CHAPTER ONE: THE SEEDS OF MODERN DISCONTENT
The modern conservative is engaged in one of man’s oldest exercises in moral philosophy;
that is, the search for a superior moral justification for selfishness.
John Kenneth Galbraith
M.G. “Pat” Robertson is a political animal that happens to be a Christian evangelist, broadcaster, and television personality. Political smarts flow through his veins as surely as the blood that sustains his body. He was born and raised in the midst of a powerful Virginia political family, and the apple doesn’t fall very far from the tree.
When I worked with him in the 1980s, we practiced and promoted a brand of Charismatic Christianity that was seen as a breath of fresh air to a faith that had grown stale in every aspect, from its music to its preaching, and we worked long, hard hours to move hearts and souls in the way we felt was right. In so doing, we altered the course of political power in the United States, and it was as natural as our Christian calling.
Ronald Reagan was the President, and there was a sense of revival in the air, for we had just come out of the decade of Vietnam, Watergate, and the Iranian hostage crisis. We had been floundering as a nation for more than a dozen years, since the assassinations of John Kennedy, Robert Kennedy, and Martin Luther King. By the early 80s, people were suddenly hopeful that prosperity of all kinds would soon return to America, and I got deeply caught up in it. We were, after all, counterculture, and that fired my imagination and gave me strength, for we were in a position to actually make a difference in the lives of many.
Little did I – or anyone back then – realize how far off the rails we would run giving chase to a vision of God’s will for Christians, the church, and the U.S. as a whole. This is a profoundly difficult statement to make for one who was so intimately involved in the process, but it is a truth nonetheless that must be examined without the blinders that accompany the fundamentalist regimen of certain Evangelical Christians. The stakes are simply too high for us and for our progeny to ignore the facts of what we did and mostly how we did it.
Fast-forward thirty years, and America is now a bitterly divided nation. It’s as though a new civil war has emerged led by polar opposites on the political spectrum. All equilibrium seems lost, and we are awash in the chaos of division at every level. Add to this the remarkable technological advancements of the last fifteen years that have undercut the power of top-down communications systems in favor of lateral, peer-to-peer communications, and the depth of this division is bitterly played out in what we call “social media” every day.
There is no sense of community anymore – no “One nation, under God, indivisible” – and we seem like a people constantly bickering and at each other’s throats. The press no longer functions with the public trust, for the institution has been exposed as biased, manipulative, and in it for themselves. Spiro Agnew’s famous speech about the power of television news – while thoroughly dismissed by the press at the time – turns out to have been quite prescient.
“…the President of the United States has a right to communicate directly with the people who elected him, and the people of this country have the right to make up their own minds and form their own opinions about a Presidential address, without having the President’s words and thoughts characterized through the prejudice of hostile critics before they can even be digested.”
At CBN in the early 80s, we hammered home the idea of a liberal bias in the press, which has turned out to be a lasting cultural contribution, as the success of Fox News demonstrates. The press has yet to fully accept this idea, however, even though the artificial hegemony of “objectivity” has today been replaced by the concept of transparency.
The American ideal of oneness through assimilated diversity – the dream of which Martin Luther King once spoke – has been crushed under the weight of well-intentioned groups who prefer the country as a tapestry of many different types of people rather than as a melting pot with unified ideals.
In the midst of this today, a master manipulator, showman, and salesman has seized control of a large slice of the electorate by exploiting fear, repeating themes that resonate with certain Americans, and promising simple solutions to complex problems facing the country. Intellectuals, media, and political observers are puzzled by his success and are positing theory upon theory as to why Donald Trump’s followers are heeding his call.
The reality, however, is that they aren’t heeding his call; he is heeding and responding to their call. Donald Trump is skilled at deciphering the voice of those who feel disenfranchised by the culture and where it’s heading. As a salesman, Mr. Trump senses an entry point into the minds of his sales target, initiating his innate ability, which then enables him to articulate a product that sells. All he’s had to do is to paint a black and white, dystopian view of America. This is not original thinking, for all he’s doing is repeating the things discussed in the back rooms of white Evangelicals, and we were the ones who planted these thoughts. These are many of the same people we organized and nurtured thirty years ago with The 700 Club, and I feel responsible, at least in part. As executive producer of the program during the season up to and including Pat Robertson’s run for president in 1988, I helmed every part of what we put on TV, the result of which was a very deliberate and profound turning of the Republican Party to the right.
