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US Conservative Religious Leader Jerry Falwell Dies

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The Reverend Jerry Falwell died Tuesday. Falwell, perhaps more than anyone else, played a pivotal role in mobilizing religious conservative voters into a political force in the United States beginning in the 1980s. VOA National correspondent Jim Malone has more on the life and legacy of Jerry Falwell from Washington.

Falwell died not long after he was found unconscious in his office at Liberty University in Lynchburg, Virginia.

Falwell had a history of heart problems and was hospitalized twice in 2005 with a viral infection and respiratory problems.

Falwell was the founder of the Moral Majority, a voting bloc of millions of conservative religious voters that helped elect Republican Ronald Reagan president in 1980 and gave Republicans control of the Senate

"Abortion, family values, the moral underpinnings on which the nation was built, we call the Judeo-Christian ethic, is important to us," said Falwell.

Word of Falwell's death came just as presidential spokesman Tony Snow was wrapping up his daily briefing at the White House.

"This is the kind of thing that is going to be a shock to those who love him and were around him," said Snow. "And I think the proper attitude at this juncture is to pass on our condolences and prayers and we will try to do the 'fixing place in history' thing a little later."

There was also praise from Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell, who spoke to reporters at the Capitol.

"We regret his passing," he said. "He has certainly been a prominent figure in American religion and politics for the last 20 years and I know he will be greatly, greatly missed."

Falwell got his start as head of a small church in Virginia in 1956 and later became a well-known televangelist, preaching on a television program called The Old Time Gospel Hour.

Falwell talked about his TV preaching with CBS reporter Morley Safer.

SAFER: "Reverend Falwell, do you think Jesus would have gone on television?"

FALWELL: "I think he would have. He said preach the Gospel to every creature. Those were his words and today, with a population of plus-four billion-plus people, there is no way of getting the Gospel to the world by any other means than the use of the media."

Although hailed by Christian conservatives, Falwell had plenty of detractors as well.

Shortly after the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks on the U.S., Falwell blamed feminists, gays, lesbians and liberal groups for bringing on the attacks. He later apologized for the comment.

During the 2000 presidential primaries, Arizona Senator John McCain singled out Falwell and others as divisive political figures.

"Neither party should be defined by pandering to the outer reaches of American politics and the agents of intolerance, whether they be Louis Farrakhan or Al Sharpton on the left, or Pat Robertson or Jerry Falwell on the right," he said.

In recent years, Falwell focused on what he regarded as the exaggerated threat of global warming.

"The promoters of alarmism are as expected, the United Nations, no friend of the U.S. Liberal politicians, radical environmentalists and, of course, liberal clergymen, Hollywood and pseudo-scientists," said Falwell.

Falwell quit the Moral Majority in 1987, saying he was tired of a being a lightning rod. In his later years, Falwell spent much of his time at Liberty University in Lynchburg, the school he founded in 1971.

Many of Falwell's allies in the religious right believe the political mobilization he began will be his greatest legacy.

Louis Sheldon is founder of the Traditional Values Coalition. He spoke on MSNBC television.

"There was just never any doubt in his mind that this was the right thing to do, that Christian people needed to be registered to vote, they needed to make sure they voted for the person that stood for those values and belief systems," said Sheldon.

Jerry Falwell was 73.

 

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