BOB GARFIELD: From WNYC in New York, this is NPR's On the Media. Brooke Gladstone is away this week. I'm Bob Garfield. [NEWS CLIPS]: [MUSIC UP AND UNDER] ON-AIR CORRESPONDENT: Tonight the sudden death and legacy of Jerry Falwell, who transformed American politics– [OVERTALK] CORRESONDENT: Loved and hated, respected and despised, Falwell was a- [SEVERAL AT ONCE]
CORRESPONDENT: A man who used the power of faith to wage political crusades has died. Jerry Falwell - [END OF NEWS CLIPS] BOB GARFIELD: Jerry Falwell was many things in his 51-year pastoral career – a religious fundamentalist who altered the course of American Protestant theology, a political firebrand who galvanized evangelicals and others into a hardcore religious right.
But most of all, he was a creature of, by and for the media. His entire adult life was spent on television. His death, naturally, was consecrated there. [NEWS CLIP]: [MUSIC UP AND UNDER] CORRESPONDENT: He is a TV evangelist who helped turn the religious right into a very powerful political force. [ENF OF NEWS CLIP] BOB GARFIELD: Falwell began broadcasting the services of his Thomas Road Baptist Church in Lynchburg, Virginia, in 1956. As former Christian Coalition Executive Director Ralph Reed says: RALPH REED: Television was emerging as the major medium in modern society, giving them the ability to reach tens and even hundreds of millions of people, not only in the United States but around the world. That kind of projection of the evangelical message would have been unthinkable even 25 years earlier. BOB GARFIELD: Falwell's ministry grew from 35 souls to 22,000 in Lynchburg and tens of millions more worldwide, the human core of a religious, financial and political colossus.
By the time Falwell was approached by conservative political strategists in 1979 to lead the Moral Majority organization, TV had already enriched him. It would soon transform him from segregationist televangelist, who accused the Reverend Martin Luther King of tainting his pulpit with civil rights advocacy, to a political kingmaker.
It isn't clear whether, as the story often goes, Falwell seized on grass roots evangelical disgust with Roe v. Wade or simply exploited segregationist sympathies after the Jimmy Carter administration revoked tax-exempt status from white-flight Christian academies. What is clear is that Democrat Carter was Falwell's first target and the Republican Party his everlasting beneficiary. Ralph Reed. RALPH REED: Now, it is undeniable that in that brief four-year period that was one of the most dramatic shifts in the voting behavior of a single electoral constituency of that importance and magnitude, that went from being reliably in one party to being reliably in another party. BOB GARFIELD: The movement was called the Religious Right, but Falwell's vision had very little to do with theology. MEL WHITE: I think he was a genius. When you see how good he was at making a crowd feel comfortable and feel at home and feel pastored, and then when you saw how able he was at manipulating the national media – he was in the headlines more than any other preacher in history. BOB GARFIELD: Clergyman and author Mel White was Falwell's friend and ghostwriter until their high-profile estrangement in 1993, when White revealed his homosexuality. In private, Falwell was his old jocular self. MEL WHITE: But then I would be sitting there in the audience when he got up to speak, and I'd say, who is that? Horns would grow and the red tail would appear, and he would begin to say things that were just ghastly. JERRY FALWELL: 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, People for the American Way, all of them who try to secularize America, I point the finger in their face and say, you helped this happen. BOB GARFIELD: By the time Falwell discharged that infamous broadside to explain 9/11, the Moral Majority had long since been closed down and the Religious Right shepherded by more sophisticated operators. But Falwell remained a media fixture, TV news's go-to loose cannon for surefire intolerance. Mel White. MEL WHITE: Larry King told me once, when I asked him, why do you have Falwell all the time, and King said, because he gets people mad, and that's what we're here for. BOB GARFIELD: A cycle established itself, inflammatory statement equivocating semi-apology, media shrug. It was as though news organizations so needed Jerry Falwell that they persisted in giving him stature no matter what outrage he perpetrated, the consequence of which was that he retained actual stature. Journalist Michelle Goldberg is the author of Kingdom Coming: the Rise of Christian Nationalism. MICHELLE GOLDBERG: People will try to act as if Jerry Falwell is not important, as if he is kind of the right-wing version of, you know, Michael Moore. But, you know, nobody's going to kind of kiss Michael Moore's ring before they try to become President. BOB GARFIELD: She's thinking of Senator John McCain. This was Presidential candidate McCain in the year 2000. JOHN McCAIN: And I'm positive that Christian conservatives all over America will desert the intolerant and wrong-headedness of Jerry Falwell and Pat Robertson. MICHELLE GOLDBERG: And he lost in the South and he learned his lesson, and he's now kind of gone slinking off to Liberty University to give a commencement speech.
BOB GARFIELD: Last Sunday, to be exact. Indeed, to Ralph Reed, Falwell's university will be his most significant legacy, a 20,000 student factory for future evangelists, media and otherwise. RALPH REED: I was at CNN the other day doing an interview about Dr. Falwell, and a young lady walked up to me and said, I just wanted to tell you I'm working here. I'm a graduate of Liberty University, and I appreciate you being here. Now, if you want to know why Falwell matters, that's why he matters. BOB GARFIELD: But is that really Falwell's most profound achievement? I don't think so. I think it's another as-seen-on-TV moment from just two weeks ago, when this question was posed to 2008 GOP Presidential hopefuls, starting with McCain. MAN: Do you believe in evolution? JOHN McCAIN: Yes.
MAN: I'm curious. Is there anybody on the stage that does not agree, believe in evolution? MEL WHITE: Suddenly Jerry must be smiling from heaven. BOB GARFIELD: Because, as Mel White observes, three candidates for the Presidency of the United States raised their hands to deny the empirical scientific fact of evolution – in public, for the record, without shame. The Reverend Jerry Falwell died this week at the age of 73. His media strategy did not.