Written by Michelle May
The Rev. Jerry Falwell, the U.S. evangelical Christian leader, who both supporters and critics alike acknowledged was instrumental in building a conservative Christian movement as a potent political force in the United States, has died aged 73.
Falwell, who had a history of heart problems, died on May 15 after being found unconscious in his office at Liberty University in Lynchburg, Virginia, where he served as the college's founder and chancellor.
His founding of the university in 1971, of the Thomas Road Baptist Church in 1956 and, perhaps most prominently, of the Moral Majority movement in 1979, were cornerstones of a remarkable career in which Falwell was both admired and severely criticised for a media-fuelled, high-profile leadership of conservative evangelicals.
Falwell's death, said fellow evangelist Billy Graham, "leaves a gigantic vacuum in the evangelical world."
Graham, 88, represents an earlier generation of US evangelical leaders who tended to skirt direct, public involvement in electoral politics. Falwell's founding of the Moral Majority changed that, and with it came Christian involvement in political life that is credited with, among other things, helping both Ronald Reagan and George W. Bush reach the White House.
"We did not always agree on everything but I knew him to be a man of God," Graham said. "His accomplishments went beyond most clergy of his generation."
In recent years Falwell took a lower political profile, having disbanded the Moral Majority a decade after its founding in order to focus on his preaching and his work at Liberty, which describes itself as the nation's largest evangelical Christian university.
Jerry Falwell was the son of an alcoholic Virginia businessman who ran a dance hall and who was for a time a liquor bootlegger; Falwell credited his highly devout mother for paving the path of his religious commitment.
If Falwell's career was marked by remarkable heights, it was also punctuated by a number of lows. He was widely scorned after the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks when he suggested that "the pagans, and the abortionists, and the feminists, and the gays and the lesbians" and others who he said had tried to "secularise America … helped this happen."
Reaction to Falwell's death, life and career varied considerably among religious leaders.
"Some media pundits tended to think of Falwell as representative of American Christianity, but most church leaders, while claiming him as a 'brother in Christ', strongly differed with many of his outspoken views," said the Rev. Bob Edgar, general secretary of the National Council of Churches. "He did perform the valuable contribution of taking stands that forced mainstream Christians to re-examine their positions and test their convictions."
Pat Robertson, the founder of the Christian Broadcasting Network, and a one-time presidential hopeful, said, "Jerry's courage and strength of convictions will be sadly missed in this time of increasing moral relativism."
The Rev. Barry Lynn, a UCC minister who is executive director of Americans United for Separation of Church and State, and a frequent opponent of Falwell on the television talk show circuit, said, "Falwell manipulated a powerful pulpit in exchange for access to political power and promotion of a narrow range of moral concerns." Still, Lynn noted, Falwell was "a determined advocate for what he believed."