We knew exactly what we were doing, too. Armed with research at every step, we presented a form of Christianity that included getting involved in politics at every level. God wanted us to wrest control away from those who were destroying the Christian foundation of the country, and Virginia Beach was the most appropriate location from which to do it. It was here where English settlers first landed in the new world and planted a cross on the beach, dedicating the land to “our Lord and savior, Jesus Christ.” There is a monument to this event in 1607 that is erected at the northern end of Virginia Beach, where the settlers originally set foot on the continent. That gave us all the authority we felt we needed to finish the work that had begun there almost four centuries earlier.
Everything we presented was done with a sense of urgency due to what we felt was the pending return of Jesus Christ as prophesied in the Book of Revelation. Israel was the key to our understanding, for certain Christian teachings state that Jesus won’t return until God has given Jerusalem back to Israel, which had begun in 1948 when Zionists – through an executive order from the United Nations following WWII and the subsequent “war” against Arabs who disagreed – began to seize land, water, and structures from Arabs who had been settled in the Holy Land for centuries. Now that Jerusalem was back on a map labeled “Israel,” we taught that the return of Jesus was imminent, and that meant we had to prepare. We claimed the role of John the Baptist in “preparing the way of the Lord,” which gave us license to say and do whatever we felt was necessary in establishing God’s kingdom on earth.
This belief was furthered by the words of many others and in books like “The Late Great Planet Earth” and later the “Left Behind” series, both of which reference the re-establishment of Israel. We taught a literal interpretation of Jesus proclamation that, in the end, He will remember those who support Israel and cast aside those who don’t. It was simply the right thing to do in the wake of such strong, albeit convenient evidence that a movement of God was underway in the United States.
And if the Jews of Israel were our friends, then the Muslims of Islam had to be the enemy, for there were no shades of grey in the worldview we presented. At home, we struck a chord with Christians over issues deemed an attack on the basic structure of the traditional family. In doing so, we were convinced that God was on our side, for nothing in our manual could justify the murder of innocent unborn babies, the normalization of homosexuality, the de-sanctification of marriage between a man and a woman, public schools teaching contrary to the faith including the removal of the Ten Commandments and restrictions on prayer, the theft of our resources by the government, and the relentless pursuit by liberals to take what was ours and give it to others. When everything was taken into consideration, this was a powerful message to people in the trenches of America, the same people Donald Trump exploits in running for president.
Before there was Fox News, there was The 700 Club, where everything was calculated to form a doable action plan for people who were predisposed to anger over the direction in which the country was headed. Again, we were heroes swooping in to rescue America from the influences of the devil. Or so we thought. And we were quite serious.
It would be foolish and naive, however, to portray this fully as a religious movement, for to do so would dismiss very similar strategies and tactics we’re seeing today from the candidacy of Donald Trump. We were the ones, after all, who led the movement of politics to the right, the result of which we have with us today. Christian or otherwise, the Republican Party is now so far to the right that it’s beginning to resemble historical fascism, with Mr. Trump’s increasingly radical proclamations about somehow removing Muslims and others he deems undesirable from our midst.
In June of 2016, Orlando, Florida was the scene of a gay nightclub rampage by a lapsed Muslim, Omar Mateen, with an AR-15 assault rifle and severe psychological issues regarding homosexuals. Nearly 50 people were killed and another 50 wounded when Mateen opened fire inside the club. He had just earlier jumped aboard the ISIS train, so the terrorist group claimed responsibility, which dominated early press coverage.
