Zev Chafets

Falwell founded the Moral Majority in 1979 with a four-point program: "Pro-life, pro-traditional family, pro-moral and pro-American." The movement's domestic conservatism transformed the Republican Party for a generation (today, Rudy Giuliani seems to be the un-Falwell), but Falwell had no illusions about the nature of his victories. "Look at the culture overall, and secular progressives are winning," he told me. "They have been for 50 years, and they probably will until Jesus gets here and sorts things out."

Falwell had a similar view of international relations. He believed that G-d had a plan for the United States and that its enemies were evil. He referred to Muslim radicals as "barbarians" and advocated taking out Iran's nuclear capacity by force. "Bush is probably too weak politically to do it," he told me over barbecue one afternoon. "It will be up to Israel. And we'll be at the White House, cheering."

Falwell's Zionism was by no means inevitable. Before him, evangelicals reluctantly acknowledged that the Jews were G-d's chosen people, but many didn't quite agree with the choice. Falwell embraced the Jews of Israel (who appreciated his friendship) just as he embraced American Jews (who, by and large, spurned it). He could be acerbic about Jewish leaders — he called Abraham Foxman of the Anti-Defamation League a "damn fool" and pointedly told me that the comment was on the record — but he never let Jewish hostility shake his philo-Semitism. American Jews who now take evangelical friendship for granted need to know that it is, to a large extent, a grant from Jerry Falwell.

Falwell was always aware that he was under scrutiny. He hated crooked TV preachers like Jim Bakker, and he didn't have much use for hypocrites like Ted Haggard either. He was married to the same woman for nearly 50 years. He took in millions of dollars during his lifetime without a scandal — not bad for a televangelist.

Not everything Falwell said and did was commendable. He sometimes said stupid things, like his famous crack that 9/11 was the product of American immorality. He knew he was wrong, and he said so (just as he apologized for the segregationist views of his youth). Not every man of G-d has "I'm sorry" in his vocabulary. He never apologized for his beliefs, though, or his tough partisanship. He was a born-again Christian, an American and a Republican, in that order, and if you didn't like it, well, there were plenty of other places you could spend Sunday morning.

I once asked Falwell about his legacy. We were, naturally, having lunch, in a Liberty University dining room. "This university has 10,000 graduates in pulpits and church boards all over the country," he said. "There will be more every year. They'll carry on."

Zev Chafets

Zev Chafets is a former columnist for the New York Daily News, as well as the author of nine books of fiction, media criticism, and social and political commentary, including "A Match Made in Heaven: American Jews, Christian Zionists, and One Man's Exploration of the Weird and Wonderful Judeo-Evangelical Alliance," published by HarperCollins in January 2007.

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