WASHINGTON – The late Rev. Jerry Falwell is largely remembered as a leader in the religious right movement in America. Although not everyone agreed with him politically or theologically, Falwell's contribution to engage Christians in the public square has left a legacy, evangelical leaders commented.
"Jerry Falwell leaves a spiritual legacy that is lasting. During a tumultuous time in our culture, he took a stand on the Word of God that emboldened evangelicals to come together to speak in a common voice for the protection of our country’s moral and spiritual values," said Morris H. Chapman, president of Southern Baptist Convention Executive Committee, to Baptist Press. "He will be known not only for his leadership on issues debated in the public square, but also for his tireless work to establish ministries to the hurting and those in need."
Falwell, who founded Moral Majority – a political lobbying organization – died at age 73 on Tuesday just as Republican presidential candidates for the 2008 race went under fire in a televised debate at the University of South Carolina.
"An American who built and led a movement based on strong principles and strong faith has left us. He will be greatly missed, but the legacy of his important work will continue through his many ministries where he put his faith into action," said former Mass. Gov. Mitt Romney of Falwell before the debate, according to Fox News.
The death of a prominent evangelical figure whose political impact was monumental comes as more questions are being raised on the role of faith in politics.
According to the Rev. Barry Lynn, executive director of Americans United for Separation of Church and State, 17 percent of Americans characterize themselves as members of the religious right.
"They do have a very clear set of principles that they would like to have adopted as a matter of law,” he said on Larry King Live Monday night. “They're people who have frankly and essentially given up the power of moral suasion and now what they're trying to do is to turn their often narrow religious ideas into the law that applies to everyone in the United States. And that's the great danger of that movement."
However, "America is the most religious country in modern industrialized Western world," said David Gergen, former White House adviser to President Nixon, Ford, Reagan and Clinton. "Over 90 percent of Americans express a belief in God.
"And religion and politics have often intertwined."
The question of faith in the public square is an inevitable one, according to one of America's pre-eminent Evangelical leaders.
"The most important thing is for persons to know what they believe and what they would expect of candidates. Since America is a land of religious freedom, inevitably, issues that are related to faith, to Christianity, to whatever faith is held by the [presidential] candidate or the voter, these things are going to become a matter of public conversation," the Rev. R. Albert Mohler, Jr. president of the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, told Larry King.
The Rev. Jim Wallis, best-selling author of "God's Politics: Why the Right Gets It Wrong and the Left Doesn't Get It," said the "moral compass" of a candidate is important.
"We need to know what guides them, what shapes their leadership, what might be a factor in ... the policies they advocate," he said.
What Americans need to know about a presidential candidate, however, should not go beyond the values they hold, Lynn indicated.
"Talk about values, talk about how they connect to specific policies. But I don't think we need to know how many times you go to church," said Lynn.
Expressing a similar view, Wallis commented, "[T]he issue is not whether faith will shape public life, but how. There are good ways to do it and very bad ways to do it."
As for the 2008 election, Gergen believes religion is going to play "an enormous factor" in determining the Republican nominee for presidency. And he believes the three current leading candidates – former New York mayor Rudolph W. Giuliani, Sen. John McCain of Arizona, and Romney – may be vetoed by the religious right.