Terry Heaton worked for TV preacher Pat Robertson as a television producer for two stints in the 1980s. His new book, The Gospel of Self: How Jesus Joined the GOP, is part memoir, part political analysis.
It’s a curious book. Heaton is at times critical of Robertson and the way he ran his Christian Broadcasting Network (CBN) but still seems to harbor respect for the man and his achievements. He even seems to believe that in one case, Robertson actually performed a miraculous healing.
Nevertheless, advocates of church-state separation will find much of interest in the book. Heaton, for example, sheds some light on Robertson’s disdain for the separation of church and state. (In my 1996 book, The Most Dangerous Man in America? Pat Robertson and the Rise of the Christian Coalition, I listed a number of Robertson attacks on that principle. He has asserted that it is a “lie of the left,” insisted it’s not in the Constitution and called it communistic, among other things.)
Heaton reports that Robertson was so obsessed with the issue that in September 1984 he commissioned the Gallup polling firm to seek Americans’ opinions on separation of church and state. The pollsters found that people were, in the main, fuzzy on the actual wording of the First Amendment. For example, some believed the literal words “separation of church and state” were in the Constitution. An angry Robertson decided he would correct that misconception – by attacking the legitimacy of the very concept of church-state separation. He carried this strategy into his 1988 presidential campaign.
Although it’s largely forgotten today except by political junkies, Robertson’s quixotic campaign for the Oval Office actually started off with a bit of a bang. He took second in the Iowa caucuses, besting Vice President George H. W. Bush, the GOP’s eventual nominee. But things went downhill quickly from there. Robertson boasted that an “invisible army” would carry him to victory, but his troops failed to materialize, and he fared poorly in New Hampshire and during the Super Tuesday primaries. He soon suspended his campaign.
The sections of the book that deal with the aftermath of Robertson’s quest for the White House are interesting. Heaton notes that both the Internal Revenue Service and the Federal Elections Commission looked into alleged financial irregularities, and he even includes excerpts from a deposition he did with the IRS on Sept. 8, 1988. During its turbulent though short-lived course, Robertson’s campaign was fraught with controversy and possible violation of the law.
Elsewhere, Heaton has some illuminating things to say about how Robertson ran his “700 Club” show. The program often featured segments profiling people who had positive things happen to them, usually after donating to CBN. Robertson insisted that only attractive people be interviewed, and even had a rule that no overweight guests were allowed.
Writes Heaton of CBN’s guests, “They were young. They were good looking. Their testimony provided a witness that others would wish to emulate. They always ended up on top. They were always prospering after giving to CBN. In this way, we presented the tilted view that those who gave money to CBN – the greater the donation, the bigger the blessing – were always blessed by God. We didn’t dare go near anyone who could claim the opposite, regardless of the reason.”
Heaton also writes about the news operation of the “700 Club” and how it was Fox News before Fox News existed. As someone who used to watch the “700 Club” on a regular basis, I can testify that its spin on the news, often filtered through Robertson’s interpretation of Bible prophecy, was unique, to say the least.
Christians, especially those of a progressive bent, will find Heaton’s final chapter, “Towards a Post-Christian Tomorrow,” of special interest. In it, he lays out a vision of Christianity (based loosely on what has been called the “Emergent Church” model) that looks quite different from the faith espoused by Robertson and his followers. (Heaton now disavows Robertson’s “prosperity gospel.”)
Observes Heaton, “We simply must find a way to shape the Christian message to one that’s more ecumenical and less ‘I’m in the special group,’ which is a key part of the self-centered faith.”
The Gospel of Self provides a compelling insider’s view of Robertson’s operation in the 1980s. Some readers, however, may find that Heaton is too soft on Robertson, a man who has, over the years, said a lot of nasty things about progressives, women, LGBTQ Americans, non-believers and others. To many long-time observers, Robertson is clearly a charlatan and a man who has used his worldwide TV pulpit to spread fear and division, not unity and love.
Heaton doesn’t call Robertson out for it, and that is a shame.
Here are two other recent books that readers of Church & State might find of interest:
— In Paranoid Science: The Christian Right’s War on Reality (NYU Press, 256 pp), Antony Alumkal examines the Religious Right’s embrace of pseudo-scientific ideas such as creationism and gay conversion therapy, as well as its opposition to stem-cell research and its refusal to believe in climate change.
Alumkal, associate professor of sociology of religion at the Iliff School of Theology in Denver, explains the title of his book by outlining the paranoid worldview of many Religious Right activists who invoke conspiracy theories to cover their lack of solid scientific research. In the world of paranoid science, creationists can’t get published in peer-reviewed journals not because their ideas have been discredited, but because the atheistic scientific establishment is arrayed against them.
Observes Alumkal in the book’s introduction, “Christian Right authors don’t concede scientific truth, they create an alternative science – and thus an alternative reality – where their religious beliefs are safe from threat. In this alternative reality the scientific data indicate that humans were intelligently designed by a creator, gays can be cured of their ‘illness,’ embryonic stem cell research is unnecessary for medical progress, and humans can consume all the fossil fuel they want with no harmful effects on the environment.”
Unfortunately, the Religious Right’s rejection of science has affected public policy, as anyone who has witnessed the long-running debate over teaching evolution in public schools can testify.
Alumkal’s book is troubling and eye-opening.
— In November of 1978, more than 900 people either killed themselves or were murdered at a rural compound in Jonestown, Guyana. The dead were members of the Peoples [sic] Temple, an unconventional Christian group led by a charismatic American preacher named Jim Jones.
Jones, who launched the Temple in Indianapolis and later moved it to a small town in California, had fled to Guyana in South America because he was convinced that nuclear war was imminent. He also had fears that the U.S. government was going to come after him.
Much has been written about Jonestown since the massacre (during which a visiting U.S. congressman, Leo Ryan, was gunned down). Jeff Guinn’s new book, The Road To Jonestown: Jim Jones And Peoples Temple (Simon & Schuster, 544 pp.), is notable because of the depth of the author’s research. Guinn provides a full account of Jones’ life, his harrowing descent into madness and the sad fate of those who chose to follow him to Jonestown.
In the wake of the suicides and murders, there were unspecified calls for Congress to do something about “cults” and unconventional religious groups. The U.S. Senate did hold what was described as an unofficial “investigative hearing” on the matter, but nothing came of it.
In June 1979, Paul C. Guttke, an Assemblies of God pastor, wrote in Church & State: “Two things are required to mitigate the danger of future Jonestowns: truth and personal initiative. It is not within the scope of the power of the state to offer either one; you just cannot legislate truth or initiative.”
Readers will find Guinn’s crisply written book compelling, but also extremely disturbing. He tells the story of Jonestown with real verve. Unfortunately, we know how that story ends: with heaps of bodies, many of them children, festering in the South American sun.