LYNCHBURG, Va. - The Rev. Jerry Falwell collapsed at his campus office and died yesterday after a career in which the evangelist used the power of television to transform the religious right into a mighty force in American politics. He was 73.
The Moral Majority founder was discovered without a pulse at Liberty University and pronounced dead at a hospital an hour later. Dr. Carl Moore, his physician, said Falwell had a heart condition and presumably died of a heart-rhythm abnormality.
Driven into politics by the 1973 Supreme Court ruling that established the right to an abortion, Falwell founded the Moral Majority in 1979. One of the conservative lobbying group's triumphs came a year later, when Ronald Reagan was elected president.
Falwell credited the Moral Majority with getting millions of conservative voters registered, aiding in Reagan's victory and giving the GOP control of the Senate.
In a statement, President Bush said he and first lady Laura Bush were "deeply saddened" by the loss of a man who "cherished faith, family and freedom."
The rise of Christian conservatism - and the Moral Majority's full-throated condemnation of homosexuality, abortion and pornography - made Falwell perhaps the most recognizable figure on the evangelical right, and one of the most controversial.
In the 1980s, Falwell waged a landmark libel case against Hustler magazine founder Larry Flynt over a raunchy parody ad.
In 1999, he told an evangelical conference that the Antichrist was a male Jew who was probably already alive. Falwell later apologized for the remark but not for holding the belief.
A month later, his National Liberty Journal warned parents that the purse-carrying "Teletubbies" children's TV character Tinky Winky was a gay role model and morally damaging to children.
Matt Foreman, executive director of the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force, extended condolences to those close to Falwell, but added: "Unfortunately, we will always remember him as a founder and leader of America's anti-gay industry, someone who exacerbated the nation's appalling response to the onslaught of the AIDS epidemic, someone who demonized and vilified us for political gain and someone who used religion to divide rather than unite our nation."
In more recent years, Falwell had become a problematic figure for the GOP. His remarks a few days after Sept. 11, 2001, essentially blaming feminists, gays and liberals for bringing on the terrorist attacks, drew a rebuke from the White House, and he apologized.
Falwell's declining political star seemed apparent when he was quietly led in and out of the Republican Party's 2004 national convention. Just four years earlier, he had been invited to pray from the rostrum.
The big, blue-eyed preacher with a booming voice started a fundamentalist church in an abandoned bottling plant in Lynchburg in 1956 with just 35 members. He built it into a religious empire that included the 24,000-member Thomas Road Baptist Church, the "Old Time Gospel Hour" carried on TV stations around the country and 9,600-student Liberty University, which Falwell founded in 1971 as Lynchburg Baptist College.
In 1983, U.S. News & World Report named him one of the 25 most influential people in America.
Falwell's father and his grandfather were militant atheists, he wrote in his autobiography. He said his father made a fortune off his businesses - including bootlegging during Prohibition.
Falwell had made preparations for transition of his leadership to his two sons, Jerry Jr., now vice chancellor of Liberty University, and Jonathan, executive pastor of Thomas Road Baptist Church.
Survivors include his wife, Macel, his two sons and a daughter, Jeannie Falwell Savas. The funeral is set for 2 p.m. Monday at Thomas Road Baptist Church.