Rev. Jerry Falwell wanted to leave his mark upon the mountaintop—in 200-ft.-tall plastic letters. But the preacher turned political powerhouse had to settle for shorter, natural-stone versions of the letters LU—short for Liberty University, which he founded in his hometown of Lynchburg, Va.—on nearby Candlers Mountain because of local opposition. Both fans and critics would agree it was a rare downsizing of the man’s expansive dreams. “Everything was bigger than life to Falwell,” says Dr. Jerry Vines, a retired pastor and friend of 20 years. “He didn’t have little visions; he had big visions.”
Even on the morning of May 15, when Falwell, 73, was found unconscious in his office and later pronounced dead, apparently of a heart condition, he was making plans. Liberty University executive vice president Ron Godwin had earlier eaten breakfast with Falwell. “He was talking about the future,” says Godwin. Credited with creating one of the nation’s first megachurches, Falwell parlayed his success among evangelicals into political pay dirt when he founded the Moral Majority in 1979, registering millions of conservative voters and aiding the landmark election of Ronald Reagan the following year. “Until he became politically active, most conservative Christian leaders felt it was no part of their calling to be involved in the public policy process,” says Leadership Institute founder Morton Blackwell, a longtime friend. “From the political standpoint, I think it can be safely said Falwell changed America.”
The son of Helen Beasley, a fiercely religious homemaker (she chased her son out of bed on Sundays by blaring Old Fashioned Revival Hour on the radio) and Carey Falwell, an atheist and former bootlegger, Falwell founded his first church in 1956 in an old soda-bottling plant in Lynchburg and built it into a congregation of 24,000.
Unabashedly controversial, Falwell used his radio and TV appearances to decry homosexuality and abortion rights. During a TV appearance after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, he said feminists, gays, lesbians and the ACLU had “helped this happen.” (He later apologized.) In other ink-grabbing statements, he described the Antichrist as a Jewish man and warned parents that Tinky Winky, a purse-carrying character on Teletubbies, was gay. Says Rev. Barry Lynn of Americans United for Separation of Church and State: “Falwell manipulated a powerful pulpit in exchange for access to political power and promotion of a narrow range of moral concerns…. But there is no denying his impact on American political life.”