Jerry Falwell, American evangelical leader and political activist, died overnight at the age of 73, apparently from heart failure.
Although he had faded from public consciousness in the last decade or so, Falwell was one of the most influential Americans of his generation. More than anyone, it was he who mobilised fundamentalist Christians into a political force that became a leading power in the Republican Party.
The United States has long been noted for its religious fervor, but the political influence of religion, from William Jennings Bryan down to Martin Luther King, had often made itself felt on the left. Falwell’s efforts, beginning in the 1970s, were to rally fundamentalists and evangelicals of all stripes around a conservative agenda, resting on the twin pillars of opposition to abortion and gay rights.
The organisation that he founded in 1979, the “Moral Majority”, was the target of much ridicule, but by mobilising those who otherwise might never have taken an interest in politics it played a major role in the Republican revival.
Other Republicans at first treated the new movement with scepticism or disdain. Ronald Reagan paid lip service to Falwell’s obsessions, but in practice did little to promote them after he was elected. Reagan’s mentor, Barry Goldwater, went further, once saying that “Every good Christian ought to kick Falwell right in the ass.”
But the evangelicals persevered, and in time their influence became too strong to be ignored. When John McCain attacked Falwell as an “agent of intolerance” (something of an understatement) in 2000, it was seen as doing major damage to his presidential bid. And under George Bush Jr, Christian fundamentalism achieved a respectability that would have seemed fantastic a generation earlier.
For that dubious achievement, Falwell deserves much of the credit. For more on his legacy, the New York Times obituary is a must – no-one does this sort of thing quite so well as the Times.