Moral Majority founder Falwell crusaded against LGBT rights
LYNCHBURG, Va. The Rev. Jerry Falwell, the television evangelist who founded the Moral Majority and used it to mold the religious right into a political force and who gained notoriety when he outed Tinky Winky the Teletubby died Tuesday, May 15, shortly after being found unconscious in his office at Liberty University. He was 73.
Gay rights advocates this week expressed sympathy for Falwell’s family, while at the same time condemning what they called the evangelist’s anti-gay legacy.
The Rev. Mel White is a former ghost writer for Falwell who is now openly gay and who heads Soulforce, a Christian-based organization that uses nonviolent confrontation to challenge the anti-gay stances of conservative Christians.
“I moved here [to Lynchburg] to try to influence him, so I’m sad he’s dead,” White said in an e-mail on Wednesday, May 16, to Dallas Voice.
“I wanted him to have a George Wallace moment. He’s had those he used to say a preacher doesn’t belong in politics and he changed; he was a racist in the ’50s and ’60s, but then he rejected that,” White said. “I wanted him to say “‘I was wrong,’ that God created gay people, too. I wanted to hear him reverse his position.
“But having him gone is a blessing to the gay community and to the truth. He was not our enemy; his untruth was our enemy. I mourn his passing but not the death of his untruth,” White said.
The Rev. Michael Piazza, president of Hope for Peace and Justice Foundation and dean of the Cathedral of Hope in Dallas, said in a statement issued Wednesday: “While our sympathy goes out to his family and congregation, our hope is that Rev. Falwell’s influence will fade quickly.”
“While I disagreed with almost everything he said, did and believed, I had enormous respect for his devotion and passion,” Piazza said of Falwell. “He effectively was responsible for slowing equal rights for lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people and stalling social progress on many other fronts. It was as if he knew it was inevitable but wanted to ensure it didn’t happen in his lifetime. Now that he is gone, I hope that liberal leaders will rise with the same passion and devotion to get us back on track.”
Todd Ferrell, present of the gay affirming Evangelical Network, also voiced his “mixed emotions” at the news of Falwell’s death. And while offering condolences to Falwell’s friends and family, Ferrell said he also “rejoices” for the deceased minister.
“Today I celebrate the fact that truth was finally made known to Mr. Falwell. Today, he understands more about the heart of God for His gay and lesbian children, and today he celebrates in heaven a worship service where he is joining the hands of my gay and lesbian brothers and sisters who have gone on before us,” Ferrell said. “While I don’t celebrate the death of anyone, today another milestone has taken place and we are one step closer to the day in which there will be no walls of division between gays and lesbians and straights.”
Matt Foreman, executive director of the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force, said most LGBT people will remember Falwell 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.”
But for those on the other end of the spectrum of social politics, Falwell will be remembered as a devout man of God who helped pull the country back from the brink of moral desolation.
“Jerry has been a tower of strength on many of the moral issues which have confronted our nation,” fellow evangelist Pat Robertson said.
The fundamentalist church that Falwell started in 1956 grew into a religious empire that included Thomas Road Baptist Church, the “Old Time Gospel Hour” and Liberty University. He built Christian elementary schools, homes for unwed mothers and a home for alcoholics.
Falwell in 1979 founded the Moral Majority, a political lobbying organization that grew to 6.5 million members and raised $69 million as it supported conservative politicians and campaigned against abortion, homosexuality, pornography and bans on school prayer. In 1984, he sued Hustler magazine for $45 million, charging that he was libeled by an ad parody depicting him as an incestuous drunkard. A verdict awarding him $200,000 in damages was overturned in a landmark 1988 U.S. Supreme Court decision that held that even pornographic spoofs about a public figure enjoy First Amendment protection.
Falwell quit the Moral Majority in 1987, saying he was tired of being “a lightning rod” and wanted to devote his time to his ministry and Liberty University. But he remained outspoken and continued to draw criticism for his remarks.
Days after Sept. 11, 2001, Falwell essentially blamed feminists, gays, lesbians and liberal groups for bringing on the terrorist attacks. He later apologized.
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 Tinky Winky, a purple, purse-toting character on television’s “Teletubbies” show, was a gay role model and morally damaging to children.
In 2004, Falwell was re-energized after family values proved important in the 2004 presidential election. He formed the Faith and Values Coalition as the “21st Century resurrection of the Moral Majority,” to seek anti-abortion judges, a constitutional amendment banning same-sex marriage and more conservative elected officials.
Falwell is survived by his wife, Macel, and three children, Jerry, Jonathan and Jeannie.
This article appeared in the Dallas Voice print edition May 18, 2007