I've been out all morning, and during that time the news of Jerry Falwell being found unconscious in his office turned into his obituary. Falwell, the 73-year-old founder of the once powerful Moral Majority, a fundamentalist firebrand, died of a heart-rhythm irregularity.
He had an unlikely beginning for the Christian ministry: his grandfather was a self-avowed atheist; his father, an agnostic who hated preachers and ran a moonshine operation during Prohibition. But Falwell decided early on, in his teen years, to devote his life to Christian service, calling himself a spiritual streetfighter.
"If we lose our moral bearings, we shall surely collapse," he once said.
"Abortion, family values, the moral underpinnings on which the nation was built we call the Judeo-Christian ethic, is important to us," Falwell said.
He was a man of strong opinions. That often got him in trouble.
In 1999, he charged that a popular children's television character, one of the Teletubbies, could be gay because he was purple and carried a handbag. One Falwell critic responded by saying he'd "rather watch the 'Teletubbies' than televangelists."
After Sept. 11, Falwell declared God's anger with gays, lesbians, abortionists and feminists had contributed to the terrorist attacks. He later apologized, saying only the terrorists were to blame. But in 2002, this comment led to deadly riots in the Muslim world:
"I think Muhammad was a terrorist. I've read enough of the history of his life, written by both Muslims and non-Muslims, that he was a violent man, a man of war."
Again Falwell was stung by criticism. But he still had the ability to deliver big bucks and votes to political candidates — and that gave him power to keep pushing his moral agenda.
Though his televangelism would experience problems — he once lost his tax exemption when the IRS determined his "Old Time Gospel Hour" was being used for political purposes — he nevertheless kept broadcasting.
It's what Jesus would have done, he said.