Jerry Falwell loved his jet. in 1980, it was no small thing for a preacher to have one, even if he was a preacher with a TV show, "The Old Time Gospel Hour." The plane was a Lear, he told me as we climbed aboard on a September day in that crucial year, "specially reconfigured by an Israeli company." He saw this as providential—as if the jet had been anointed by the engine oil of the Holy Land. And it was dart-quick. His congregation, Thomas Road Baptist, was locked away in the Blue Ridge town of Lynchburg, Va. With the plane, he could roam the Bible belt, from Okeechobee to Oklahoma. This trip, the destination was Alabama.
We lifted off with a prayer in the name of Jesus, but the flight wasn't aimed at saving souls. It was about electing Ronald Reagan. With the advice and financial backing of national conservative and GOP activists, Falwell had launched a group he had the chutzpah to call the Moral Majority. The goal was to use the then-new tactics of "independent" grass-roots organizing to draw evangelical and fundamentalist Christians—for decades, reluctant participants in politics—into a Republican crusade.
When we got to Birmingham, I saw what he was up to. He filled the old Boutwell Auditorium with thousands of "Gospel Hour" fans for a rally called "God Save America Again!" It was like a revival meeting—co-written by George Orwell and staged by Lynyrd Skynyrd. With lights dimmed and ominous music echoing in the hall, the stage was framed by giant photos of America's enemies (back then, the Soviet Union). In the spotlight, Falwell warned that Armageddon was at hand, unless God-fearing voters ousted Jimmy Carter (a born-again Christian himself, but never mind) and the rest of the Democrats. Hope lay in only one place: with Reagan and his GOP disciples. When the lights came up, there they were, standing and waving in the audience: not the Gipper himself, but a lineup of Alabama Republican candidates.
The rest, as they say, is history. If you had to reduce American politics of the last three decades to a headline, this is it: CONSERVATIVE CHRISTIANS ENTER PUBLIC LIFE AND FORM THE CORE OF A NEW REPUBLICAN PARTY. The edifice is cracking now, stressed by George W. Bush's failures, by disappointments with and second thoughts about playing in Caesar's game. Still, the political migration of millions—evangelicals, fundamentalists and charismatic Protestants, as well as "right to life" Roman Catholics for whom abortion is the central issue—is the biggest electoral story of our time. Falwell did not create this movement, and was never its most pivotal inside player—only its first and most visible. Wooed early and shrewdly by the late Lee Atwater, Falwell became the unofficial guardian of the Bush family's religious-right flank. A procession of would-be Bush successors, including John McCain, an erstwhile enemy, were eager to link arms with him for '08. His clout had faded, but not disappeared.
What he did for—and to—America is harder to figure. He believed in the inerrancy of Scripture, and carried that absolutist attitude into politics, which could be a dangerous and divisive thing. Gays had invited the 9/11 attack by turning our country into a Sodom and Gomorrah; the antichrist was on his way—and was a Jew. Falwell could be a bully, lacking in Christian charity.
Yet there was a benign side, too, and a worthy one. There was never an ounce of scandal in his personal life. His large congregation was devoted; Wednesday-night sermons, full of complex diagrams about events in end-times, drew thousands. A college dropout from the rougher side of the Lynchburg tracks, he doted on Liberty University, a school he founded in 1971 with the aim of making it "Notre Dame of the evangelicals." He told me not long ago that he was very proud of the science programs there. "We have kids accepted to graduate school at Harvard all the time," he said. He could be a demagogue, but he was as much a P.T. Barnum as anything else.
I ran into him not long ago in Union Station in Washington. He had no entourage, no jet. His always-florid face was fuller than ever. He had come up on the train from Lynchburg, and was having lunch before making the D.C. rounds. Falwell remained in demand as a talking head, eager to mix it up with the heathens in a city he had helped to transform. It was a long journey from Birmingham. Now Falwell is in a Better Place. I'm not sure that's true of the country.