In the American South, evangelical Christianity is a looming presence. Drive through any small town in the South and you’ll see more churches than restaurants. And it’s not just churches: many of us have relatives who watch televangelists and other Christian programming on a regular, sometimes daily, basis. It’s almost impossible for a politician to get elected, even for a minor office, without at least doing lip service to evangelical Christian beliefs (even if their actions do not match up with their words). What Flannery O’Connor said back in 1960 still rings true today: “I think it is safe to say that while the South is hardly Christ-centered, it is most certainly Christ-haunted.”
That continued haunting is due in large part to the influence of televangelism. One of the early pioneers of modern televangelism is Pat Robertson, founder of the Christian Broadcasting Network (CBN), whose daily TV show, The 700 Club, broadcasts in 138 countries and claims a million weekday viewers and 11,000 daily callers to its prayer line. A new book, The Gospel of Self: How Jesus Joined the GOP, is by Terry Heaton, who worked side-by-side with Pat Robertson for several years during the 1980’s, becoming the executive producer of The 700 Club. This is a fascinating inside look at the inner workings of CBN during a time when Pat Robinson and others made a conscious effort to move evangelical voters closer to the Republican Party – and the GOP itself further to the right.
As you can tell from its title, the author of The Gospel of Self now views the brand of evangelicalism that he helped promote in the 1980’s (and which is still being promoted by many evangelical leaders today) as a self-centered, Americanized form of Christianity that is not always faithful to what Jesus himself taught in the gospels. Terry Heaton states at the beginning of the book: “The evangelist’s message has always been self-centered, for it preaches the gospel as a means to saving one’s own ass from eternal hellfire and damnation in the afterlife. Evangelical Christianity has refined the message over the years and turned it today into the means for blessings in this life as well.” That emphasis on “blessings” is what fuels the multimillion-dollar budgets of CBN and other evangelical “non-profit” organizations to this day.
Terry Heaton provides a look at how The 700 Club tried to become a “news” show as well as a Christian talk show, paving the way for other news agencies to embrace “advocacy journalism” become less objective in their reporting. “Fox News would never have found the success it has known if CBN News hadn’t blazed the trail,” he writes. Heaton doesn’t necessarily think advocacy journalism is a bad thing, as long as journalists are transparent with their biases. One whole chapter is basically an essay defending (not very convincingly) such “point-of-view journalism.”
Heaton is honest about Pat Robertson’s political aspirations and how Pat was really “a political strategist who happened to be a minister” – not just during the time when Robertson himself ran for president, but throughout his career. He quotes Robertson as saying in 1985: “We must form a shadow government. We must begin to find and train Christian people, so that they can be placed in every position that matters…” in local governments as well as in national politics. Heaton is also honest about the ethics that were stretched and the laws that were broken, sometimes by Heaton himself, in carrying out CBN’s political, religious, and fund-raising objectives.
As a former evangelical who watched The 700 Club and The PTL Club in the 1980’s, I found myself fascinated by the book’s coverage of how Pat Robertson responded to the televangelist scandals of 1987 involving Jim Bakker and others. Heaton describes actions taken by Robertson that he disagreed with, even while he was still working with Robertson, as well as some of Robertson’s blatant lies to Heaton and others during that era. But the book is not a tell-all scandal book; Heaton still very clearly regards Robertson with affection and some measure of respect, even all these years later. There’s no bitterness here. But Keaton’s continuing affection for Pat Robertson doesn’t get in the way of his honest assessment of the damage Robertson has done to evangelical Christianity as it is today.
The book ends with two chapters that are basically appendices, one about “point-of-view journalism” and one about postmodern “Emergent” Christianity. Not everyone will find those two chapters interesting or their arguments convincing (I didn’t), which is the only reason I give the book 4 stars instead of 5. But the rest of the book is highly recommended for anyone who wants a deeper understanding of how evangelical Christianity played – and continues to play – such a prominent role in today’s political landscape, not just in the South but across the nation.