from the Associated Press was included in this report.

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