COMMENTS: Minister Falwell Meets His Maker

The Rev Jerry Falwell died, aged 73. All three networks filed an obituary on the Evangelical Christian leader. Falwell was a pioneering televangelist with his Old Time Gospel Hour, pastor of the first megachurch Thomas Road Baptist, founder of Liberty University in Lynchburg Va and organizer of the Moral Majority, the powerful grass roots conservative religious activist group whose voter registration drive in 1980 was key to the election of Ronald Reagan. CBS and NBC led with Falwell, with CBS (12 min v ABC 3, NBC 4) spending by far the most time on the preacher. ABC spent least time, leading its newscast with immigration instead.

In his obituary, CBS' Richard Schlesinger (no link) called Falwell "one of the first to combine the fire and brimstone of the pulpit with the rough and tumble of politics." He raised "hackles on the left and millions on the right" inspiring the bumper sticker slogan The Moral Majority is Neither. NBC's Bob Faw called him a "crusader and organizer." His hot button issues were pornography, abortion, homosexuality and prayer in public schools, making him "one of the commanding generals in the culture wars," as ABC's Dan Harris put it. The debate for Christians is whether he "elevated the faith or unnecessarily politicized it."

Falwell left the Moral Majority 20 years ago to focus on his university and his political influence waned somewhat. All three obituaries noted one silly and one outrageous soundbite from his later career. The former was that Tinky Winky, the purple character from PBS' Teletubbies children's show, is a "gay role model." CBS' Schlesinger quoted the latter as "perhaps his biggest gaffe" in a TV interview with the Rev Pat Robertson on his 700 Club in the aftermath of the terrorist attacks of September 11th, 2001: "I really believe that the pagans and the abortionists and the feminists and the gays and the lesbians who are actively trying to make that an alternative lifestyle, the ACLU, the People for the American Way, all of them who tried to secularize America, I point the finger in their face and say: 'You helped this happen.'" Added Schlesinger: "He apologized for that one."

CBS anchor Katie Couric had in-house analyst Douglas Brinkley provide an historical perspective. Brinkley called him a "vibrant political force" in the 1980s, "kind of comedy fodder" by 2001. "Feminists never liked him…he was always warring with the women's movement." His rhetoric of "family values" amounted to wanting women "in the kitchen in many ways." As for his political legacy, NBC's Tim Russert (at the tail if the Faw videostream) noted that Falwell was a trendsetter in forming an interdenominational coalition of religious conservatives. In later years a visit to Lynchburg was "a necessary step on the road to the Republican nomination" even as Republican Presidential candidates gathered in Columbia SC for a FOX News Channel's debate. If the GOP's first debate on MSNBC "was framed by the spirit of Ronald Reagan," mused CBS' Jim Axelrod (no link), "tonight's gathering in the heart of the Bible Belt will take place in the shadow of Falwell's death."


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