Elizabeth Bruenig is an assistant editor for Outlook and PostEverything at the 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.
By Terry Heaton
Or. 209 pp. $18 paperback