2016-06-30
As the fight between John McCain and George W. Bush grew more heated, Jerry Falwell began to feel restless. He was irked by the personal nature of McCain's attacks against him and Pat Robertson. What's more, he feared that even if Bush, his candidate, prevailed, he would be weakened going into the general election.

At the same time, some of the titans of the religious right came to Falwell with similar concerns and a message: we need to mobilize like we haven't since the heyday of the Moral Majority. Falwell would not name names, but one well-placed source says advocates of a new mobilization included Richard Viguerie, the conservative direct-mail expert, and Paul Weyrich, head of the Free Congress Foundation (who recently had been urging Christians to withdraw from politics).

Falwell himself didn't take much convincing. "We've got to do it now, quickly," he says. "Another four years of Clinton-Gore would devastate this country."

While the details are still taking shape, it is looking as if Falwell's effort will dwarf anything he's done since the apex of his influence in the 1980s.

"He was called back to duty," says Armstrong Williams, a political commentator, Beliefnet columnist, and Falwell friend.

In an interview Friday, Falwell told Beliefnet he will raise between $10 million and $15 million to send direct mail to "several million" homes between now and Election Day, hoping to persuade conservatives to register and vote. The effort, called People of Faith 2000, will include using his network of 200,000 ministers and Christian leaders and a direct-mail campaign to sign up new voters.

He's shooting for 10 million registered voters--and, he hopes, a victory for Texas Gov. George W. Bush.

"It's Moral Majority Two," said John Green, a scholar of the religious right. "A lot of these original players of the religious right want to get back in the game."

With the closing of the Moral Majority in 1989, he essentially retreated from the political trenches. At the time, he was overshadowed by Pat Robertson and his Christian Coalition.

By last year at this time, Falwell was smarting from weeks of teasing for his "outing" of Tinky Winky the Teletubby as a homosexual icon. That followed an earlier dispute in which he said to a group of pastors that the antichrist is alive and is most likely a Jewish male.

In both cases, the statements seemed to prove that while Falwell was still a cultural lightning rod, he was a political has-been. The biggest blow came last April, when former associates Cal Thomas and Ed Dobson published a book criticizing Falwell, and Christians activists like him, for succumbing to the temptation of power politics.

In an interview at the time, Falwell talked about his legacy, about building an endowment for Liberty University, and about turning over his empire to his sons. He didn't talk much about politics--except to say he was still glad he had hawked "The Clinton Chronicles," a widely criticized video (even by other conservatives), accusing the President of murder.

One person who has known Falwell a long time suggested the new campaign is simply a marketing ploy to get him more attention, money and power--a way of re-establishing him as the leader of Christian conservatives.

But Armstrong Williams said Falwell is the only person who can rally the troops.

"He's the dean; he has the experience and the savvy," Williams said. "You can trust him not to embarrass the movement."

Of course Democrats may not agree. The prospect of Falwell taking a public role working for Bush will make it easier for Al Gore to say the Republican is too allied with the religious right. The effort--he says it will not be a formal, permanent organization--will begin with sending information packets to Christian leaders who subscribe to Falwell publications or otherwise support the ministry. The packets include voter registration applications to be handed out during worship services, then collected by ushers. Church leaders will ferry the filled-out applications to their local registrar's office.

The direct mail campaign will include much of the same information--except that it will include an envelope for the recipient to mail the registration application back to Falwell headquarters. They will then ship the information to local registrars.

"A farm lady in Iowa doesn't have to look for her registrar. All she's got to do is fill in the form. We do the rest," he said.

Falwell's people also plan to send out pledge cards for newly registered voters to sign, promising they'll vote in the Presidential election. About three weeks before the election, People of Faith 2000 will mount a massive phone-calling campaign to remind the new troops to vote.

"I just decided about a month ago that we are going to have a tight race, and that I had to be willing to invest seven months of my life to take a stand for the issues," said Falwell, a George Bush, Sr., supporter who visited the younger Bush in Austin as early as last year.

Ironically, John McCain's attacks on Falwell and Pat Robertson may have helped goad the minister into action. Southern Baptist leader Richard Land put it this way: "Don't shoot a bear unless you can kill it. What John McCain did was poke a sharp stick in Jerry Falwell's ribs--and he's sore." Land is president of the Ethics and Religious Liberties Commission of the Southern Baptist Convention.

But Falwell refused to criticize McCain, at least publicly.

"Because I am such a strong supporter of George W. Bush and I want to see the Clinton-Gore Administration out of Washington and back to Timbuktu, it's very important we don't allow any rifts inside the Republican Party. And I have determined I will not respond to Sen. McCain." He said he would be "pleased" if McCain were chosen as Bush's running mate. "The idea is to beat Al Gore," Falwell said.

Green predicted the effort would be particularly important in states with the greatest population growth, such as Florida, Texas, Arizona and California. "Those states could be very critical to Republicans. A lot of the areas that are growing there are suburban, which is where you have mega-churches, the non-denominational evangelical churches," said Green, a Beliefnet contributing editor who directs the Ray C. Bliss Institute for Applied Politics at the University of Akron.

Green said that if Falwell plays his cards right, the "$10-15 million can have quite an impact."

But Green cautioned that the strategy also has the potential to fail. Pastors are not generally good at mobilizing voters because they usually don't like talking about politics, he said, and pastors appear to play a key role in Falwell's strategy.

Green said the Christian Coalition was considered more successful in its heyday than the Moral Majority because its organizers never tried to use pastors or churches to mobilize voters.

No matter what happens, the thought of Falwell returning with a vengeance to Presidential politics is somewhat surprising considering where he was situated only a year ago.

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