Reverend Jerry Falwell at Liberty University
The Reverend Jerry Falwell, fundamentalist Christian pastor and founder of the powerful Moral Majority political organization, addresses an audience at Liberty University in Lynchburg, Virginia, in October 2003. Falwell was born in Lynchburg in 1933, to a deeply religious mother and a father who disdained religion and worked as a Prohibition-era bootlegger. After attending Baptist Bible College in Springfield, Missouri, Falwell established the Thomas Road Baptist Church in Lynchburg in 1956, and eventually built a large national following through radio and television, broadcasting his sermons on the Old-Time Gospel Hour. In 1971 he created Lynchburg Baptist College, which later changed its name to Liberty University.
Best known for his key role in mobilizing the Christian Right into a formidable power in United States politics, Falwell founded the Moral Majority in 1979, a national political organization that emphasized a commitment to a "pro-family" agenda. The goal for recruiting members was simple, he said: ''Get them saved, baptized, and registered.'' The Moral Majority achieved prominence very quickly when in 1980 there was a significant surge in evangelical conservative support for the Republican Party nominee for U.S. president, Ronald Reagan, and for Republican congressional candidates. Many observers credited Falwell with having played the leading role in energizing these voters to support Reagan, who won in a landslide.
By the end of the 1980s, the movement had waned and financial pressures had grown. Falwell disbanded the Moral Majority in 1989, but he continued speaking out on public issues, causing an uproar after he blamed "abortionists," "feminists," "gays," and liberal-leaning Americans for paving the way for the terrorist attacks that took place in the United States on September 11, 2001. The conservative leader toned down his rhetoric about gays and lesbians toward the end of his life, especially after he discovered that his friend and former ghostwriter, Mel White, was homosexual. Falwell died of a heart ailment in his office at Liberty University in 2007.