Los­ing faith on the Christian right.

The Washington Post Sunday - - OUTLOOK - By Terry Heaton Or. 209 pp. $18 pa­per­back El­iz­a­beth Bru­enig is an as­sis­tant ed­i­tor for Outlook and Post Ev­ery­thing at The Wash­ing­ton Post.

Amer­ica’s con­ser­va­tive evan­gel­i­cals — the in­di­vid­u­als be­hind that Repub­li­can bloc known as the re­li­gious right — are liv­ing in strange times. After eight un­happy years un­der Pres­i­dent Barack Obama (only 24 per­cent of white evan­gel­i­cals viewed him fa­vor­ably as he pre­pared to leave of­fice), evan­gel­i­cals can now look to a Repub­li­can pres­i­dent and Congress to carry out their po­lit­i­cal will. Yet it re­mains to be seen whether Pres­i­dent Trump and his cri­sis-be­sieged ad­min­is­tra­tion will do much good for the re­li­gious right and what their fu­ture may hold.

How evan­gel­i­cals be­came wed­ded to the po­lit­i­cal right is a drama in many acts that plays out on a grand stage. It takes in cos­mic ques­tions of prov­i­dence and apocalypse threaded to­gether with earth­lier (though no less mov­ing) con­cerns about money, power and iden­tity. In his book “The Gospel of Self: How Je­sus Joined the GOP,” Terry Heaton of­fers a view of that vast nar­ra­tive from the per­sonal level. In­stead of telling the story of the re­li­gious right from a his­tor­i­cal or so­ci­o­log­i­cal stand­point, Heaton nar­rates it from the in­side, as a pro­ducer for the Christian Broad­cast­ing Net­work (CBN) and right-hand man to tel­e­van­ge­list and one-time pres­i­den­tial hopeful Pat Robert­son. In many ways, the ac­count Heaton sup­plies is far more dis­turb­ing than the big-pic­ture plots.

Heaton, a pro­lific writer on mod­ern mass me­dia, re­counts how he came to work for Robert­son at the CBN, the con­tri­bu­tions he made to Robert­son’s am­bi­tious Christian pro­gram­ming and po­lit­i­cal mis­sion, and his men­tor’s even­tual run for pres­i­dent and 12-year tan­gle with the IRS over the fun­nel­ing of min­istry funds to his po­lit­i­cal cam­paign, an ac­tiv­ity that caused the CBN to lose its tax ex­empt sta­tus for a while. Heaton was moved to be­come a tele­vi­sion pro­ducer in the ser­vice of the Lord after an in­tense con­ver­sion ex­pe­ri­ence in 1980. He had strug­gled with “de­pres­sion, sex, sui­cide, drugs, and al­co­hol,” but after his con­ver­sion he re­gained con­trol of his life, and be­gan to read the Bible and watch Christian tele­vi­sion, then in its in­fancy. By 1981, he had taken a job with the CBN, pro­duc­ing sto­ries for Robert­son’s “The 700 Club.”

The show is a kind of news mag­a­zine com­pris­ing sev­eral dif­fer­ent seg­ments cen­tered on Robert­son’s view of the world: Com­men­ta­tors un­pack the proper Christian read­ing of daily news, spe­cial fea­tures track trends and crises in the church, those mirac­u­lously saved or healed ap­pear or call in to tell their tales, and Robert­son’s ser­mons fill in the gaps. Though the fo­cus is on faith, Robert­son’s pol­i­tics are clear. When Haiti suf­fered a dev­as­tat­ing earth­quake in 2010, Robert­son chalked it up to the na­tion’s al­leged “pact with the devil” — his provoca­tive explanation for the suc­cess of the slave re­bel­lion that re­sulted in Haitian in­de­pen­dence. Robert­son in­formed “700 Club” view­ers that Obama was a se­cret Mus­lim in­tent on in­sti­tut­ing sharia law around the world; that po­lit­i­cal as­sas­si­na­tions are licit; that wel­fare pro­grams for the poor are morally wrong; and that food stamps for hun­gry fam­i­lies lead only to fraud and de­pen­dency.

