DALLAS (Reuters) - The legacy of Jerry Falwell, the combative U.S. preacher who died on Tuesday, lives on in the White House and a Republican Party divided by the conservative causes he held dear.
Analysts say while his influence had waned in recent years, Falwell was a pioneer in mobilizing evangelical Christians into a political force that pulled the Republican Party to the right on the hot-button issues of God, gays and guns.
Dubbed the “Religious Right,” Falwell’s movement was instrumental in putting the devoutly Christian George W. Bush into the White House for two terms.
“Falwell was the figure most closely identified with the most important political movement in America over the last 30 years,” said Matthew Wilson, a professor of political science at Southern Methodist University in Dallas.
“He spearheaded and galvanized the movement of evangelicals into the Republican Party and they became the foot soldiers of the Republican Revolution,” he said.
Falwell, who was 73 when he died, tirelessly carried the banner for the Religious Right into the political arena to battle against abortion, homosexuality, feminism and other issues that conflicted with fundamentalist Christian beliefs.
Falwell saw evil in a once-great America that he believed was in an advanced state of decay. His views struck a chord with many Americans who were uneasy with what they regarded as the permissive culture that took off in the 1960s.
RETREATED FROM VIEW
But his campaign antagonized Americans who supported the separation of church and state. And some of his more extreme statements -- he famously blamed gays and lesbians for provoking
the Sept 11, 2001 attacks -- put off many.
He founded Liberty University in 1971, a conservative center of higher learning, and in 1979 started the Moral Majority organization, which became a major vehicle for getting out the vote for the Republican Party.
He disbanded the Moral Majority in 1989 and then resurrected as The Moral Majority Coalition after Bush’s re-election in 2004. But it lacked the influence of its original incarnation.
“Falwell had retreated from the public scene largely. His more extreme comments had marginalized him in the religious conservative community,” said W. Clyde Wilcox, a professor of government at Georgetown University.
But the Republican Party of today owes much to Falwell.
“If you want to see his legacy, look at that Republican debate recently where just about every candidate was running to the right on social issues,” said Mark J. Rozell, professor of public policy at George Mason University, referring to a debate among the party’s candidates for the 2008 presidential race.
“That’s become the mainstream of the national Republican Party and that was not the case before Jerry Falwell and the Moral Majority came into existence,” he said.
Falwell’s legacy can also be seen in the divisions in the Republican coalition.
The Republican front-runner for the November 2008 White House race, former New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani, is pro-abortion and gay rights -- and if he wins the nomination his views mean Falwell’s followers may stay away from the polls come election day.
A conservative majority on the U.S. Supreme Court is perhaps another legacy that will long outlive Falwell -- though the irony is that they are Catholic justices and the hardcore Baptist Falwell often had frosty views on the Vatican.
Additional reporting by David Alexander in Washington
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