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Editorial | The Rev. Jerry Falwell

He mobilized millions

Whether the Rev. Jerry Falwell inspired you or incited you to anger, he was undeniably one of the most influential voices in politics in a generation.

Falwell, who died Tuesday at age 73, founded the Moral Majority in 1979. Before that, conservative Protestants largely had been shut out of the political process, partly by choice. Many fundamentalists viewed it as a sin to participate in politics. But as evangelical Christians stood on the sidelines, they became increasingly concerned about policy issues such as abortion and the move toward a secular public square.

Paving the way for Ronald Reagan's election in 1980, Falwell persuaded millions of Christian conservatives to get involved in democracy. Our system of government depends on an engaged electorate. Falwell mobilized and energized a movement that has gone on to dominate Republican politics for the last quarter-century. For most of that time, Republicans have set national policy.

More than anyone, this Southern Baptist created the "Religious Right." Few other leaders tied to either party can claim such impact.

Falwell's personal influence diminished long ago. He marginalized himself with ill-tempered comments about gays and Jews, often on the medium of television that had seduced him. Just prior to the GOP convention in Philadelphia in 2000, Falwell circulated a newsletter referring to Mary Cheney, lesbian daughter of the party's vice presidential nominee, as "errant." Party leaders told Falwell to make himself scarce at the convention.

After 9/11, Falwell declared that the terrorist attacks were America's punishment for abortionists, gays and the American Civil Liberties Union. The condemnation of his reprehensible remarks by political and religious leaders showed just how far Falwell had strayed from relevance. He later apologized, but by this time it was clear he no longer spoke for a large constituency.

Falwell's claim on an intolerant interpretation of the Bible created a useful backlash. As people of faith shunned Falwell's brand of evangelical fervor, they embraced new leaders with more inclusive messages. Leaders such as Rick Warren, author of The Purpose Driven Life; progressive Jim Wallis; and former Pennsylvania congressman Bob Edgar rose up to lead the national discourse. These messengers have brought to the fore issues such as global warming, presented to Christians as the duty to be good stewards of the environment.

Falwell's death reminds us that his version of religious political leadership has faded. But the forces that he harnessed remain very much engaged in the national debate.