WASHINGTON (Reuters) - U.S. evangelist Jerry Falwell, who helped turn the religious right into a powerful political force and fired controversy with his battles against abortion and homosexuality, died on Tuesday at age 73.
He was found unconscious in his office at Liberty University in Lynchburg, Virginia, and was pronounced dead at a nearby hospital just over an hour later, said Dr. Carl Moore, his personal physician.
The evangelist, who had a history of heart problems, had no heartbeat when he was found by colleagues, Moore said, adding he apparently died of a heart rhythm abnormality.
Falwell’s increasing influence in the 1970s and 1980s coincided with the rise of the U.S. religious right, whose votes helped send conservative Republicans including Ronald Reagan and George W. Bush to the White House.
Fond of quipping that the Bible referred to “Adam and Eve, not Adam and Steve,” Falwell provoked a storm of protest when he said gays, lesbians and health workers who provide abortions were partly to blame for the September 11 attacks.
“I really believe that the pagans and the abortionists and the feminists and the gays and the lesbians ... all of them who have tried to secularize America, I point the finger in their face and say: you helped this happen,” he said.
Reactions to Falwell’s death reflected the bitter divide over his views, and over the role of religion in political life in the United States.
President Bush said he was deeply saddened by Falwell’s death, calling him “a man who cherished faith, family and freedom.”
“Jerry lived a life of faith and called upon men and women of all backgrounds to believe in God and serve their communities,” Bush said in a written statement.
Another leading evangelist, Pat Robertson said: “Jerry’s courage and strength of convictions will be sadly missed in this time of increasing moral relativism.”
Ellen Johnson, president of American Atheists, said Falwell was “instrumental in galvanizing millions of American evangelicals into an intolerant, sectarian and authoritarian political movement.”
“Gays, women, secularists, civil-libertarians and other groups who did not fit into his plan to construct ‘One Nation Under God’ were stigmatized and attacked.” she said.
Born on August 11, 1933, Falwell said he was “born again” on January 20, 1952, the day he converted to Christ while at Lynchburg College.
He founded the Thomas Road Baptist Church in his hometown of Lynchburg in 1956 and went on to found Liberty University in 1971 — a conservative center of higher learning.
In 1979, he 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 but it was resurrected as The Moral Majority Coalition, with an explicit political purpose, after Bush’s re-election in 2004.
“He became a leading voice by the time of Ronald Reagan’s emergence in 1980 and the whole concept of family values was adopted by the Republican Party,” presidential historian Douglas Brinkley told Fox News.
“His influence in politics was very real because he helped politicize evangelicals and other religious groups, the right side of the Southern Baptist Convention ...”
With his gray hair and heavy jowls, Falwell was a familiar face on the televangelist circuit.
He saw evil in a once-great America that he believed was in an advanced state of decay. He even went after a character in the hit children’s TV show the “Teletubbies,” saying the purple Tinky Winky character donned pro-gay symbols, including a triangle.
“I think that in the early 1960s when Bible reading and prayer were expelled from the public square, I think that was a move in the wrong direction, it was a move towards secularization,” Falwell told Reuters in February.
Additional reporting by Ed Stoddard in Dallas and Bill Trott in Washington