Falwell's majority

May 16, 2007

The Rev. Jerry Falwell's greatest gift was that he knew how to tap into the discomfort of ordinary, churchgoing Joes and Janes who toward the last third of the 20th century felt like their country had been hijacked.

Legalized abortion, pornography, prayer banned from schools, anti-war protests, equal rights, homosexuality, gambling, sex, drugs and rock 'n' roll - the enormous legal and cultural changes under way liberated at least one generation, but tormented another. As one of the era's first televangelists, Mr. Falwell tapped into that torment to help build a political movement that only now - nearly three decades later - appears to be in its twilight.

The Baptist minister who died yesterday at 73 after collapsing at Liberty University, the thriving school he founded in Lynchburg, Va., may have overplayed his hand. He could be so outspoken, often outrageously and sometimes cruelly, that it blunted his message. In recent years, he drew the most notice for asserting that one of the Teletubbies was homosexual and for blaming the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks on "the pagans and the abortionists and the feminists and the gays and lesbians ... all of them who have helped secularize America."

Yet he played a key role in giving voice to conservatives, many in rural areas, who believed their views were being ignored in Washington. His Moral Majority, the 6-million-member lobbying organization Mr. Falwell founded in 1979, helped deliver the White House to Republican Ronald Reagan in 1980 and shaped the course of American politics through six more presidential elections.

Most affected was the Republican Party, in which Main Street moderates and even fiscal conservatives were overwhelmed by a fundamentalist Christian doctrine that put "family values" first on the agenda.

Inevitably, perhaps, the movement would be done in by its smugness. Claiming to be morally superior is a dangerous game. Several of Mr. Falwell's colleagues on the preacher circuit were caught in sex scandals; Republicans lost their hold on Congress last year after a spate of corruption scandals and the sudden resignation of a GOP congressman caught making passes at teenage male pages.

But Mr. Falwell's method of combining the passion of religion with the purpose of politics using modern techniques such as direct mail will long be honored as a model for harnessing the political power of the disaffected.

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