Predisposed to a worldview that includes Islam as the enemy, Mr. Trump bragged that he was the only candidate telling “the truth” about Muslim immigrants. Mateen, however, turned out to be a U.S. citizen, not an immigrant, but that didn’t matter to Mr. Trump. Pat Robertson went on the air the day after the massacre and condemned both the perpetrator and the gay victims, saying that Christians should just wait on the sidelines and let the homosexuals and the Muslims kill each other. Pat, it would seem, has become even more extreme than he was when I was his producer.
The point is that both Donald Trump and Pat Robertson address the same people, those who practice a form of Christianity so foreign to orthodoxy that it truly boggles the intelligence. We stood high atop our satellite-based pedestal in the 1980s and shouted down to a citizenry whose minds were fertile for a different perspective. We fed them. We nurtured them. How we did it and got away with it holds a key to unraveling the frustrating reality we have before us today.
Jesus is now clearly linked with Republican Party politics. He’s joined the GOP, and The 700 Club is the principal tool that put Him there. Whether He wishes to be there is irrelevant in today’s political arena, as is whether God in the form of Jesus Christ wants to be associated with Republican Party social positions as righteous. Perception is reality, and even if one can make the case that the heart of Jesus might be closer to the Democrats, that’s not how it’s being played out today.
This is a book for Christians of all stripes, because Christians are the only ones who can make this right. The angry mob of the early Twenty-First Century won’t listen to anybody else – certainly not outsiders – for they’ve been taught that everybody else is in it for unrighteous reasons. This is the sad state in which we find ourselves today.
The thousands or perhaps millions of Christians influenced by The 700 Club over the last four decades are good people. Their intentions are noble. They mostly wish that others would find the peace and contentment they’ve discovered for themselves. Along the way, however, the essential gospel call about feeding sheep and lambs has been overshadowed by a perceived need to not just challenge the evolution of our culture but also directly participate in what they view as its restoration. Certain Christian leaders whose motives – while presented as above reproach – have fed them Biblical mandates that seem to justify this participation. However, a deeper examination reveals that the gospel being most preached today is a form of self-centeredness: the gospel of self.
I know this, because I helped teach it while serving as Pat Robertson’s producer and executive producer during a most critical point in the TV program’s development, the 1980s, when Pat himself decided that God had called him to run for president and that he would win. The story of how this happened is my story, and the gospel of self is the dark side of that chronicle.
History will record that The 700 Club was the taproot of that which moved the Republican Party to the right and provided the political support today for a candidate like Donald Trump. A 2015 Harvard report concluded that right-wing media was driving the GOP, not republican leadership, but this assumes that in order for people to behave as cultural radicals, they must be manipulated into so doing. This is a misleading interpretation of human nature and the power of personal faith. It would be absurd to suggest that the many elements of right-wing media didn’t play a role in this, but those who challenge this right turn by the GOP need to look far beyond the institutional power of media to influence. Conservative talk radio, Fox News, offline publications, and the hundreds of online observer websites would simply not exist without an audience driven by a faith-mandated conscience and thusly predisposed to their messages. We knew this at CBN in the early 1980s, and as long as we could present current events in what we called “a Biblical perspective,” people would take an interest.
This is the gap in understanding that blinds the mainstream press in their attempts to understand the “success” of right-wing media, especially Fox News. Because the press regards religion and the viewpoints of the religious as within what’s known in journalism as the Sphere of Deviance (discussed at length later in this book), it will never see itself as anything other than balanced. People of faith do not agree with the view of being placed on the outside of culture’s norm, and that’s why the Fox slogan “Fair and Balanced” works so well.
This form of Christianity blends so well with the Republican Party, because both are formed around a circle with self at the center. This was the overarching albeit unwritten strategy of Pat Robertson, although there were many in key positions at CBN who either weren’t aware of this or simply refused to see it. To me, it was pretty obvious and was later proven in a memorable private discussion I had with Pat about fundraising.
The 700 Club began as a Christian talk show for the faithful, but its evolution to a politically motivated, point-of-view news program began in bits and pieces before I arrived and accelerated afterwards. In an address to a noon prayer meeting in April of 1981, Pat Robertson gave the vision he wanted to fulfill and the Biblical justification for moving the ministry in that direction.
