Falwell will be remembered for theocratic vision for U.S., religion professor says

Thursday, May 17, 2007

A professor of philosophy and religion studies at the University of North Texas says the legacy of the Rev. Jerry Falwell - the televangelist and founder of the Moral Majority who died earlier this week - was a detrimental co-mingling of church and politics.

Dr. Joe Barnhart says Falwell "wanted to use the state to develop and promote righteousness." "But, in the process, that brought considerable harm to both," he says.

Barnhart says Falwell may best be remembered for founding the Moral Majority in 1979. The evangelist credited the organization for helping to elect both Ronald Reagan president and a Republican-led Senate in 1980.

Falwell was considered to be a leader in the conservative evangelical movement and at times seemed to be the public face of the "religious right," Barnhart says.

"He was initially an Independent Baptist who ignored the historic Baptist tradition of separating church from state. From my perspective, Falwell had a theocratic vision for the United States. He might have denied that, but his actions tell the real story," he says.

Falwell was often a lightning rod for controversy, from backing apartheid in South Africa and speaking out against Martin Luther King, Jr. in the 1960s to blaming the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks on America on feminists, pagans, gays and lesbians. Barnhart says he was skilled at seeking out the spotlight.

"Falwell knew how to use the media and work behind the scenes. He was a consummate politician, in both the best and worse senses of the word," he says. "His lasting legacy will be the establishment of a college (Liberty University) for people who want a solid education in the Fundamentalist worldview."

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