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Mourners attend the Rev. Jerry Falwell's funeral

Tuesday faithful attended the funeral of the Rev. Jerry Falwell, the controversial evangelist who built the Moral Majority into a conservative Christian empire that influenced American politics.

The funeral returned Falwell to his roots - the Thomas Road Baptist Church, where he started as a young preacher in 1956 with just 35 parishioners in an old abandoned soda bottling plant.

Today, his son Jonathan Falwell leads Thomas Road Baptist, and the sanctuary seats 6,000.

Over four days, more than 33,000 people had viewed the body of a man who was vilified as much as he was admired.

"He was a champion of the fundamental values that we hold dear," said fellow Virginia evangelist Pat Robertson. "He stepped on some toes."

The rise of Christian conservatism - and the Moral Majority's full-throated condemnation of homosexuality, abortion and pornography - made Falwell perhaps the most recognizable figure on the evangelical right.

Over the years, Falwell waged a landmark libel case against Hustler magazine founder Larry Flynt over a raunchy parody ad, and created a furor in 1999 when one of his publications suggested that the purse-carrying "Teletubbies" character Tinky Winky was gay.

After the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, Falwell said that abortionists, feminists, gays and others "have tried to secularize America ... helped this happen."

In his sermon, the Rev. Jerry Vines, former president of the Southern Baptist Convention, praised Falwell for his outspokenness.

"He said 'I believe God has called me to confront the culture,' and did he ever confront it," Vines said. "Falwell understood that Christians have a right in this country to be heard."

No Republican presidential candidates attended the event. The White House was sent a midlevel aide.

Falwell, 73, died a week ago after collapsing in his office at Liberty University. His physician said Falwell had a heart condition and presumably died of a heart rhythm abnormality.

Falwell founded the university in 1971 and became a force in Republican politics in the 1980s after starting the Moral Majority and organizing the conservative Christian vote to send Ronald Reagan to the White House.

Even as a young preacher, he broke new ground, launching television evangelism with the "Old Time Gospel Hour" in 1956.

He built the Thomas Road Baptist congregation to an estimate 24,000 over the years by knocking on doors and listening to the people who answered.

To the end, he stayed in touch with his congregation.

Wendell Walker, who moved from Macon, Georgia, 33 years ago to attend the Liberty Baptist College that preceded the university, said he had helped Falwell with baby dedication ceremonies two days before his death.

Walker said he "just loved helping a godly man."

Falwell also made careful preparations for a leadership transition after his death of both the church and Liberty University to his sons. Jonathan's brother, Jerry Falwell Jr., is already vice chancellor at Liberty.

"So many in politics aren't recognizing the social and moral issues in our society," said Roy Moore, the Alabama judge who gained a national following among the Christian right with his unsuccessful fight to display a Ten Commandments monument in court. "People like Jerry Falwell were bold enough to speak out."

A private burial was planned on the grounds of Liberty University near a former mansion where Falwell's office was located.

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