THE BLOG
05/16/2007 03:02 pm ET Updated May 25, 2011

Don't Believe the Falwell Hype

I mean no disrespect to the dead, but I take the British view of obituaries, which is to try to capture the true public significance of the person who died, not just his good qualities. The truth about the Rev. Jerry Falwell is that he was a character assassin and hype artist who left little positive impact on the United States -- and little negative impact either, for that matter. Besides founding Liberty University, he won't be remembered as nearly as influential as he's made out to be.

First, his real legacy: Falwell built the Thomas Road Baptist Church in Lynchburg, Virginia from scratch into a mega-church with a 6,000-seat auditorium. And he built Liberty University into a formidable institution that attracts over 20,000 students from around the world and a qualified faculty. Last year, Liberty's debate team won the national championship. It's not easy to create a university and Falwell deserves credit as an institution-builder. He will also be remembered through a famous Supreme Court case he lost, Hustler vs. Falwell, which established that public figures cannot recover damages when depicted in parodies. (The story of the lawsuit is told in the film, The People vs. Larry Flynt). In that sense, he inadvertently helped bolster the First Amendment.

But Falwell's political legacy is much less impressive. He started out as a segregationist who harshly attacked Martin Luther King through the 1960s and later called Archbishop Desmond Tutu of South Africa a phony. He was a strong supporter of Israel but openly anti-Semitic, announcing on many occasions that the anti-Christ would return as a Jew.

On September 13, 2001, Falwell said this on Pat Robertson's show, The 700 Club: "The enemies of America give us probably what we deserve." When asked to elaborate, Falwell added, "When we destroy 40 million little innocent babies, we make God mad. 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 have tried to secularize America -- I point the finger in their face and say, 'you helped this happen.'" Robertson replied, "Well, I totally concur." Falwell later apologized, unconvincingly, for offending anyone.

It was fitting that this was said on Robertson's program, not Falwell's. That's because Falwell never had great success as a broadcaster or televangelist. His Old Time Gospel Hour was never the most popular religious program. While he claimed 20 million viewers, the real number was a tiny fraction of that, usually below one ratings point. In the November, 1980 Nielsen ratings, for instance, Old Time Gospel Hour was watched by 1.21 million people -- well behind not just Oral Roberts and Jimmy Swaggert but Rex Humbard and James Robison.

According to lore (and much of the coverage of his death), November, 1980 found Falwell at the peak of his powers. That was the month Ronald Reagan was elected president, after having met with Falwell and other members of his brilliantly-named organization, "The Moral Majority." While Falwell might have contributed slightly to Reagan's margin of victory, he was not even close to being instrumental in his election. With incumbent Jimmy Carter bogged down with the Iranian hostage crisis and double-digit inflation and interest rates, Reagan won with 57 percent of the vote -- a huge landslide. At best, the Moral Majority added a point or two to Reagan's totals. More likely, it contributed nothing. Exit polls showed that Carter bested Reagan among Southern Baptists, 50-46 percent. And abortion ranked well behind foreign policy and economics among issues that mattered most to voters that year.

The Moral Majority claimed to have registered eight million new voters but could never provide any hard figures, and many smaller evangelical organizations said they operated independently of Falwell. (In fact, there was considerable tension within the religious right). The real political muscle was provided by Robertson and his protégé, Ralph Reed. Their Christian Coalition was far more powerful than the Moral Majority, whose voter guides were never credited with winning any particular election.

From the 1980s on, Falwell existed mostly as a media creation, not a real player in national politics. He missed the cable TV revolution, which deprived him of a platform. He took over Jimmy and Tammy Faye Bakker's PTL after it collapsed in scandal, but by then its revenues were a modest $13 million. The related theme park, Heritage USA, went into Chapter 11. His monthly magazine, National Liberty Journal, became a modest success, with an unaudited circulation of 250,000.

Falwell's power was hyped not just by him but by a media establishment that needed a consistently conservative voice -- not to mention a "guest" who could usually be counted on to show up at the studio on time and say something provocative. On shows like Nightline and Larry King Live, Falwell became a spokesman for the religious right and "good TV." Who can forget when he claimed that the Teletubbies character Tinky Winky was actually a hidden symbol of the homosexual agenda? Ironically, he may have loomed larger among secular audiences than religious ones.

In 1994, Falwell paid for a documentary called The Clinton Chronicles that supposedly implicated Bill Clinton, Vincent Foster, Ron Brown and Jim McDougal in a cocaine-smuggling operation. A man shown in the film in silhouette claimed that President Clinton ordered several of his critics killed. Falwell never repudiated the film, though he later admitted "I do not know the accuracy" of it. Some of the characters featured in the film became involved in the Paula Jones lawsuit that led to Clinton's impeachment, though Falwell was not central to that story either.

The rise of the religious right was an important development in late-20th Century American history. Falwell's name is among those associated with the movement. But just because someone is famous doesn't make him significant. Jerry Falwell wasn't.

Originally published in Newsweek.