We had a psychologist today talking about the patterning in the male and female brains. It’s a very interesting thing about whether Betty Freidan and Bella Abzug are right or not, and ERA’s a pretty hot issue, but ERA and some of the things that are associated with radical feminism can indeed destroy our society according to this psychologist. And then he went back to the days of Greece where women who stayed at home and took care of their kids were called prostitutes. And women in those days, Tacitus said, in Rome, refused to take their husbands’ names because they were feminists and that was humiliating to a woman to take the name of her husband, so she was called Ms. Smith instead of Mrs. Jones because Ms. Smith sounded better and that was the name she always had and she wasn’t going to submit to those indignities.
Well, if you can read Romans, chapter 8, you read what happens to men and women in Rome under that condition. Men burn with lust for men; women burn with lust for women, and doing those things were unseemly, wherefore God gave them up. Do you remember? Well, you talk about the sociological aspects of it so that a person in the world can understand it, and you don’t talk about “Hallelujah; praise the Lord, I got filled with the Holy Ghost,” and people think, well, you’re not spiritual. But the truth is in the Bible.
I want to read something. I think it’s important. In First Chronicles, chapter 12, the 32nd verse, you might look at it, because I think this might be a good scripture for CBN in relation to a lot of things we’re doing.
“And of the sons of Issachar, men who
understood the times with knowledge
of what Israel should do.”
And I tell you, in our world today; people are like a bunch of sheep. They’re saying, “What must we do? You know, what do we do with our money? What do we do with our children? What do we do with our education? What do we vote for?” And all these – What do we do? And somehow or other God’s got to give some people with knowledge of the times to tell Israel what they ought to do. And I think we have a golden opportunity to do that, and that’s one of the things we’re trying to do on the 700 Club…”
That was Pat in 1981.
So the vision was set and the only missing element was money. After all, CBN was a ministry. It paid no taxes as a media company, and the tax exemption was worth far more than any for-profit business model, especially in 1981. Pat Robertson was a brilliant marketer, however, and despite his professed faith in God to take care of providing resources, very little at CBN was left to chance, and that applied especially to fund-raising. Only a small part of marketing is creative or innovative; most of the blue-collar efforts involved processes and were extremely scientific.
We knew, for example, what percentage of 700 Club members – at $15 a month – would covert to 1,000 Club members – at $83 a month – and we knew, on average, how long that conversion would take. We had the same data in terms of converting 1,000 Club members to 2,500 Club members, and turning those members into Founders Club members. Based on past growth, this allowed us to extrapolate a budget projection, and that’s what we used to make our plans.
But behind it all was the mind of a fund-raising genius, a man who understood human nature like few others, and mostly a man who was unafraid to exploit that understanding in a justified means to what he felt was a righteous end. I learned how to raise money directly from Pat Robertson, and his methodology might surprise the faithful, for it is built on self-centeredness. And if the core of its ability to raise money is built on selfishness, then it must follow that the CBN message itself must do likewise. This is the secret truth behind what we intended to present as a movement of God’s spirit on the earth.
In February of 1985, as I was gaining more authority at the ministry of The 700 Club, I asked Pat if he would teach me everything he knew about raising money. We went to lunch, and I took copious notes. Here’s what he told me verbatim:
“We don’t necessarily have to present everything as a crisis, but it’s impossible to make a change when everybody feels good about existing circumstances. That’s the mistake Reagan has made. He got re-elected but now faces difficulty in implementing change, since he sold the country on the fact that everything is hunky-dory.
“It’s basically like John the Baptist. The axe is laid to the root of the tree and people are saying, ‘What shall we do?’
“We need to tie the spiritual with the natural (meaning current events). He told the people what to do in light of the current events. We need to do the same thing, because if you can do that, you really have something that’s worth something.”
“Here’s what motivates people to give to CBN, and in this order:
“It helps me
“It helps my family
“It helps my community
“It helps my nation
“I’m fulfilling the great commission, spreading the Gospel to the world
“It’s my duty
“I’ll get blessed if I do.
