Jerry Falwell's sons quietly carry on his ministry, university

The Associated Press/November 17, 2007

Lynchburg, Virginia -- The Rev. Jerry Falwell made plans for his succession, grooming his two sons to preserve the evangelical empire he built. But he took to his grave the outspoken style on moral issues that vaulted him into the national limelight.

Falwell was a charismatic preacher who pioneered use of the airwaves to build a megachurch and university -- and organize conservative Christians into a political force in the 1980s. With his death of heart problems at age 73 on May 15, his two sons took on public roles -- Jonathan, 41, as the pastor of the 21,000-member Thomas Road Baptist Church and Jerry Jr., 45, as chancellor of Liberty University.

"The first thing I told our congregation when they called me to be their pastor after Dad passed away is, 'Hey, I'm not Dad, and I can't be Dad,"' Jonathan Falwell said. "There's nobody alive that could do what my Dad did."

Falwell had simple roots -- his father was a bootlegger -- and kept a "just folks" style no matter what his audience. His three children -- a doctor, a lawyer and a minister -- had a more sophisticated upbringing.

Jerry Falwell Jr., who holds a University of Virginia law degree, said his biggest adjustment to switching from a behind-the-scenes role running the school's business operations was learning to tie a tie. "I wore khakis and Crocs every day," he said.

They believe their roles as ministry leaders call for political involvement, and observers say the Falwell name still carries weight in Republican circles.

Both have talked to possible Republican presidential candidates, and Jerry Jr. said one may visit the campus soon. But the sons aren't likely to have the influence their father enjoyed after he started the Moral Majority in 1979, organizing the conservative Christian vote and helping to send Ronald Reagan to the White House.

"Reagan felt he owed Falwell a large debt of gratitude for essentially waking up previously apolitical evangelicals," said Mark Rozell, a George Mason University professor who has studied conservative Christians' political involvement.

The Moral Majority is no longer the rallying point for evangelical Christian voters, but it's not needed because numerous organizations have been formed to take its place, said Mark DeMoss, Falwell's former executive assistant.

"I don't think there will be major personalities in the same sense that we've seen before," he said.

Red-haired Jonathan Falwell, whose personality more closely resembles that of his extroverted father, said he will speak out on issues that are important to him. For now, he's sticking to touchstones of the Christian right -- opposition to abortion and gay rights and preserving national security. He doesn't seem interested in stirring controversy.

"Jonathan preaches every Sunday, and it's not his style to attack," Jerry Falwell Jr. said. "His style is more just preaching the Scripture. Dad, he wouldn't hesitate to talk about any subject in his sermon."

The elder Falwell made as many enemies as friends with controversial statements. After the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, he said feminists, gays and abortionists "helped this happen." He also suggested that "Teletubbies" character Tinky Winky was gay.

Since their father's death, both sons have stayed away from the culture wars. They have been focused on the everyday work of building their ministry.

They took over an organization with longtime employees in key positions and were already familiar with their roles. Jonathan was leading the church's early service. Jerry Jr. was Liberty's vice chancellor. Their sister, Jeanie, is a Richmond surgeon who is not involved in the ministry.

"It's different without him," Teresa Hall, a church member since 1964, said of Falwell Sr. But "the ministry has just been moving right along."

Indeed, the ministry has thrived.

Giving to Liberty University is up, Jerry Jr. said, and the school enrolled 900 more students this fall. More than 1,000 people have joined the church and there have been 450 baptisms, according to Jonathan.

"There's a real groundswell of support," Jerry Falwell Jr. said. "I don't know if it's because they think we need more help now or if it's just a vote of support."

Jonathan recently set ambitious five-year goals for the church of saving 5,000 new souls, starting 500 new churches around the country and sending 500 missionaries overseas.

Jerry Falwell Sr. saw Liberty University as his legacy -- sending the influence of born-again Christians into courtrooms, classrooms and board rooms. Jerry Jr. wants to fulfill his father's goal to make the school he founded in 1971 "the Notre Dame of evangelical Christians."

Liberty is already the largest evangelical Christian college in the world, he said, and the eventual enrollment goal is 25,000. It has 10,500 students this year, up from 4,500 in 2001.

Jerry Jr. would like Liberty to achieve academic excellence in at least a couple of areas, perhaps business and nursing. The school already has a debate team that regularly takes top national rankings, and the school said nearly 90 percent of its first law school class recently passed the bar exam.

Jerry Falwell Jr.'s plan to entice students also includes physical improvements. Work is under way on a mountain the ministry owns to enlarge a lake for water sports, develop biking and hiking trails and perhaps put in a zip line.

But future growth is likely to be slower. Jerry Falwell Jr. described himself as "risk-averse," having played a key role in guiding the school through a financial crisis after donations fell off in the late 1980s following scandals involving evangelists Jim Bakker and Jimmy Swaggart.

"Jerry Sr. was so motivated by growth and really out of a big heart for people and students that he was willing many times to grow even if we lost money," said DeMoss, who serves on the school's board of trustees.

The elder Falwell kept tuition down and would not turn away students who were unable to pay, he said. Tuition, room and board this year cost about $21,000.

In the end, though, Falwell Sr. restored his empire's financial stability. He left $30 million in life insurance policies that erased the school's debt with money left over.

"I don't think you could have built the ministry -- the university or the church -- without Jerry's charisma," DeMoss said, "but I do think you can sustain it and maybe grow it."

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