Heaton pro­duced the show’s news seg­ments, per­sonal-in­ter­est sto­ries and mir­a­cle re­ports un­til 1986, work­ing be­hind the scenes and grow­ing closer to Robert­son. It’s easy to trace, in his nar­ra­tive, the as­cen­dency of the re­li­gious right as a po­tent Repub­li­can bloc, not least by watch­ing Robert­son’s ever-grow­ing de­signs on the pres­i­dency through Heaton’s up-close van­tage.

The past sev­eral years have yielded a num­ber of books that pro­vide a very clear (and ed­i­fy­ing) pic­ture of the move­ment’s ori­gins. In 2013, there was “Blessed: A His­tory of the Amer­i­can Pros­per­ity Gospel,” by Kate Bowler, which traced the un­fold­ing of Amer­ica’s unique tra­di­tion of money-grub­bing tel­e­van­ge­lists squeez­ing con­gre­gants for cash while liv­ing large them­selves; then came “Amer­i­can Apocalypse: A His­tory of Mod­ern Evan­gel­i­cal­ism,” by Matthew Avery Sut­ton, in 2014, fol­lowed in 2015 by “One Na­tion Un­der God: How Cor­po­rate Amer­ica In­vented Christian Amer­ica,” by Kevin Kruse, both of which closely track evan­gel­i­cals’ swift ro­mance with po­lit­i­cal con­ser­va­tives in the 20th cen­tury. This year, Frances FitzGer­ald pub­lished “The Evan­gel­i­cals: The Strug­gle to Shape Amer­ica,” which traced to­day’s de­motic, emo­tive evan­gel­i­cal pol­i­tics back to the Great Awak­en­ings of the 18th and 19th cen­turies.

The tragedy that emerges in “The Gospel of Self” is what Heaton’s im­mer­sion in Robert­son’s politi­cized Chris­tian­ity did to his own new­found faith. “Lit­tle did I re­al­ize at the time how [fight­ing the cul­ture wars] dra­mat­i­cally weak­ened my/our be­liefs in the ca­pa­bil­i­ties of an almighty God,” he writes. “The 700 Club” aired many seg­ments on mir­a­cles, but Robert­son re­fused to broad­cast any re­ports of Christians ask­ing for God’s help and not re­ceiv­ing it. Heaton re­ports that Robert­son told him that do­ing so would “cost [his] min­istry mil­lions.” By then, Robert­son had made mir­a­cles one of the fo­cal points of his show — and a ma­jor draw for view­ers and their do­na­tions. If he were to ac­knowl­edge, even with plenty of gen­uine faith, that mir­a­cles don’t al­ways come to pass, the elec­tri­fied crowds might not have flocked to the min­istry in such large num­bers.

One day, Heaton re­ceived a let­ter from an In­di­ana fa­ther who was an avid “700 Club” fan. He tore into Heaton and Robert­son for mak­ing his 9-year-old daugh­ter’s death from cancer not only painful but spir­i­tu­ally ag­o­niz­ing. She, like her fa­ther, had been a faith­ful viewer and had be­lieved Robert­son’s claim that true be­liev­ers re­ceive the mir­a­cles they pray for. Worse than her painful ill­ness, the fa­ther wrote, “was the re­jec­tion she felt from God, be­cause He would not heal her.” Heaton writes that “to this day I pray for that lit­tle girl . . . and beg forgiveness for play­ing a role in what she went through.”

Heaton’s trou­bles mounted. He found him­self ly­ing to Robert­son about the mirac­u­lous heal­ing of his own back spasms (in re­al­ity, de­spite Robert­son’s charis­matic prayers, the spasms did not re­lent), and about help­ing to di­rect min­istry monies (il­le­gally) to Robert­son’s failed 1988 pres­i­den­tial cam­paign. By the end of his time at the CBN, Heaton writes, he “started drink­ing heav­ily, some­thing that would profoundly al­ter my re­la­tion­ship with the God I loved.”

Robert­son pre­sented him­self as a shep­herd of souls, but in his quest for tem­po­ral power, he led his flock astray and left their faith to wither. This isn’t the story one usu­ally hears about the rise of the re­li­gious right, but for Christians, it is per­haps the more im­por­tant one.


Pat Robert­son, pic­tured in 2003, em­pha­sizes God’s mir­a­cles and con­ser­va­tive pol­i­tics on his TV show “The 700 Club.”

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