“I’m helping others who are poorer than me
“It’s like a finely tuned orchestra. You don’t play all bass and you don’t play all treble. Together, they make a wonderful sound.
“People also like to be part of a winner. Nobody likes to lose.
“Challenges are important, because people are goal-oriented and respond to peer pressure.
“Bargains are important, like building a 13 million dollar building for $100.
“There is also a thing of the old folks wanting to help the young, sort of to perpetuate society somehow.”
What Pat Robertson taught me that day was that success in Christian television ministry began with tweaking the self-centered core of human nature. Notice that he painted a picture of expanding circles, each moving away from the recognition of self at the center. Helping the poor is at the bottom of the list, almost as though that particular motivation is separate from the rest, and this was played out in our use of Operation Blessing to hit a particular kind of Christian giver. The rest, however, formed the core of our ministry and our fundraising.
Armed with this kind of direction, it was easy to craft not only fund-raising but also everything else associated with The 700 Club television program. Taking over the country for God wasn’t so much positioned as a duty; it was more like “you need to do this for yourself and your family.” It’s a subtle difference in the marketing practice of positioning, but it’s a much more powerful motivator. This is core Pat Robertson, and nothing he did, said, or accomplished makes sense without this layer of understanding included in the final analysis.
There was nothing sinister about it to us; it was a sincere and genuine desire to change the world for good, although its ultimate fruit has been chaotic, divisive, and dangerous. Even Pat’s acclaimed manual for living, The Secret Kingdom, is a diagram for using the Bible to justify a lifestyle that is built around self, self-gain, and self-betterment based on the above expanding circle. It’s a self-help book disguised as theology. Every “law” proclaimed is designed to help individual people, families, and communities get ahead in the realm of human competition. You can make yourself healthier, wealthier, safer, happier, and more dominant in the culture simply by living within these “laws of the Kingdom.” It’s a beautiful companion to the teaching I was given about fundraising and further evidence that we were really teaching a very insidious form of selfishness, the gospel of self.
This, again, is why we all must look to the mirror in order to solve society’s problems. Pogo got it right when he said, “I have seen the enemy, and he is us.” The church desperately needs a season of self-examination and the courage to stand up and say, “Enough!” The hope for this is virtually nil, however, as long we point our fingers at others and say that the problem is theirs and not ours.
And so we use Facebook and other forms of social media to pass along false memes that fit our worldview. We express our condescending disgust about the behaviors of others as if somehow it will rub off on us if we don’t. Our radar is what matters, not truth. We hear or see some piece of media that pings the familiar circulating screen that stands guard over us, and we feel it necessary to pass it along for validation by those we hope to influence. Why? Because it helps me, it helps my family, it helps my community, it helps my nation, it’s my duty, and I’ll get blessed if I do.
Even the great commission of Matthew 24 has been tilted so as to become a measuring stick of sorts for the health of a church, a preacher, or an evangelist. If not, why do churches and evangelists count salvations? What does it matter, if the motive is truly love? It’s that little pat on the back that we all seek, evidence of our righteousness and a hedge against eternity in hell. This is, of course, self-driven, self-motivated, and self-centered. It’s not the deed that matters; it’s the recognition thereof. Don’t get me wrong; I know plenty of people who have a real heart for people they deem “lost,” but it’s very difficult for any of us, as human beings, to avoid the trap of self in well-doing. We just want so badly to do well (and be recognized for it).
The second time I went through the twelve steps of Alcoholics Anonymous many years ago, I met each Saturday morning with my sponsor Steve. We both attended a wonderful Saturday morning group and met for breakfast beforehand to discuss my progress with the steps. I badly wanted and needed to please him, for he was a key part of the process of living a sober life. One Saturday morning, Steve gave me an assignment. “During the coming week,” he said, “I want you to give up one hour of your time to help other people.” He went on to give me the rules. “You can do one thing for an hour, or many things that add up to an hour, like giving up a really good parking place for somebody else.”
