Televangelist Falwell dies at 73

Rev. Jerry Falwell, a U.S. televangelist who crusaded for the religious right, died Tuesday at age 73. His doctor says he had a heart rhythm abnormality.

Rev. Jerry Falwell,a U.S. television evangelist who crusaded for the religious right, died Tuesday at age 73.

"Jerry has been a tower of strength on many of the moral issues which have confronted our nation," fellow televangelist Pat Robertson, host ofThe 700 Club,saidTuesday.

Falwell was found unconscious Tuesday morning in his office at Liberty University, the Christian school he founded and led in his hometown of Lynchburg, Va.

He was rushed to hospital, but never revived.Dr. Carl Moore said his patient likely died of heart trouble. Falwell hada heart rhythm abnormality and had suffered from heart problems in 2005.

Ron Godwin,executive vice-president ofLiberty University, said he was with Falwell just hours before his death.

"I had breakfast with him, and he was fine at breakfast," Godwin said. "He went to his office, I went to mine, and they found him unresponsive."

Falwell, considered the voice of the religious right in the 1980s, took an active role in religion at the age of 22, when he founded the Thomas Road Baptist Church in Lynchburg with just 35 members. It now boasts 24,000 members and annual revenues of $200 million US, according to Liberty University.

As Falwell was building his church, he was also creating a television and radio show, called TheOld-Time Gospel Hour, whichis nowbroadcast around the world.

"Dr. Falwell was a man of distinguished accomplishment who devoted his life to serving his faith and country," said Sen. John McCain, a Republican from Arizona.

Took Hustler magazine to court

Over the decades, Falwell campaigned against abortion, same-sex marriage, pornography, stem-cell research and bans on school prayers.

He drew ire for saying AIDS is punishment for homosexuals, the Antichrist was a Jewish man, and Tinky Winky, a purse-toting character on the children's show Teletubbies, is a gay role model.

Three days after the Sept. 11, 2001,attacksagainst the United States, he blamed themon abortionists, feminists, pagans, gays, lesbians and others who "tried to secularize America." He later apologized.

"Unfortunately, we will always remember him as a founder and leader of America's anti-gay industry," said Matt Foreman, executive director of the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force.

One of Falwell's most public controversies came in 1984, when he sued Hustler, a pornographic magazine founded by Larry Flynt. Falwell wanted $45 million US,arguing he was libelled by a raunchy parody advertisement in the magazine.

The jury awardedFalwell $200,000 for emotional distress, but the verdict was overturned in a landmark 1988 U.S. Supreme Court decision. The case was featured in the 1996 movie The People Vs. Larry Flynt.

Flynt, when told of Falwell's death Tuesday, spoke highly of his character.

"I hated everything he stood for, but after meeting him in person, years after the trial, Jerry Falwell and I became good friends," Flynt said. "I always appreciated his sincerity, even though I knew what he was selling and he knew what I was selling."

Taught youth'to remain true to their convictions'

While Falwell stirred controversy, he also drew praise for his work in education. He founded Liberty University in 1971 and served as chancellor until his death. He created the school with the goal of building a Christian education system for evangelical youth.

U.S. President George W. Bush applaudedFalwell's work with the school on Tuesday.

"One of his lasting contributions was the establishment of Liberty University, where he taught young people to remain true to their convictions and rely upon God's word throughout each stage of their lives," Bush said in a statement.

He was also known for his work with the Moral Majority, a political organization he founded in 1979 that lobbied for the evangelical Christian agenda before dissolving in 1989.

Falwell credited the organization with electing Republican Ronald Reagan as U.S. president in November 1980 and getting millions of conservative voters registered to vote.

"I shudder to think where the country would be right now if the religious right had not evolved,"Falwell said when he stepped down as Moral Majority president in 1987.

Falwell and his wife, Macel, were marriedfor 49 years withthree grown children and eight grandchildren.

With files from the Associated Press