“You can’t tell anybody about any of this,” he continued, “but make yourself a list to keep track of what you’ve accomplished. Bring that list with you next week.”
I was excited and did exactly what was required. I chose to keep track of little things I had done and brought my list with me the following Saturday morning.
“Did you bring your list,” Steve inquired? Beaming, I pulled it from my pocket and started to open it to share it with him.
“Wait a minute,” he stopped me cold. “You can’t show that to me, right? The deal was you couldn’t tell anybody what you did.”
I was stunned. I wanted so badly to show him how well I’d done the assignment, but he was more interested in teaching me about the insidious nature of self-centeredness. It called into question my motive, and isn’t this something with which we all struggle? We want to be rewarded in any way possible, and isn’t this why some posts on Facebook are from those seeking a pat on the back for something nice they did or how they blessed somebody else? This is the tricky part of human nature, and its presence in addicts is over-the-top.
But we all must deal with it as we walk through life, especially those on the road less travelled. It’s why the gospel of self is so easy to sell and why the consequences of its deception are so devastating and hard to overcome. We can be so caught up in the desire to serve a loving God and be a good person – something we view as contrary to “the world” – that we find comfort with anyone expressing a similar motivation. Consequently, we miss the self-centered social engineering that’s actually taking place and, in the process, confuse bad behavior with good intentions.
Selfishness and self-centeredness form the most dangerous epidemic facing Western Civilization today. And what is extreme selfishness but intolerance itself? On the highway, I’m more important than you are, so get out of my way, and don’t even think that I’ll get out of yours. In fact, you don’t have the rights I have behind the wheel, so why not just get off the road entirely? Why should I have to tolerate anybody else, when I’m the most important person on the highway anyway?
This kind of thinking is evident everywhere, though its most common proponents usually wouldn’t think of themselves as such, and it breeds intolerance, especially in religion and politics. Why should I have to tolerate you, the thinking goes, if I’m right? My religion, my political party, my opinion is what’s right and best, so everybody just get out of the way and let me run things. The mind of the ideologue is totalitarian, and nothing gives purity to such deception like the zeal of religion, especially if the perception of absolute authority governs that religion. It’s not really my opinion then; I’m speaking for God!
This is an incredibly destructive force, and it poisons people, families, whole communities and even nations. It’s doubly corrosive, because it hides an unspoken fear that my covenant with God is somehow tied to my ability to
bludgeon help others with my love. And if I don’t?
We exploited every thing possible in the spreading of our message, including the powerful motivator of envy. Testimony stories about healings or fiscal prosperity always led to the proclamation that “this is available for you.” As you’ll read later, we very rarely spoke about those who didn’t get “blessed,” for the carrot on the stick was believed to be an important element of building people’s faith. But faith in what? That’s the dark side of the telling of my story, and it causes me physical pain today, as I witness the deep split in our culture. The people doing the dividing aren’t aware that they’ve been duped, so this book is a cleansing, of sorts, for me – my amends for the role that I played in this. Please. I’m sorry.
As the Republican Party drifts farther to the right, evangelical Christians find themselves in the position of having to deny that they’ve become exactly what they despise – a group of elites trying to force their beliefs on others. Within this denial, the twisting of truth is self-serving. Democrats are demonized as socialists, communists, Marxists, and of course, liberals who want to steal from them in the name of government control of their lives. The obvious conflict here is the idea that God must be somehow unable to deal with this absent their help.
Maybe America is under judgment right now. Maybe God is sick and tired of all our shenanigans, including those being done in His name. Maybe our cultural problems are all a reflection of the gospel of self, and that God is judging not the world but the church. I’m reminded of the story of Jesus being brought before Pontius Pilate for the crime of being declared “King of the Jews.” His response was that He was “not of this world” and if He were, His followers would fight to free Him. We are unable to see ourselves in this position, for it seems we are fighting to save the wrong world.
And through the Republican Party of all things. After all, it helps me, it helps my family, it helps my community, it helps my nation, it’s my duty, and I’ll get blessed if I do.